Here’s a short list of high-impact wireless technologies that will reach breakthrough status in the next three to five years.
Satellite broadband is a pretty ho-hum technology. While satellites can reach remote, hilly areas where it’s uneconomical to pull wires or to build wireless base stations, their traditional performance limitations have made them the option of last resort for fixed broadband applications.
Homes, businesses, airplanes, ships, and oil-drilling platforms that currently stumble along will get a shot in the arm, in the form of service plans that go from 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps in these satellites’ service areas.
Satellite will still be challenging for highly interactive applications such as voice and video conferencing, but for all other applications they’ll rock. The first group of Viasat-3 satellites are set to launch by late 2019, and subsequent launches will be cheaper thanks to reusable rockets being developed by Space-X. Voilà, every place is connected.
While they aren’t making new spectrum any more, technology companies are building new radio chips that can use extremely high frequencies that have been off limits to all but the military until now. These frequencies can carry enormous amounts of data over short distances, and they’re barely used today:
Millimeter waves occupy the frequency spectrum from 30 GHz to 300 GHz. They’re found in the spectrum between microwaves (1 GHz to 30 GHz) and infrared (IR) waves, which is sometimes known as extremely high frequency (EHF). . . . At one time this part of the spectrum was essentially unused simply because few if any electronic components could generate or receive millimeter waves.
New chips from Qualcomm and Silicon Valley are unlocking this spectrum, which will alleviate spectrum scarcity in densely populated areas once it’s enabled by small cells with dark fiber backhaul. That means higher data rates and more generous data limits for mobile phones and for fixed-location services aimed at rural homes and farms. Voilà, every phone is super fast.
Smart homes, offices, and factories are proving to be a real boon for energy saving, security, and overall convenience. But the devices that control and monitor lights, heating and cooling, and appliances can be two to five times as expensive as conventional switches. The cost isn’t just the cost of components, it’s the hassle of bringing the right kind of power to the right places.
Many of these Internet of Small Things devices don’t have enormous data requirements; it takes only one bit of information to turn a light on or off, for example. So we need inexpensive, powerless Wi-Fi interfaces that cost less than a dollar apiece to build.
This is called “Passive Wi-Fi,” and it works very much like the passive radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices used to track inventory in retail and warehouse applications. But Passive Wi-Fi goes farther — up to 100 feet — and penetrates walls.
Passive Wi-Fi requires a specialized Wi-Fi router, but one will serve a whole house. Voilà, everything is connected.
4G LTE has done wonders for mobile devices, increasing typical speeds from 2–3 Mbps to 10–30 Mbps.
This has been great for smartphones, but it hasn’t done all that much for the rural homes, farms, and businesses that are still unconnected or connected at speeds that are less than desirable. There’s a lot of spectrum available in rural areas, but low population density makes it hard for carriers to recoup investment on towers and backhaul.
While terabit satellites will help, these satellites have a functionality shortcoming for conferencing, gaming, and other highly interactive applications. But what happens when we take away the mobility support that’s essential to smartphones but not at all important to fixed-location devices?
For one thing, usable capacity doubles because the network doesn’t have to carry location information. Additionally, we can use more sophisticated antennas that make better use of terrain features to get radio waves to the places they need to reach and only to those places.
The net result is a communications network that provides rural users with a level of quality and performance that unlocks the most advanced applications to homes in the most remote areas. Just as fixed-location 3G hit speeds three times faster than mobile 3G, fixed LTE will be extremely fast. Voilà, the urban/rural broadband divide is closed, and we get a market disciplined by competition rather than regulation.
Verizon and Nokia are already running trials of 5G networks in support of the international 5G standard set to drop in 2020, and they’ll be joined shortly by AT&T and Ericsson. The results of these trials will help ensure that the official 5G standard is practical, reliable, and efficient. The target for 5G speed is well above 1 Gbps per cell, potentially going up to as much as 10 Gbps.
But even more important than raw speed is the fact that 5G will support multiple patches of spectrum at multiple frequencies at the same time. So 5G is the “Great Integrator” that places spectrum advances in different ranges under a common umbrella. 5G even aims to cover both licensed and unlicensed spectrum with common, interoperable protocols that will enable fast, seamless handoffs and fast downloads.
With 5G we will have, in other words, a means for spectrum engineering to proceed in multiple directions at the same time without losing the ability for diverse devices, networks, and applications to communicate with each other as parts of a larger whole. Voilà, it all works together.
Wireless Progress Highlights Need for a Policy Redo
Public policy has long regarded wireless as a red-headed stepchild of communications technology, but new developments have turned that notion on its head.
The goal of communication engineering is to create a unified, high-performance network that provides each user and each device with the ability to interact with every other user and device wherever they are and whatever they want to do. Despite dysfunctional policy, engineering finds ways to breach boundaries on a global level, even if it can’t proceed in each nation at the same rate.