The New Hot Technologies

Three examples of this are data encryption, the Internet of Things (IoT), and even 5G, meaning the use of small cells to increase network capacity for customers. Each of these was developed way back in the 1990s, centuries ago in wireless time.

“What goes around comes around” certainly rings true in the world of wireless where many early pioneers who introduced new ideas ended up going out of business while pursuing the same types of technologies or concepts that are, today, the next big things in wireless. Perhaps they were too early to market, perhaps they were trying to make small wireless data pipes do the work of today’s broadband data pipes, or perhaps network operators did not see the value in what the pioneers were trying to provide. Whatever happened, the point is that most of today’s “hot’ wireless ideas are modern-day versions of what came before them.

Three examples of this are data encryption, the Internet of Things (IoT), and even 5G, meaning the use of small cells to increase network capacity for customers. Each of these was developed way back in the 1990s, centuries ago in wireless time.

Data Encryption

The very first BlackBerry featured end-to-end encryption. It was the only product to do so in the late 1990s and no one considered it all that necessary for many years. Phil Zimmermann founded an even earlier encryption company in 1991. It was called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). It was only mildly successful, mostly because a demand for encryption had not yet been created by hackers or the Internet. BlackBerry baked it into its service but PGP and a few other early encryption companies had to create demand for their products as an add-on to corporate and even government data. This was not easy to do in those days.

It took many years for Research In Motion (RIM, now BlackBerry) to start bumping heads with governments regarding its email and device encryption. Over time, BlackBerry ended up having to give the keys to its encryption to more and more government entities. However, for the most part, BlackBerry still provides the best-encrypted email available today. Fast-forward to 2016 and we see that the U.S. Congress is trying to pass an ill-advised encryption law. The FBI, which wanted to be able to break into a specific iPhone, sued Apple, and other government agencies are claiming they need unfettered access to secure devices.

We have gone full circle with encryption and the need for encryption. From companies such as PGP that had trouble drumming up interest to today’s world where anything sent via the Internet unencrypted is easily intercepted. Encrypted communications or files are now the subject of a battle between those who want privacy and those within the government who claim providing privacy that is not accessible to government agencies will foster hostile actions by individuals, groups, or countries.

Finally, there are those who use the Internet for social media, freely posting personal information, discussing their location, and providing those that wish to be malicious or worse all the information they need to do so. Some willingly put their life stories on the Internet, governments want to make sure they can access anything and everything they think might be interesting, others want to protect their corporate Intellectual Property, and some organizations need to use the Internet for communications purposes but need it’s communications to be secure for any number of reasons. Few of these would be harmful to any government or its citizens. Yet governments want uncrackable encryption for their own use and believe their citizens do not have that same right. There is no way to tell how this will turn out but for now it appears there is a much larger battle brewing over encryption on the horizon.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

This is the “next big thing,” or at least one of the next big things, again coming about because of work that went on back in the 1990s. During that time we provided consulting services to Aeris, a company whose name is still carried forward today by others who followed those who built the company. They were almost able to sell Aeris to Verizon before the network operator got cold feet. Aeris was an interesting start-up because it purchased its own SS7 telecommunications switch and designed its Machine-to-Machine services so that when a session was started, the network operator’s system saw the wireless number as a roaming call and handed it off directly to the Aeris switch. In those days the data payload was very small and the call did not take long to complete. In most cases the networks did not even know it was occurring.

Aeris worked with a number of customers and even though the data carried over the M-2-M modems was small the impact for the customers was huge. They could measure the water level in a remote storage tank and turn a pump on or off, and monitor chemicals in a hotel pool and add more if needed without having to send out a person. They had systems that indicated they needed to be fixed, there were Coke machines that could let the truck driver know how many bottles of which products were in the machine and how much of what to bring for restocking, and the company knew exactly how much money was in the machine.

Aeris and a few others were doing all of this and the network operators had no interest. The income from M-2-M was noise to them versus their voice and text traffic and some data services. Yet they missed the point that the income derived from these devices basically went to their bottom line as profit, and the fact that there are many more machines in the world than people. I remember one conversation we had with a network operator’s financial folks. They explained to us that at that time it cost them about $23 per subscriber (total cost of the network, overhead, marketing, etc.) and that each subscriber was bringing in an average of $54 so margins were great. In the case of M-2-M, they could not see any reason to pay $23 per user when M-2-M devices returned only a few dollars a month. To them this was a loss for each device on their network. They failed to realize that the cost of putting an M-2-M device on the network was essentially zero.

Now IoT is a big deal to more than existing wireless broadband networks and the Internet. Some chip-level and other vendors have gone so far as to develop a lighter version of LTE specifically to handle the IoT traffic (LTE-M). Companies such as ABI research forecast that by 2021, 28 percent of wireless connectivity will be IoT devices. Companies such as FitBit are already thriving because of the explosion of IoT, but it is not all peaches and cream. In some areas many homeowners are not happy about “smart meters” they feel might be spewing out harmful radio frequencies or permitting utilities to spy on us. Many of these meters are mounted on an outside wall, often on the other side of the master bedroom wall. Others are concerned about wearables, yet most of these folks, when asked, will admit they have one or more Wi-Fi access points in their home and think nothing of using them every day to bring content to their many wireless devices.

IoT has the attention of network operators and others who are trying to identify new and unique ways to make use of the technology. It is clear that many law enforcement officers will have IoT devices on them to start their body cameras recording the moment they reach for their Taser or firearm and firemen will have sensors on their body to record their heartrate, breathing, and body temperature when in a building. And, of course, the medical community is already providing devices and applications to remotely monitor patients’ sugar levels, heart rates, and so much more.

IoT will be used for things we cannot even imagine at the moment. Think back to before the iPhone and how we thought of a wireless cell phone and its limited uses, then fast forward to today and see how many of the things we do on our wireless devices we had not envisioned. IoT will have the same impact on many additional aspects of our lives. The pioneers are long gone or retired and watching what is happening. I am sure they are amazed that what they first conceived of and tried to make into mainstream products and services have taken this long to mature and grow. So many things have come together to enable IoT to be perceived as one of the most important new wireless technologies of this century: the uptake of smart devices, the willingness of people to make use of these devices in many different ways, and the way in which smart people and companies have already married together IoT and wireless devices. In many cases IoT will be a standalone device to network communications but in many more the smart wireless device we carry will be the “access point” to collect and forward information gathered by IoT devices on us or in close proximity to us.

M-2-M has morphed into IoT as much of the early work and many early wins and losses gave some of the ideas and concepts to those who have decided IoT will become one of the next big things. These they have developed into today’s growing IoT market that network operators are now embracing whole-heartedly.

The Early Days of 5G

Wi-Fi was also coming to fruition in the 1990s. For example, WayPort, which is now a part of AT&T, was founded in 1996. Another Pioneer in the Wi-Fi space was Proxim (1984), which was providing Wi-Fi-like access points before Wi-Fi became a standard. These access points were deployed by MobileStar, also founded in 1996. In 2001, MobileStar faced bankruptcy and in 2002, T-Mobile purchased the assets. MobileStar, you might remember, pioneered the placement of Wi-Fi access points in Starbucks and many other venues.

During this period of time, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint were not Wi-Fi fans, mainly because the spectrum was unlicensed and could not be coordinated or owned by the wireless network operators. However, T-Mobile moved forward and not only purchased the Wi-Fi access points that made up MobileStar, it integrated them into its cellular back-end system. In the 2007 T-Mobile was the only network operator to offer combined cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity. I had a T-Mobile modified access point in my home and one in my office about 200 feet away. I was able to answer my T-Mobile phone using the access point in my home, walk outside and be switched to the T-Mobile network, and once in my office I was switched to my office access point. During such calls, I didn’t miss a single syllable of my conversation in either direction.

Today the promise of 5G is almost exactly what T-Mobile implemented in the early 2000s. It is about more, smaller cells, placed in areas of heavy demand, and off-loading the primary wireless network to provide more capacity and data throughput for everyone. 5G will use a mix of different portions of the radio spectrum including Wi-Fi on 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, 3500 MHz shared spectrum, some AWS spectrum, and spectrum up into and beyond what is currently used for microwave and satellite communications.

There were also some spectacular Wi-Fi failures during this time. Some companies decided that like Metricom before them, they could build Muni-Wi-Fi networks providing cheaper, faster data to customers and cut out network operators. One of the biggest promoters of Muni-Wi-Fi was the Internet service provider EarthLink, which built and planned some very ambitious Metro-Wi-Fi systems. In 2005, after building several systems in other parts of the United States, EarthLink made a deal with Anaheim to build out the city. The promise was to cover Anaheim and provide inbuilding coverage to the first wall. The day of the system launch we were invited to attend the event, tour the network operations center, and experience the system firsthand. I had written a number of articles about Metro- or Muni-Wi-Fi and the fact that there was no business model for this service. Because of this, after the event we were invited to a meeting with EarthLink’s CEO and others. Out of the meeting came a contract for us to run tests in the City of Anaheim three times during a six-month period, measuring data rates as well as coverage.

During this six-month period as we ran our tests we watched EarthLink struggle with its system. It went from 70 access points a square mile to 90 and then 105. The Tropos Wi-Fi equipment included a mesh-network type of architecture where only one in three access points were connected to the backbone and onto the Internet. The other access points received customers’ data and hopped it over to one of the connected access points. Our tests showed a number of issues. First was that system Wi-Fi channels could not be changed automatically. Next, the cable company provider was shipping cable modems to the citizens of Anaheim hard-wired to Wi-Fi channel 6 and the constant beacons of multiple in-home access points really messed up the network. There were several times when we could see the EarthLink access point but could not register or talk to it. Basically, over the six months we conducted the tests, we watched the system implode on itself.

Today network operators have embraced Wi-Fi access points and both AT&T and Verizon have finally enabled voice over Wi-Fi, something T-Mobile did more than a decade ago. Wi-Fi is now an accepted way of off-loading the operator’s primary network inbuilding. Which brings us to 5G, which will basically be an extension of what is already occurring with Wi-Fi but using different technologies and additional portions of the radio spectrum.

There is still the issue of Wi-Fi and LTE-U (LTE unlicensed), which Qualcomm and others claim can co-exist on Wi-Fi channels (since Wi-Fi channels are unlicensed) with licensed operators also using them. FCC rules state that you have to accept any and all interference on your unlicensed system but you cannot cause any interference to a licensed user. To my knowledge this has not been a real problem except Wi-Fi users notice over time that their access points don’t cover inside their homes as well as they used to and perhaps their data rates are slower. This is typical when you have so many radios in close proximity to each other spewing out data on the same basic portion of the spectrum.

Wi-Fi will be an important part of the 5G rollout and much of it is already in place, so network operators are looking at other owned or licensed and coordinated spectrum to use for their 5G systems. Companies are flocking to what they consider to be 5G (I have yet to see a formal definition of 5G from any of the standards bodies). AT&T is testing 5G in its lab in New Jersey and will deploy it in a few test areas while Verizon is rolling out 5G at its New Jersey Headquarters and will reportedly use Boston as its test bed. Further, Comcast will take part in the 600-MHz spectrum auction and is ideally positioned with assets in the field to deploy 5G small cells in its coverage areas due to the large amount of fiber it already has on the streets. (Note: This is yet another do-over, the track record for a cable company in the wide-area wireless world is dismal at best.)

Since each cell will have to be connected back to the network somehow, having fiber in place is a good start. Google is another company that has been offering fiber services in several cities with more planned. It is currently conducting 5G studies and testing in one of the cities where it already offers fiber. Verizon and AT&T have fiber as do others including most cable companies and, of course, 5G is all about off-loading the main network with lots and lots of small cells, all of which need connectivity. But wait, there’s more!

The same companies that have fiber on streets either underground or on poles are looking at the same radio technologies to connect the fiber to the home. Some companies are using light beams to move gigabytes of data from the street to homes and some are using the same radio spectrum that will be used for 5G to provide a radio link between the street and the home. Perhaps that might be one reason AT&T bought DirecTV, which has a multitude of small dishes mounted on homes, apartments, condos, and businesses.


What goes around comes around in the wireless industry. The new hot technologies are encryption, the Internet of Things, and 5G. What came before each of these prepared those who are re-pioneering the same basic technologies only more secure (encryption), or capable of sending and receiving more data for less money (IoT), and better wireless capacity and data speeds (5G).

In the “old days” when people were experimenting and rolling out these and other technologies, many mistakes were made along the way. Often the products were ahead of their time or there was no perceived need or economic incentive for what was being developed. The question of the day is will some of these same mistakes be made this time around or will we look to the past to avoid them?

Andrew M. Seybold

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