One of the best things about the world of wireless telecom is that there is always something better to look forward to. We are currently experiencing the third and fourth generation of wireless technologies all over the world with many regions moving from 3G towards 4G. Even though 4G deployment is at a nascent stage in most countries, researchers and standard making bodies are already thinking about the future. Some may call it 5G, but I would hesitate to use that terminology. With 4G becoming a complete marketing term rather than a technical one, who knows what they will start calling 5G? While reading this article, let us just envision the possible characteristics of wireless communications in the year 2020 and beyond. Some studies have estimated that the number of globally connected devices or things will reach 50 billion by the end of current decade. Under such demanding circumstances, here are seven key developments that could transform the next generation mobile networks into something much more than just high-speed highways and thus could shape the wireless world in the next 5-10 years.
Next Generation Wireless Communication (5G): Transforming the Wireless User Experience
As 4G standards have completed in 2011 and networks are beginning to be deployed, the attention of the mobile research community is shifting towards what will be the next set of innovations in wireless communication technologies which we will refer to collectively as “5G” (5th Generation technologies). Given a historical 10-year cycle for every generation of cellular advancement, it is expected that networks with 5G technologies will be deployed around 2020. While 4G standards were designed to meet requirements issued by the International Telecommunications Union-Radio (ITU-R), no definition for what comes beyond 4G is available yet. The most salient requirement for 4G standards has been peak service rates of 100 Mbit/s for high mobility users and 1 Gbit/s for low mobility users. Experts vary in opinion whether the next generation of cellular networks will continue to enhance peak service rates further, or move to newer metrics such as area spectral efficiency or energy efficiency, or even define new metrics around service quality and user experience.
Dynamic allocation of resources – Given the increasing value of spectrum, backhaul, radio and network infrastructure, a fixed range of bandwidth and services is not the most efficient utilization of resources. A more productive solution would be mapping the service requirements to the most suited combination of frequency and radio resources. Diverse spectrum bands with varying propagation properties will co-exist within a single system. LTE is a good example here. If the current pace of LTE deployments persists for the next few years, most wireless equipment in the world would be running on this technology. But LTE spectrum is fragmented. In such a scenario, the base station (eNodeB) will press the best available spectrum in service to a particular receiver based on the demand and type of application. The radio network might even be intelligent enough to predict the resource requirement within its coverage area in advance.
Multi-hop mobile ad hoc networks – Mobile Ad Hoc Networks (MANETs) are designed to operate without any infrastructure and possess self-organizing capabilities. The wireless nodes communicate among themselves using multi-hop radio relaying, without the packets passing through a central access point or a base station. The concept has been applied in defense and emergency scenarios for many years, but its about time that MANETs make their way into the commercial world. Once inside an ad hoc network, it won’t matter if a mobile device is not in a conventional wireless network’s service area. A few devices or phones nearer to the network will act as repeaters and smart antennas and will cooperate with rest of the phones in the area to enhance coverage and capacity.
The Internet of Things – The idea of machine to machine communications is not new and has been discussed for years. However, the ‘Internet of Things’ is a relatively fresh term referring to various objects in our lives all possessing a unique RFID (linked to an IP address). They will communicate with each other without human interference, help in decision making and save time. Various gadgets or appliances in the home, office or car will work as smart machines. So if you want coffee to be ready on getting home from work, your car will be programmed to message the coffee machine once you are a few minutes away from home. Healthcare providers will be able to monitor their smart device wearing patients remotely. Appliances that need replacement or repair will take care of themselves. Now some of this may sound like an invasion of privacy or unnecessary interference, but the world of technology is essentially moving in that direction.
Centimeter and millimeter wave frequencies as spectrum source – Spectrum refarming and sharing are great short term solutions, but not too viable over a longer period of time. The spectrum above 3 GHz has been largely left untouched so far in most parts of the world. By the time the next decade comes around, lower spectrum bands would be running at peak capacities and the industry would be looking at utilizing extremely high frequencies in the range of 30, 60 or even 100 GHz. These frequencies can support bandwidth in a few gigabits for short range applications. Researchers at Samsung and New York University have been working to prove the potential of these waves and have also suggested measures to overcome low propagation challenge in these frequency bands.
Smart and efficient receivers – The evolution of smartphones has put a lot of emphasis on designing receivers that not only provide a smooth and seamless experience but also have long-lasting battery life. Eventually we will reach a point where the device would know how to conserve power and network will optimize in order to reduce the power consumption at the device. It will always be aware of the surroundings and exchange data with other nodes in its area without the need to route the packets through a base station. Advanced interference management will also be a key feature in the device hardware. The primary intelligence of the network will remain with the transmitter for the foreseeable future, but eventually receivers will play an increasingly important role in making the mobile environment more efficient on a network level.
Some of the above solutions like the Internet of things and dynamic resource allocation are already in deployment. However the actual implementation of most of these would require a massive redesign of both wireless networks and the operators’ business model. Telcos would like to treat certain services as premium initially, but over a period of time, the overall cost of wireless services would decrease. Few years down the line, the obsession with higher speeds that comes along with every full or half a generation of wireless standards will decline. Data rate will always be a vital factor, but more importantly the overall user experience will take precedence. A decade from now, when we talk about wireless communications, the mindset would have changed more than the technology.