SDN & Wi-Fi Unite.

Dan Pitt discusses how SDN plays a role in carrier Wi-Fi networks.

My most recent contributed article for Light Reading addresses the role that SDN plays in carrier Wi-Fi, especially as the Internet of Things gains more steam. Below is an excerpt from that piece, and the full article can be found here.

Mobile carrier networks are reaching a tipping point. The emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) means mobile networks will be handling an influx in big data, increased network traffic, and new types of connected devices including smart cars, wearables, and smart appliances. These new connected “things” will share the same networks as PCs, tablets, and smartphones, which are already bandwidth hoarders. Moreover, they are producers of traffic, not just consumers of it. With just smartphones and tablets to contend with today, carriers are already experiencing overloaded networks. And if the networks are not prepared, this flood of new connected devices could leave them paralyzed.

Whether it’s through audio or video streaming (likely the largest source of new traffic), social networking, GPS navigation, or shopping, mobile subscribers are increasingly gobbling up more and more mobile data at a rapid pace, reaching their monthly data limits faster each month. In order to provide value to subscribers, reduce customer churn, and grow revenue streams, service providers will need to look at other ways to increase their bandwidth and reinforce their networks to help support the onslaught of connected devices. To address the needs of the networks and to remain competitive, carriers are turning to a familiar technology that could help offload some mobile data traffic from traditional networks – Wi-Fi.

While Wi-Fi is nothing new to carriers, the way that technology is being used has shifted. One example of this is AT&T. Of the major wireless carriers in the U.S., AT&T appears to be the only one to have cracked the code on offloading network traffic, mainly due to the more than 30,000 Wi-Fi hotspots they have deployed. Once an AT&T subscriber comes into range of a hotspot, it immediately logs them on, and the subscriber is no longer consuming data via the carrier’s cellular network. With these hotspots, AT&T has not only made data access cheaper for subscribers, but it has also made it more cost effective for itself. Hotspots are an efficient way to improve a wireless network by densely packing the cells that are sending and receiving data.

As a society, we’ve come to expect the same connectivity wirelessly that we get when hardwired to the Internet, though oddly the carriers have conditioned us to tolerating poor connectivity from our mobile phones. To achieve the full promise of mobility, wired and wireless LANs must be delivered faster and managed more easily. With the looming number of devices expected to connect to the Internet in the near future, what can networks do now to prepare for the data deluge?

Looking at how AT&T is leveraging Wi-Fi for its subscribers, the underlying technology assisting in delivering unfettered service is… SDN. We’ve seen how SDN has transformed campus networks, data centers, and the cloud to date, so how can SDN help with Wi-Fi? SDN-enabled Wi-Fi is the best solution in delivering a consistent high performance connection to the growing number of connected devices. Already we are seeing this in the enterprise and on the campus.

Because of SDN’s architecture, wireless networks can become more agile and can scale based on demand. There are four primary benefits to enhancing carrier network Wi-Fi with SDN. To find out these benefits, check out the article on Light Reading.

– Dan Pitt, Executive Director