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John Cunliffe, chief technology officer, Ericsson North Western Europe

The take up of mobile data is about to explode. Graham Pitcher finds out more about the future of wireless data.

The communications industry has changed almost beyond recognition in the 25 years since the first mobile phone handsets became available to UK users.

John Cunliffe, chief technology officer for Ericsson North Western Europe put the changes in perspective in a recent presentation. "Every 3s, someone buys a device to access the internet," he said. "Every 3s, four people sign up to Facebook and every 3s, another 500words are added to Wikipedia."

In 2009, the amount of data transmitted over phone networks of all types exceeded the amount of voice traffic. That's quite impressive when you consider that 210million phone calls are made every second.

Those are just some of the staggering statistics that chart our growing dependence on the web and on mobile communications. Cunliffe contends that by the time an average 21 year old enters the workforce, he or she will have sent and received 250,000 emails, Instant Messages and texts, and have spent 10,000hr on the web. Meanwhile, the number of texts sent per day is far more than the population of the world.

But things are likely to change even more rapidly in the next 10 years, at least in Cunliffe's opinion. "By 2020, there will be 50billion devices out there capable of accessing the internet," he believes.

So what are these devices that will be accessing the web? Most of them will support M2M communications. M2M has been bubbling under for some time now; has it reached a tipping point? "Usability, speed and coverage have been the catalysts for application developers to see how they can exploit the opportunities."

"Anything that can be connected will be," he continued. "For example, I came across a manufacturer of coffee machines who wanted to use the web to update their software. The applications will be anything: from domestic to industrial and managing them will be easier if they are on the web."

He also believes some recent well documented troubles with cars might have been solved more readily had the companies been able to upgrade the software remotely. "And, of course, utility meters will all be connected," he continued.

The application of web based connectivity will only be limited by the imagination of developers, he says. "Wouldn't it be cool if a light fitting, for example, would be capable of being connected? Some people are already doing things along this line with a device that can control a 13A socket remotely."

By controlling the use of energy, said Cunliffe, connected devices will be able to contribute to the fight against climate change. At the moment, he claims just 2% of CO2 emissions can be put down to ICT. "But, if used wisely, the application of ICT has the potential to cut emissions by 15%."
The main thrust of all this is there will be a huge increase in the number of connected devices in the short term and operators are gearing themselves up to deal with the challenges. "It will be interesting to see how things turn out," he noted.

Cunliffe also quotes the figure that, by 2013, 80% of people will access the internet from a mobile device. Mobile broadband is becoming faster, Cunliffe admits, but he contends that a typical download rate is 1.5Mbit/s. "Even at that level, there is a lot of uptake, but things are getting better."
HSPA, for example, is pushing towards 84Mbit/s. But LTE is going to make a big difference. "LTE is now operating in Stockholm with a peak rate of 150Mbit/s," he pointed out. "I was in a café there recently and could download data at more than 60Mbit/s using a normal laptop. And, at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, a prototype system was demonstrated that supported 1.2Gbit/s downloads."

Wireless data, however, has to travel over terrestrial networks at some point in its journey. "The technology is there to support these data rates," Cunliffe noted, "whether it's fibre or microwave, and we have proven that the IP backbone is scalable. But the air interface does put pressure on the backhaul network and so on."

Antennas have also proved a problem area, but Cunliffe sees developments here. "There's a lot of potential to improve antenna performance through such approaches as beam forming and tilting."
While noting that some people get obsessed with the need for speed, Cunliffe says this does bring advantages. "One benefit is that usability improves," he said, "and that can make an application seem like it's 10 times faster. Higher data rates also bring lower latency, so the user's experience on https pages, which are transactionally intense, improves."

With more people accessing the internet via mobile devices – he believes smartphones will become increasing more popular – Cunliffe said web developers will increasingly focus their efforts towards mobile phone pages. "There will be a shift away from conventional html development in favour of optimising content for the small screen."

Despite the projections of the rate of uptake, there's always the possibility that things could happen more quickly. "When you increase capacity, it gets taken up straight away. There is a lot of demand and as you improve performance, it fuels the developer market and there's more they can do," he concluded.


John Cunliffe
John Cunliffe joined GEC Telecommunications in 1976 to work on the development of the System X Central Office switch.
In 2005, he became chief strategy officer at Marconi. Following the acquisition by Ericsson of Marconi's assets in January 2006, he was appointed chief technology office for Ericsson North Western Europe.
He has been a visiting lecturer at Aston University and, more recently, at London Business School.

Author
Graham Pitcher

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