Wireless communication has come a long way since Marconi’s first radio, invented in 1894. Interestingly, he stood out from the numerous contemporary physicists studying radio waves because of his interest in its phenomenal potential for communication.
The impact of wireless communication – particularly mobile cellular and Wi-Fi – on society has been dramatic and far-reaching. Connection between individuals has never been easier or cheaper, and the increase in the sheer volume of sophisticated content (i.e. images and video) shared between wired and wireless devices shows no evidence of slowing down.
Each generation of cellular and Wi-Fi technology has improved substantially in terms of efficiency and user experience. Compare the limitations of GSM or 2G, which carried voice and eventually MMS, to the promise of 5G and 1 Gbit/s Internet access. If the rollout of 5G goes according to what is publicised then those standards will be separated by only twenty-odd years which is remarkable.
Consumer expectation is the ability to connect to the Internet at all times – without being tethered by wires. Our new paradigm of social engagement, as well as information and service delivery is based on this premise.
Cisco published a whitepaper titled The Zettabyte Era in June this year, which predicts annual global IP traffic reaching 3.3 zettabytes per year by 2021, or 278 exabytes per month. That is a three-fold increase on 2016’s global IP traffic.
One zettabye is 1021 bytes, or 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000. By comparison, expressing a gigabyte requires only twelve zeros.
The whitepaper suggests that traffic from wireless and mobile devices will account for more than 63% of total IP traffic, compared to 37% from wired devices.
IP traffic in the Middle East and Africa will reach 16 EB per month by 2021, a compound annual growth rate of 42% which is substantially higher than the growth forecast in any other region. The next highest, Asia Pacific, has a compound annual growth rate of 26%.
If today’s 10 MB line is tomorrow’s 1 TB line, does that mean that wireless connectivity must simply get faster and faster, ahead of the need to accommodate the demand of more devices that are more powerful, built into more objects, connected to more infrastructure, sharing more and more content?
Ultimately, the answer is yes.
But before we get there, wireless communication must evolve to offer what appears to be infinite capacity, achieved by adapting intuitively to consumer need so that one always has exactly the right amount of bandwidth for one’s application. There are also the issues of energy inefficiency and sub-optimal performance to solve in wireless connectivity before it can properly supersede wired connections.
In the future, wireless means – genuinely – no wires. No cables to trip over and lose, no wires to charge phones. Self-driving cars, drones, and the sensors, industrial machines and household appliances that are the Internet of Things – all of them without wires. Wireless electricity, so that we can recharge devices literally anywhere, instead of near a plug point.
Apple is attempting to solve a chicken-and-egg conundrum around wired and wireless connections in the consumer electronics realm. Recognising that more demand for better wireless connection will drive innovation in this area, eliminating the headphone jack in the iPhone 7 was bold. To quote Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller at the iPhone 7 launch, "Maintaining an ancient, single-purpose, analogue, big connector doesn't make sense because that space is at a premium."
At a macro level, innovation is necessary to deliver ultra-low-latency, ultra-reliable, ultra-scalable wireless technology that consumes minimal electricity.
We’ll need access to new spectrum bands, not because infinite capacity lies beyond existing frequencies, but because we’ll need all the spectrum – licensed, unlicensed, shared, owned – combined into a seamless whole, transmitted with advanced antennae and receivers, via innumerable micro-cells.
The future of wireless technology lies not in evolution to, say, 20G, but rather in densifying and integrating all technologies in multiple high and low spectrum bands. In terms of what lies on the near horizon, this means integrating 4G LTE, 5G low-band, 5G high-band, Wi-Fi and Wi-Gig.
Relying on devices and ISPs to connect to the most appropriate network at the right time, individual and enterprise consumers will not purchase an LTE or Wi-Fi service but an Internet service.
Momentum towards this reality is real – software-defined networking already promises intuitive network elasticity.
We do not connect to the atmosphere when we want to breathe, air is simply there when we need it - whether we’re breathing gently during sleep or gasping after running a marathon. Similarly, the potential of wireless technology is not an Internet that we connect to with cables.
The Internet will surround us and our devices, whether we’re uploading an image to the platform coming after Instagram or processing a retail chain’s month-end sales figures.