What makes cellular so reliable?


Standards compliance only takes vendors so far; robust wireless connectivity comes from "ownership" of every part of the system

What’s the most reliable wireless technology? The answer is cellular. For example, armed with decent 4G coverage and a smartphone data plan, consumers find cellular is more robust, more secure, and often just as fast as Wi-Fi. This reliability is even more remarkable considering cellular is the most complex wireless technology ever designed.

Just a handful of highly experienced vendors design and manufacture the cellular base stations and network infrastructure across the globe. This experience, together with the positive pressure that comes from a highly competitive market, leads to "ownership" of the whole system. For example, the three largest vendors in the cellular infrastructure sector (Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei) make it their business to own every component that impacts system performance.

At the other end of the wireless link, the mobile handset, the same is true; a handful of vendors make it their business to deeply understand every element of their product’s construction. And when they’ve designed and built their solutions, they test and retest, then continue to make performance improvements throughout the product’s lifecycle.

Theory collides with reality
Control over every aspect of infrastructure and end points is the key to reliability not just in cellular but in any wireless application. It’s the difference between theory (off-the-shelf software or hardware intellectual property (IP) conforming to a standard should work perfectly together) and reality (unforeseen factors that impact real world performance are numerous, so while compliance to a standard helps, it is by no means a guarantee of reliability). As a former Chair of the Bluetooth SIG and now CTO for wireless chip vendor Nordic Semiconductor, I know only too well that even with a solid, universally agreed and vetted open standard underpinning a wireless technology there are numerous subtle differences between end solutions from different suppliers. These nuances cause unprecedented interoperability problems.

All wireless connectivity relies on successfully linking to another party’s device. In Bluetooth that’s things like smartphones, tablets, and PCs. In cellular, it’s base stations. If products using wireless technologies can’t connect reliably and transfer data securely, it’s ‘game over’; the products are destined for poor reviews and lackluster sales.

Moreover, wireless connectivity can throw up technical glitches that are hard to resolve. Diagnoses and fixes only come when a vendor can test and adjust every software and hardware technical parameter that could affect wireless performance. This detailed control isn’t easy; it requires designing and building the connectivity technologies in-house — from the physical layer and protocol stack to development and test tools —  instead of buying in modular, low cost, off-the-shelf IP. But vendors that take an ownership and control path are destined to be the winners as wireless connectivity becomes ever more pervasive.

Cellular meets consumers’ demand for robustness and security

By Svein-Egil Nielsen