Dynamic, meshed networks of various devices stand more chance than any direct successor to GSM, Peter Cochrane says. And here he explains why... Back in the 1980s there were numerous predictions for future mobile phone applications and growth - and they all turned out to be wrong. First, they assumed that the application and growth areas would be vehicle-based rather than handheld. Second, they assumed people would not be happy with the performance, so growth would be slow and contained. In actuality the initial products rapidly migrated from something the size of a house brick to something approximating a chocolate bar. And it soon became evident that in the price-performance equation it is mobility that people value most. Most interestingly, no one predicted that young people would only buy mobile phones and would not want a fixed line. So here we are at the start of the new millennium with digital mobile having overtaken the old analogue infrastructure to become the dominant form of telephone device. The question is: what happens next and can we predict the future with any greater accuracy? One clear trend has been the extension of digital connection to laptop computers, PDAs and a host of personal devices. Only two years ago my GSM mobile phone was my primary means of getting online as I roamed the planet. Even though I was constrained to 9.6Kbps the near-ubiquitous GSM network allowed me to do my email on the move. Today this role has been usurped by Wi-Fi and high-speed connectivity almost everywhere I travel. The net result is that my mobile phone bill has dropped by 70 per cent and my business efficiency has moved up a notch or two. I have toyed with 2.5 and 3G but the advertised facilities and data rates are rarely available, the interfaces and configuration routines are pretty awful and they seem less available than Wi-Fi. The 3G hype boasted 2Mbps connectivity but the reality is that 374Kbps is a rare luxury, if you can find a network at all. For the most part the definition of mobility has now been stretched to include almost everything. From the cordless keyboard and mouse, to the next generation white goods (washing machines, cookers, freezers and so on) and brown goods (TVs, hi-fis and so on) will not only have Intel Inside but Bluetooth and Wi-Fi also. In the same way an office copier can already make an automated phone call for assistance when it needs maintenance or repair, soon so will our cars, homes and appliances. Even the bar codes on our food and clothes look set to be replaced by single chip transponders to establish 100 per cent quality control, sales and aftercare service. We can also expect jewellery with embedded chips for healthcare monitoring and communication becoming commonplace along with embedded devices for human enhancement and security. The addition of GPS to mobile devices will also be profound. In an instant we will be able to locate a container on a ship or truck, a stolen vehicle or VHS, someone in need of medical attention or perhaps even a lost sheep on a mountainside. On average the trucks on our roads operate at around a 10 to 20 per cent average loading. If the trucks know where the containers and boxes are and vice versa we could probably take seven out of 10 trucks off the road altogether and save billions in logistics costs. A key question: will the limited radio spectrum cope with all this? The answer comes in several parts. First, we have so far, only used up to 10 per cent of the frequency spectrum available. This extends up to 30GHz and encompasses all our radio, TV, military, satellite radar and GPS services. Between 30 and 300GHz atmospheric resonances and disturbances make it increasingly difficult to communicate over long distances. For example, at 270GHz it is difficult to communicate over distances more than 500m. This mitigates for the second key requirement, the provision of pico-cells. With conventional mobile telephone networks the cells generally span 3 to 25km, which turns out to be adequate for the density of handsets in most city, town and rural locations. But as the number of mobile devices proliferates we will need individual radio cells for the human body, inside the car, room, home, office, building, hotel, campus, street, village, town and so on. Interestingly we have passed this way before on a macro-scale with geostationary satellites orbiting at 36,000km to give coverage of continents and countries and, more recently, low earth orbit (LEO) satellite systems at 2500km able to focus on a single conurbation. But for the density of mobile devices we can anticipate, we will need new forms of terrestrial network. A multitude of small digital radio units costing $50 screwed to the side of every house and office building connected to a PC, hundreds of cars and trucks carrying a similar capability, and every laptop, PC and PDA, all wireless-enabled, will see the emergence of a new form of mobile network. And in a curious, and counterintuitive, twist such networks will also demand more fixed optical fibre to cope with the clustering of people and devices. What is required to achieve all of this? Only the allocation of spare frequency space, power limiting specifications to keep radio operation safe and interference free, and some really smart self-organising software. Most of this technology is either available to buy today or currently under trial. Data rates in excess of 11Mbps look increasingly likely and the overall throughput surprisingly increases with the addition of more and more moving elements. As one community after another powers up, such networks will grow across complete geographic regions and an internet without the need for any formal network authority will be with us. Every few hours each element can check to see if it is still optimised relative to the overall net growth and in the event of an individual unit failing, traffic will automatically re-route and the net reconfigure to take account of the missing node. So, if I am in a room devoid of a radio connection my computer may seek out an individual leaving the building, and leap to their phone, PDA or laptop. The next opportunity for my message may come in the form of a taxi. Once it has moved into the storage space of the taxi it may decide to hop from one vehicle to another along a street to a highway and onto a motorway. Soon it is well onto its destination at the other end of the country or planet and no network was required – only things. This column was typed at Dublin airport and revised on FR289 flying to London. It was despatched to silicon.com a week later from a commercial Wi-Fi hot spot just outside Cambridge. What do you think? You can contact Peter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Peter Cochrane is a co-founder of ConceptLabs CA, where he acts as a mentor, advisor, consultant and business angel to a wide range of companies. He is the former CTO and Head of Research at BT, as part of a career at the telco spanning 38 years. He holds a number of prominent posts as a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and humanist, and is the UK's first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. For more about Peter, see: www.cochrane.org.uk. For all Peter's columns for silicon.com, see: www.silicon.com/petercochrane .
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.