The end is near. The growth curve for data usage is getting steeper by the second. The more we use data for applications like VoIP and mobile VoIP, UC, cloud based file repositories, and streaming the latest episode of COSMOS, the faster, and wider, we need our connections to be. Very soon, accessing the data we need may start to feel (even more) like sitting in freeway gridlock at rush hour. That is, unless we’re able to find salvation from high up above.
Our snowballing thirst for data threatens to clog all available bandwidth, bringing data speeds to a tortuously slow crawl and limiting access. Foresight in the 90s saw plenty of fiber laid throughout most metro areas, but connecting to that network still takes time and considerable investment. On a global scale, expanding the network of subsea cables that makes the Internet such a world-wide phenomenon will take time and resources. It’s getting harder to keep pace with demand for data access.
The problem is no better for the mobile networks we’re increasingly turning to to feed our data addictions. Last year, the FCC reported a “spectrum deficit” due to the exponential growth in mobile data traffic consumption, and 2014 isn’t looking any better. In a post for The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, John M.R. Kneuer and Rachael M. Bender explain that “mobile spectrum is a scarce and finite public resource, and the only way for additional spectrum to be made available is through government action.” The authors argue that easing spectrum deficit will require the Government to release the spectrum it controls for its own purposes. To qualify this plan as a short term solution, we’d need our lawmakers to act with swift efficiency. How long can you hold your breath?
The evolution of optical wireless technology suggests a wire free future that’s very fast, requires less infrastructure, and it may not be all that far away.
Market research firm LightCounting reported flat growth in sales of wired optical components and modules for 2013. The stagnation seems to be caused by a shift to wireless broadband access systems. Sales of optical receivers connecting base stations with antennas, have grown rapidly since 2011, with the segment predicted to grow by 75% in 2014, easily surpassing $500 million. End users are going wireless, so why not providers?
A couple of issues stand in the way of ISPs building a wireless backbone.
Range is one. Last year, german researchers broke the world record for wireless transmission speeds when they achieved 40Gbps between two unwired endpoints. The secret to success was receivers that operate at a 240GHz frequency – much higher than the IEEE 802.11n standard, which operates on 2.4GHz. However, the endpoints were only one kilometer apart, hardly suitable for replacing nation-wide cabling, let alone thousands of miles of subsea fiber.
Companies such as Skyfiber already offer these short range capabilities commercially with speeds up to 1.25Gbps. But again, the short range of the frequency limits the technology to last mile applications. Which is great for dense populations who’d rather not sit around and wait for a physical fiber connection to be trenched in. Plus, there aren’t the licensing hurdles so many enjoy wrestling within the realm of cellular and microwave.
The other main issue, is that these are line of sight technologies. When buildings, hills, or the curvature of the earth get in the way, the signal can’t get connect.
But, of course, there is a way to take the line of sight problem out of the equation – you just need to place your transmitters high enough.
This is where we get a little help from up above (and get to talk about space).
When walls and trees and hills get in the way of your transmission, you go higher. In the case of communications satellites, you go 5,039(ish) miles high. From that height, with the right distribution, you’ve got a pretty clear line of sight on a good percentage of Earth’s surface.
I know what you’re thinking. Satellites are too slow. VoIP is a big part of the data glut, and voice data needs to travel fast, or call audio quality suffers. And you’re right. Solid VoIP systems typically deliver at best 20milliseconds of latency, with the ideal falling anywhere below than 150ms. But satellites aren’t traditionally able to reach those speeds.
O3b, and a few other satellite service providers have developed networks that transmit data at fiber-like speeds, with round-trip latency less than 150milliseconds. They achieve these higher speeds by using the Ka-band spectrum which delivers up to 24 times more bandwidth than existing C-band and Ku-Band satellites, with 24GHz of bandwidth. And because smaller receivers are required, Ka-band connections offer greater mobility. NewSat explains that, “Ka-band is well suited to support the next generation of communication applications which require large amounts of high-throughput capacity.”
It’s an imperfect solution.
Ka-band satellites are up there now. And more will follow, but if you know anything about space junk, you know there’s lot’s of it, and there are limits to the number of satellites earthlings can launch. So Ka-band communications will reach a saturation point too. Plus, the higher you go in frequency, the more susceptible transmissions are to atmospheric interference from rain, snow, and thick cloud cover. But there are fixes like larger antennas, uplink power control, and site diversity, that help mitigate weather effects.
Building on a foundation.
Truth be told, the data access relief rained down by Ka-band satellites isn’t a replacement for the way things are. We’ll need to keep using existing tech too. The exciting news is that carriers can expand bandwidth dramatically at speeds that keep voice services sounding crystal clear without running more wires all over the place.