IoT is here and mobile networks will never be the same

More devices will mean more numbers to crunch and more distributed computing

Bell Labs' President Marcus Weldon
Bell Labs' President Marcus Weldon sees future capacity improvements for copper, fiber and cel Credit: Alcatel-Lucent

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 smartphones will have to be totally re-architected in the next few years to accommodate sensors, cameras and remote-control connections, according to Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs. 

The New Jersey-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.

What's 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's 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's 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 like logistics, where cheap wireless devices on boxes could fill in the gaps in package tracking.

Today's wireless networks won't 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 signaling, 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 signaling 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. 

Like other massive computing tasks, signaling is moving to the cloud. But because it involves real-time communication between base stations and nearby radios, it can't be done on giant regional data centers 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 virtualized 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's 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 centers about 10 kilometers and 100 kilometers 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're packed in close enough to use very high frequencies that only work at short ranges of 100 meters or less. Researchers at Alcatel-Lucent and other companies are studying these millimeter-wave frequencies and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will debate a proposal for opening up some millimeter-wave bands for mobile service at a meeting next week. 

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