When futurists and technologists talk of ubiquitous computing, many paint a utopian picture of always-on connectivity from anywhere, on any device. The possibilities when this idealistic technological capability eventually becomes reality are seemingly limitless, but before the everywhere, everything network is able to live up to the hype there are numerous elements that need to fall into place.
Therefore, the everywhere, everything network is not so much about global wireless coverage that enables truly ubiquitous connectivity. The everywhere network of tomorrow first needs to offer true quality of service (QoS) from end-to-end. And network providers are taking the first steps towards this, by adopting a software defined network (SDN) architecture, an emerging networking technology that will dwarf MPLS in its significance, not to mention capabilities.
But SDN is no silver bullet. The enablement of the everywhere network will rely on sharing – specifically between the telecommunication providers and the network operators. Everything needs to centre on the user, to ensure the QoS required to deliver the quality of experience that ubiquitous computing promises, in all its forms, regardless of the network that a user moves through. With this as the end-point, the days of telcos and operators who try to own the network from end-to-end are numbered. Sharing needs to happen at all levels in order to keep users and their experience at the centre of everything.
QoS requires shared resources
To achieve this, the industry must first look at traditional technologies, as they are integral cogs of the everywhere network. The growing trend of mobility, for instance, is a major driver. Sales of smartphones and tablets are exploding globally, with 170 million tablets shipped worldwide during 2012, along with 600 million smartphones. With an estimated 950 million devices expected to be shipped in 2013, having already surpassed global PC sales, and the massive growth potential in emerging markets due to the low penetration rates of smart end-devices in these regions, the demands on wireless networks continue to grow exponentially.
To more clearly illustrate this point, since the launch of the iPhone 3GS in Q3 2009, there was a 600% growth in global mobile data traffic in just two years. This was the tipping point for mobile data and this exponential growth is set to continue as adoption rates in emerging markets continue to rise. In fact, Nokia Siemens Networks predicts that wireless networks will need to manage 1 000 times the data traffic currently transmitted within the next five years. To cater to this growth in data usage, mobile network operators will need 10 times the performance, 10 times the spectrum efficiency and 10 times the number of base stations currently in use.
This is unrealistic as cells have already become smaller to accommodate limited spectrum, but also have to service more users with higher usage demands. It is for this reason that Wi-Fi is now being considered an essential and trusted element of the heterogeneous networks required to deliver true ubiquitous computing.
From a capacity planning perspective it makes sense to off-load heavy data onto an unlicensed spectrum medium like Wi-Fi. In fact, 70% of data sent from smartphones globally, already originates from a Wi-Fi connection. As such an uptake in the adoption of Wi-Fi networks by cellular providers can be expected as they try to augment their existing wireless network capabilities.
Wi-Fi offload, worldwide trend
Globally this trend is already happening. China Mobile, for instance, already off-loads 69% of its data onto Wi-Fi. Japanese mobile network operator Softbank also has more Wi-Fi access points than cellular base stations, while KDDI, another operator in Japan, has a one-to-one ratio of Wi-Fi hotspots to cellular base stations.
But it’s not just for capacity purposes that Wi-Fi off-load is happening. It also has a material impact on the total cost of network ownership. So why isn’t this happening in countries like South Africa, which already have expansive Wi-Fi networks? Unfortunately issues with congestion over ADSL, complicated login procedures, the multiple providers available, issues with selecting the right SSID and limited coverage make Wi-Fi roaming cumbersome. Concerns and issues of security have also given Wi-Fi hotspots a bad name.
This is why access to Wi-Fi needs to be streamlined and security issues addressed, especially as Wi-Fi aims to play a bigger role in enabling the everywhere network. Thankfully a number of smart individuals are collaborating to make this a reality. The Wi-Fi Alliance has already begun a cooperative framework to certify devices for use with Hotspot 2.0 technology.
Also known as Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint, Hotspot 2.0 is a next generation form of Wi-Fi access that allows certified devices to automatically join a Wi-Fi network whenever the user enters a Hotspot 2.0 area. This is aimed at creating a seamless roaming experience for users when moving between the various forms of wireless coverage currently available, and Wi-Fi hotspots. This is possible as the protocol broadcasts a single SSID, which will automatically select which roaming partner a device can securely connect to using EAP authentication for seamless connectivity.
The Wireless Broadband Alliance have also joined the initiative as the organisation aims to drive end-to-end seamless interoperability across networks, and the GSMA have created a joint task force to form part of this association.
This ability to seamlessly connect so many devices also opens the doors to connect the many elements around us to the Internet. Known as the “Internet of things”, these machine-to-machine (M2M) connections are the second part of the equation required to create the true magic of the everywhere, everything network.
As another powerful technology trend, it is more than a mere evolution – it’s a revolution. It is predicted that by 2020 M2M connections will outnumber the combined total of laptop and PC, tablet, mobile handset and local area network connections because the Internet of things has phenomenal applications across broad areas of modern life, from in-home entertainment and device management, to applications in logistics, health, retail and transport, to name a few.
The Internet of things ecosystem lets you identify the things you want to connect on the network, and the embedding of sensors lets you relay information to that device. This capability is rooted in fundamental connectivity technologies as you merely need a way to connect to the Internet to enable the device to receive commands. Bluetooth is one such technology as it can act as a gateway to the cloud for devices, where they receive commands that control actions without any human interaction.
A number of services are already available that enable consumers to integrate the Internet of things into their daily lives. A web-based service called IfThisThenThat (ifttt.com), for example, allows users to create conditions for action and the network executes these commands continuously, based on triggers and events. The conditions and parameters for execution are completely programmable by an individual, which allows them to turn on lights, switch on heaters or turn on the coffee machine, for example, automatically from the Internet when specified conditions are met.
The journey to this truly autonomous digitally controlled world began when mankind indexed the world. We then put this indexed world online and were then able to take control of these things through the Internet. We are now moving to a stage where we can control our world through the everywhere, everything network.
The next evolution of the Internet of things is when we enable things and devices to communicate with each other, which will bring about an age of automated action that is truly devoid of human interaction. When things are finally able to talk to each other, then the evolution of the Internet of things will be complete, as systems will become ‘intelligent’. This will enable a world where, for example, traffic congestion on a person’s route to work will cause their phone to wake them up earlier, or automatically reroute their normal route to work on their GPS.
However, reaching this point in the evolution of the everything, everywhere network hinges on our ability to simplify complexity today. As all the pieces of the ubiquitous computing puzzle emerge and fall into place, we need to simplify all the moving parts and get them to work in harmony if we want to achieve this utopian vision.
Greg de Chasteauneuf, innovation and technology manager, Enterprise Mobility at Internet Solutions