TDK Ventures asked the seven diverse experts assembled for its Digital Transformation Week (DX Week) panel on connectivity what the most impactful innovation realized over the next five years would be. Six of the seven answers centered on wireless connectivity.
TDK Ventures Investment Associate Henry Huang moderated the panel on day 2 of #DXWeek2022 and set the discussion parameters.
“We have always been a social species, thriving together and progressing forward through collaboration and kinship,” he said. “Digital transformation has only accelerated the human connection, even if it is in ways different than we ever imagined. Technology that enables connections continue to spring forward.”
Maryam Rofougaran, founder and CEO of Movandi, said everyone wants wireless capability.
“Would you like to have wires if you can do wireless?” she asked. “Even looking at wireless charging. People have been working to get rid of wires, because wires limit you in terms of location. Need and desire is there. If you could get rid of all wires and fibers — if it were possible — it would be done in an instant.”
She noted that current capacity constrains makes universal wirelessness currently impossible and that capacity demands will only grow as more devices are added.
Matt Grob, XCOM’s chief technology officer and former CTO of Qualcomm, said consumer, and enterprise demand will never be sated.
“We have tens of megabits per second on our devices but that’s not enough. In fact, it’s never going to be enough. We’re always going to want more,” he said. We’re in an era where we still want to get more capacity, more coverage, and lower cost. But also, for the metaverse and other new use cases, we need improved latency and improved robustness.
Nada Golmie, chief of wireless division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, said generating supply capabilities to meet the ever-expanding demand hinges on designing transmitters and receivers to maximize signal strength and minimize reflection, deflection, and scattering.
“It all starts with understanding the propagation to make wireless work,” she said. “Wireless is good and it’s allowing us to a lot. But we still have to work on many issues to make it really seamless.”
And she said more research is needed to perfect the peripherals and downstream devices that use wireless connections to make them more efficient.
“Here I am, connected wirelessly, but I have to be very close to the wall because I’m not very trusting of my battery’s ability to last for two hours,” she said. “We use electromagnetic wave theory and augment with physical measurements to make very accurate picture of an environment. But environment A may not translate to environment B. It doesn’t work, doesn’t scale, doesn’t translate. With AI, we’re able to measure in one environment and use additional information about it from LIDAR (light detection and ranging), cameras, etc., and augment that to the radio frequency signal. We are looking at shortening the cycle for measurement, model, and use it in design development and real-time channel prediction so we can be more agile and reconfigure faster. We’re also looking at understanding environments without having to measure every single time.”
Until those issues can be satisfactorily addressed, Rofougaran said, “there will be places that you will still need the fiber, but I think that there are a lot of other things we can do [to manage demand and capacity] — load balancing, distributed wireless solutions, etc.”
Sanyodita Shamsunder, head of Google’s global edge networking, supported that view. She acknowledged that wireless is quickly taking over as the primary connectivity media for many businesses and consumers. However, “there is a place for wired as well as wired connectivity. Enterprises connecting to the cloud and to each other require a lot higher bandwidth with stronger [service level agreements] that may not be possible wirelessly in certain locations and applications.”
“Every time we say fiber is dead, it comes back again because cell sites also have to have wired connectivity,” she said.
Columbia University professor Michal Lipson highlighted the use cases where wired connections hold an advantage over wireless.
“Wireless is amazing, and it will absolutely revolutionize our lives,” she said. “But the bandwidth we consume when we rely on wireless is at least an order of magnitude smaller than what is needed today for in data centers and long-range communication. So, we need to ask, ‘When do we actually stop the wire connection and go wireless?’”
She referenced talk in the 2000s about fiber to the home. It is interesting to look back and remember that was a reality many industry participants believed in and thought necessary.
“Anytime you have very high bandwidth — I’m talking about gigabit — and you have long length — maybe one centimeter for a terabyte, a few meters for a gigabit, you need to go optic,” Lipson said. “Optics are the only medium that can carry that high bandwidth because they do not absorb the energy. The edge is moving, and optics are becoming more and more relevant in smaller scales.”
Ajit Pai, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a partner at Searchlight Capital Partners said each sector has its place, especially with greater emphasis on home connectivity due to hybrid work models and home entertainment options such as streaming videos, gaming, and extended reality.
“The world is increasingly going wireless, but the future is going to be one that will rely on wired infrastructure for some time to come,” he said. “In the United States we are seeing an unprecedented amount of public subsidy to support the deployment of high-speed broadband infrastructure, especially in underserved parts of the country. Predominantly, that technology is going to be fiber to the home.
He said this movement brings important tangential benefits such as improved coverage and wireless backhaul (using wireless communication systems to ferry data between the internet and subnetworks).
“I can’t wait to see what the fiber deployment means, not just for residential broadband but what that platform of densified fiber will mean for the wireless industry.”
On the wireless front, Pai said he expects private wireless networks to disrupt the industry over the next five years. Up to now, he said, “the dominant paradigm has been that a commercial operator — typically a very large publicly traded company — acquires spectrum assets from the FCC at auction. It builds or leases wireless infrastructure, requiring a massive capital expenditure. And then it either has to build or lease fiber or other types of connectivity for backhaul. It monetizes that expense by providing a service to the consumer or the enterprise.”
He said the introduction of very different blocks allows companies to invest in a variety of spectrum assets Wireless infrastructure no longer requires macro cell sites and massive backhaul.
“You can now have, essentially, a bespoke network, especially one that can be virtualized going into the future. If you operate a big warehouse, or factory, or hospital, it’s conceivable that in five years you might…build a wireless network tailored to your needs. You could leverage some of the exciting innovations we see in the 5G license spectrum or even some of the Wi-Fi 6E spectrum and manage the network and hold the keys to security yourself.”
Derek Peterson, CTO Boingo Wireless, said his company has been building private and public networks for some time. For much of that history, Wi-Fi was the only technology available for putting airport retailers’ point-of-sale devices and security cameras online, wiring TSA capabilities, and integrating stadium use cases. The advent of new networking tools has been a godsend.
“The idea that each company is going to want to run their own wired or wireless network coupled with the need to bring public services for carriers and other connections is going to create a convergence and a co-integration of all these networks,” he said. “So, public networks can take on excess demand from private networks and vice versa. You’re going to want them to be able to work together. That will require a lot of standards development…so we’re not leaving all this stranded capacity.”
He used a stadium example where the owner wants to incorporate social media capabilities, multiple cameras, in-seat food ordering, real-time betting, digital signage. Trying to put all those diverse use cases on one technology probably won’t work.
“What we try to do first is to map out the use cases, that journey inside that venue. Then we see what we have available, and we figure out which technology to use for each application.”
In the future, he said, venues will be able to shift use cases among technologies to manage loads. Boingo is giving these devices additional capabilities even before the technology exist for creating the subnetworks rather than a monolith.
Mini networks may hold the key for making data more accessible, Shamsunder said.
“End devices are getting more powerful — both consumer and enterprise. We have computers in the palms of our hands,” she noted. “The capabilities we are asking those devices to do is multiplying at the same time data is proliferating. There’s a lot more data being generated. All that data and our processing of it, unfortunately cannot happen at the extreme edge. We are unable to scale that. There are multiple levels of edge. We have the deep cloud, the cloud in the town you’re in, an edge inside the home, and then the device. We will see data being more easily transportable, reliable, and secure across all these domains.
Connectivity has become an indispensable component of everything we do. Networking and collaboration tools now must deliver instant connectivity speeds, ultra-low latency, and sufficient bandwidth. Development of the metaverse, more interactive training, leisure, and entertainment resources, and inclusion of multisensory activities online will spur advances in seamless interaction. Our discussion shows how industry, academia, and the investment community can provide the innovation and inspiration to achieve global integration that will make our online experiences more vivid.