In the next four years, wireless carriers will need to find a way to transmit more than 30 times the volume of data than their networks carry today.
How they’ll succeed in meeting that demand, given the world’s rapidly increasing dependence on wireless communications and the limits of available spectrum, represents one of the great challenges for engineers. It’s also a central question for business and government executives planning for a more enabled mobile workforce.
New techniques to fully exploit the physical limits of wireless spectrum and available bandwidth, under the best of foreseeable circumstances, will only increase capacity by a factor of two, said Dr. Tod Sizer (pictured) who leads a team of engineers at Bell Labs, now a part of Alcatel-Lucent.
How will wireless carriers close the gap?
Sizer pulled the answer out of his suit coat pocket: A new wireless base station about the size of a Rubic’s cube that Bell Labs has begun bringing to market this year.
Speaking at a panel on the future of mobile technology at a government technology leadership conference Tuesday in Williamsburg, Va., Sizer explained that by rethinking how signals are transmitted from wireless base stations to a wireless end-user, engineers came up with a “lightRadio” design that reduces the size of the radio antenna element and the base station itself to about a tenth of the size of a normal base station typically attached to building tops.
By making a base station small enough to fit almost anywhere in buildings, and by connecting dozens or hundreds of additional base stations within an existing wireless cell zone, carriers will be able to increase wireless capacity by several orders of magnitude.
That capacity is critical not only to keeping consumers satisfied, but also a vast and growing array of machines that communicate information and operating data wirelessly over the Internet.
“The massive increase in the number of machines we now see communicating on the wired telephony network (modems, fax machines, credit card validation) will be dwarfed by the number that we will see on our wireless systems,” Sizer told Breaking Gov. “New devices that have no human interface will dominate” that wireless traffic he said, and open the door for new applications “that we envision being essential for operation of the government” and business, he said.
“As ‘always connected’ becomes the norm, and as new devices to connect become more fully featured and enable new applications, the amount of information we will need to communicate to allow the operation of the government will exponentially grow. Our expectations are that we will need to plan for growth in wireless data of factors of 30 in the next four years, and 100 in the next 10 years as more smartphones and tablets define the methods and applications we need to do our job,” he said.
But as government operating systems become more persistently connected over wireless channels, “the risks grow in the case of a loss of connection,” he said. That raises the questions, “What are the systems and applications that are needed to provide redundancy and reliability? Options that we used to have are vanishing (such as pay phones, and requirements for connection are increasing for much more than just a voice call.”
Those and other mobile technology questions were at the heart of discussions among senior government agency executives at the Executive Leadership Conference, an annual gathering of information technology and agency executives sponsored by ACT IAC. A key question at this year’s conference is how to incorporate wireless innovations into the government workplace.
One thing agencies and organizations haven’t fully planned for are the next wave of peripheral products –everything from printers to digital medical devices– that are capable of connecting to user smartphones and other devices wirelessly, said Dr. Dave Metcalf, director of the Mobile Innovation Lab at the University of Central Florida, another panelist at the conference.
A more vexing question is how to standardize and implement security protocols capable of permitting trusted device-to-device communication connections and trusted transactions over those connections, said Jim Williams, senior vice president at Daon, which specializes in identity assurance.
While encryption and secure session protocols have been in use for many years, the emergence of thousands of mobile applications has introduced a new way for hackers to compromise wireless data.
Agencies are also trying to resolve a variety of other operating and policy questions, including whether to allow employees to use their own mobile devices to access data on government networks. Agencies need to think beyond the current boundaries, which are typically defined by the devices themselves and how they are used, and look instead to how information flows over wired and wireless networks, said Mike Donavan, a chief technologist at HP.
But all of that hinges on the technology being able to keep up with demand. And for now, Bell Lab’s Sizer and his team gave government executives a glimpse of what the future of mobile technology will at least look like.
For more coverage of the Executive Leadership Conference, see ELC here.