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12 January 2021

CableLabs’ latest standard will help underpin fixed/mobile convergence

With the ink barely dry on its merger with the SCTE-ISBE (see Wireless Watch December 22 2020), the US cable industry’s R&D arm CableLabs is heading into 2021 with a focus on mobile networks, having launched a new feature called Intelligent Wireless Network Steering (IWiNS) to improve the way mobile devices switch between WiFi, LTE and CBRS networks.

Cross-network steering has been one of the banes of existence for mobile end users, device makers and network operators alike for years, and with WiFi usage in particular shooting off the charts with home working and home schooling, CableLabs has chosen an important time to release IWiNS.

CableLabs’ argument is why, in this day and age, does switching between WiFi and cellular to enable a seamless experience still require human intervention? You could be streaming a video on your smartphone and decide to head into the garden, only for the content to freeze as the device hangs desperately onto that last morsel of WiFi connectivity as your access point lies just out of reach, forcing you to manually turn off WiFi to continue the experience via your cellular connection. That transition from WiFi to cellular should be invisible – although this a simplistic summary of a deeply complicated issue for operators.

Enter IWiNS, which enables adaptive traffic steering across wireless networks by delivering a more reliable and real time optimized user experience on application-specific performance requirements.

To understand where IWiNS slots in, we need to take a look at where existing network steering techniques have gone wrong. These are split into two categories – network-centric and user-centric.

Network-centric steering includes 3GPP-standardized technologies including LTE-WLAN aggregation and 5G Access Traffic Steering Switching and Spitting (ATSSS) which tend to treat any secondary external network signals, such as those from a WiFi access point, as inferior to a cellular base station and core network. Network-centric mobile steering therefore requires support inside the mobile devices and modifications to WiFi APs. Not ideal.

User-centric mobile steering, on the other hand, is a method based on downloadable over-thet-top apps that aggregate throughput across all wireless networks that a device can connect with. CableLabs notes that user-centric steering techniques do not require specific support from the device operating system, or any modifications to the network infrastructure, but do provide little to no control for the operator to manage the configuration of traffic steering rules.

CableLabs’ IWiNS technology has managed to plug gaps in both network-centric and user-centric mobile steering by giving operators full control of the traffic steering configuration based on the OTT application approach. This enables operators to optimize single-user connectivity that, in turn, takes advantage of a crowd-sourced approach. CableLabs compares its mobile steering gap-plugging to the transition from reading paper maps to online navigation, with the latter benefiting from the power of crowd-sourced information.

This is achieved using a client/server architecture, where the client is installed on a mobile device as an OTT app, while the server can be hosted in the cloud, or on-premise, or in a private data center, whichever suits the operator. Containers within the server handle policy management, network metrics collection and performance estimation functions, which are all orchestrated for scalability, efficiency, and security.

Perhaps a more important question is how operators can improve the end user experience while maintaining control over network resource management?

With operators able to embed the IWiNS client inside their own customer care apps, we could have our answer.

And with millions of apps requiring varying throughputs and latency demands, this sort of application awareness is necessary to understand what works best, giving operators the ability to specify different requirements for uplink and downlink traffic by taking a more holistic view to network steering. IWiNS bases decision on an entire network, estimating network performance using mobile OS APIs or efficient network probing algorithms, with operator-defined policies for targeting specific networks and even their own services.

IWiNS has been approximately two years in the making and version 1.0 was actually launched in March 2020, available under a free licensing agreement for CableLabs members with Kyrio, before the latest early 2021 release.

CableLabs began researching the topic in 2018 to improve reliability in the mobile experience, analyzing several standard and proprietary systems where researchers identified missed opportunities. IWiNS was created to add network and application awareness to traditional mobile traffic steering without requiring any changes to end devices or network infrastructure.

The arrival of IWiNS also underpins fixed/mobile convergence among operators, which was a key underlying theme of last year and was epitomized during the dying days of December 2020 when it was announced that CableLabs would become a subsidiary of SCTE-ISBE in an effort to pull forward the 10G initiative.

As well as IWiNS, recent breakthroughs in the CableLabs 10G project include DOCSIS 4.0 technology (which should see commercial deployments later this year), Flexible MAC Architecture specifications, 25G/50G-EPON, and driving increasing WiFi performance with EasyMesh, Vantage and Easy Connect specifications from the WiFi Alliance.