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10 Hot Trends in the Communications Industry

July 20, 2015
The more that communications changes, the more it strives to stay the same.

1. LTE will continue to expand. Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G cellular standards, well established in the U.S. and Asia, will continue their significant growth among consumers. Despite the capital and spectrum limitations on providers, an estimated 676 million LTE handsets will ship this year, a 50% increase over last year. That puts LET on track to be in 1.89 billion phones by 2019. Thus, carriers will be pressured to expedite their LTE infrastructure to support the technology.

2. 5G will be defined. Even with 4G technology still in expansion mode, fifth-generation (5G) cellular systems are already being defined with further, more in-depth definitions expected this year. The goal is to expand capacity, fill in coverage gaps (especially indoors), ease the spectrum shortage problem, and increase downlink speeds. Many believe small millimeter-wave cells can do the job. Although millimeter-wave signals have limited range, the hope is that high-gain antennas and a host of small cells should make it workable.

3. The Ethernet keeps on going. Ethernet, the 40-year old local-area-network (LAN) technology, continues to keep pace with changing technology. The original version delivered 10 Mb/s, which soon became 100 Mb/s, then 1 Gb/s, and then 10 Gb/s. Today, Ethernet delivers 100 Gb/s in copper as well as fiber forms. Lately, though, instead of reaching for 1 terabit per second, the IEEE 802.3 task force is targeting 400 Gb/s and even lower-level speeds. The idea is to adapt Ethernet to specific needs and niches. We will also likely see Ethernet versions that can handle 2.5G and 5G speeds on standard unshielded twisted pairs up to 300 feet.... And versions for 25G, 50G, and 400G will likely be developed as well.

4. Short-range wireless options appear. Bluetooth SIG version 4.2 will improve security so beacons can’t be tracked, boosts data speeds by a factor of 2.5, and add Internet connectivity with IPv6 and 6LoWPAN. ZigBee’s new version 3.0 will include apps for home automation, lighting, energy management, security, sensors, and healthcare monitoring.

5. Progress on NFC. Near-field communications (NFC) found a niche or two in transit payment, secure entry, and posters. Fortunately for NFC, Apple put it into the iPhone 6 models and implemented the Apple Pay system, which seems to have re-ignited interest in NFC and smartphone pay methods. With the shift in liability for corrupt hacking charges going from bank insurers to merchants, retail outlets should finally invest in NFC systems it offers far more security.

6. Improved Wi-Fi, and more of It. This year will see even more Wi-Fi with greater speeds, improved coverage, and even new uses. For example, 80- and 160-MHz-wide channels and modulation methods up to 256QAM have boosted data rates into the gigabit region. And 802.11ac Wave 2 products will let one access point handle more than one user at a time. This will provide greater access as well as near-gigabit data rates. There will also likely be wider adoption of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Hotspot 2.0 (Passpoint) with the 802.11u standard, letting Wi-Fi users more easily connect to an AP and roam seamlessly from one AP to another. And Wi-Fi could extends is rant to 0.6 miles.

7. The Internet of Things expands. IoT applications will generate substantial benefits in terms of convenience and time/cost savings for industry and consumers. IoT will exploit a variety of wireless methods including Broadcom’s WICED and Texas Instruments’ SimpleLink. But with new standards, Bluetooth and ZigBee also become candidates for IoT products. Furthermore, cellular is also an option for some applications.

8. A crippled Internet. The government continues in its plans to regulate the Internet. The latest efforts include FCC’s hybrid plan and Obama’s suggestion to categorize the Internet as a utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Although some regulations seem practical for preventing potential abuses, they always seem to raise taxes and costs, as well restrict innovation and investment. In the meantime, the U.S. Commerce Dept.’s contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will end, terminating the U.S.’s control of the Internet. The current administration wants to turn control over to some international organization.

9. Solving the spectrum shortage. The lack of usable radio spectrum is the main obstacle in boosting 4G capacity and speed. To get around that limitation, the government could auction off TV frequencies after closing down broadcasting of TV signals. A couple of approaches are being taken to solve this problem. The first revolves around spectrum auctions—a recent spectrum auction generated over $40 billion. The FCC freed-up space in the AWS-3 spectrum in the 1700- and 2100-MHz range for cellular usage, most of it going to major carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Dish Network. Next year, the FCC will ask TV broadcasters to give up their channels and go out of business or move to another location. Spectrum sharing is another technique employed to ease the spectrum crunch. Another solution is to move to the higher frequencies in the millimeter-wave bands.

10. Networking gets “softwarized.” Networking has traditionally been a blend of hardware and software. But, with the rise in Internet traffic, especially videos, the growing needs of cloud computing and the specter of IoT, engineers are finding it harder to scale up the hardware to handle the capacity and speed demands. A proposed solution is software-based networking. Software-defined networking (SDN), for example, replaces some hardware with software by separating the data and control planes of the network. Another piece software, network function verification (NFV), moves network operations from dedicated hardware to software running on common servers. SDN and NFV have yet to be widely used, but the move to them is underway and will take years.

For more details on all of these communication trends, check out the original article in Electronic Design by longtime editor and industry observer Lou Frenzel.

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