IoT is here and mobile networks will never be the same
In 10 years you may be trying to watch cat videos in 4K, 8K or 16K resolution, but mobile networking will be as much a big-data problem as a bandwidth drag race.
The systems that carriers brag about now for delivering games and streaming media to smart phones will have to be totally re-designed in the next few years to accommodate sensors, cameras and remote-control connections, according to Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs.
The US-based research group is part of Alcatel-Lucent, which could become part of an even larger mobile equipment vendor next year if Nokia wins approval for a takeover bid. So Weldon, who is also Alcatel’s CTO, has an interest in overhauling vast networks of cells and back-end systems. But Bell Labs has been ahead of the curve a few times in its more than half century of existence, inventing the laser, the transistor and Unix, among other things.
Start of a trend
What is happening in mobile now is the start of a trend as big as the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the Internet, according to Weldon. It is the instrumentation of everything: by 2025, we will be well on the way to measuring everything going on in the world and being able to remotely control most machines, he says.
The few sensors out there now, collecting digital security video or counting cars going over a wire on a highway, are just the beginning. “We’ve instrumented almost nothing in our physical world,” Weldon said. Others call what is coming the Internet of Things.
Even simple devices can tell intriguing stories, like the Jawbone UP activity trackers that gauged an early-morning earthquake by showing whether users woke up. The concept can be extended to things such as logistics, where cheap wireless devices on boxes could fill in the gaps in package tracking.
Today’s wireless networks will not even be able to deal with the number of objects that will be sending signals in 10 years, let alone the amount of data they may be transmitting, Weldon said. Carriers will have to rebuild their systems for signalling, the procedural messages that networks and devices exchange just to make communication work.
For example, a typical cellular base station on a tower is built to handle signalling for about 1,200 devices. That may be enough to serve all the mobile subscribers in an area, but after all these sensors and connected machines get installed over the next 10 years, that cell might have 300,000 devices to keep tabs on, Weldon said.
To the cloud
Like other massive computing tasks, signalling is moving to the cloud. But because it involves real-time communication between base stations and nearby radios, it cannot be done on giant regional data centres like the ones Google and Amazon operate, one or two to a country. If signals have to travel halfway across a continent, the tower’s conversation with the device will time out and start over again.
Instead, the computing needs to be virtualised and spread out among facilities closer to the cell tower. Things will get even more strict with 5G networks, where the industry consensus is to keep latency to 1 millisecond. That is necessary for things like remote video monitoring and control of equipment in near real time. So signals and traffic will probably be processed in various data centres about 10 kilometres and 100 kilometres away from a base station, Weldon said.
Cells themselves will get distributed, too. Smaller cells closer to users let carriers reuse the same frequencies many times over in the same area that one big tower serves now. The age of the small cell has been delayed since it was first predicted a few years ago, partly because the complicated work of mounting a base station has to be done many times over. But the proliferation of new connected devices will make it necessary, Weldon says.
Small cells will do one more thing to improve networks. They are packed in close enough to use very high frequencies that only work at short ranges of 100 metres or less. Researchers at Alcatel-Lucent and other companies are studying these millimetre-wave frequencies and the US Federal Communications Commission is to begin debating a proposal for opening up some millimetre-wave bands for mobile service.
Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service