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What does the wireless future look like?

20 Oct 2015

A University of Auckland professor is looking into what the future may hold in regards to wireless technology.

Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Auckland, Kevin Sowerby, gave his inaugural lecture on the history of cellular technology last week, Weaving without Wires: Engineering the Wireless Fabric of Society.

“Since the late 1980s, we’ve gone through four generations of cellular technology and with each development, demand simply keeps rising,” Sowerby says.

“It’s estimated that by 2020, the total number of wirelessly connected devices worldwide will be 24 billion, a huge number.”

The first mobile phones cost NZ$6800 and consumers paid $70 per month plus 70c a minute to talk on them. Sowerby asks, if that was 1987’s version of cellular technology, what will 2020’s version be?

While extra capacity has been wrung from the radio spectrum - which makes wireless connection possible - by building ever more cell sites, we are running out of channels, Sowerby explains. This ‘spectrum deficit’ means that in the United States for example, demand will exceed supply by around 50% by 2019, he says.

“There just aren’t enough radio channels that can be allocated by government, the spectrum is already allocated to other services such as broadcasting, microwave links, navigation, satellites, ships and aircraft,” Sowerby explains.

“But even if we can find enough spectrum by 2020, there will be even greater demand beyond that time.”

That’s because many new wireless technologies are either only just arriving or still on the drawing board, according to Sowerby. They include ‘augmented reality’ systems which allow users to view their environment through a mobile device, for example travel directions or carbon monoxide levels on the street.

Next up will be machine-to-machine communications such as the ‘connected’ or driverless car, which tops the list for forecast wireless demand. Close behind are health remote monitoring, assisted living and home and building security, he says.

“How this demand will be met is a major challenge, will we have to look at using frequencies which are an order of magnitude higher than those we currently use? Only at these so called ‘millimetric wave’ frequencies is there unallocated spectrum, but these incredibly high frequencies are not well-suited to conventional mobile use,” says Sowerby.

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