While the future is undoubtedly multi-screen, multi-device and wireless broadband everywhere, sophisticated fibre networks connected to energy-efficient cell devices will be critical, the chief technology officer of Alcatel-Lucent Marcus Weldon told Siliconrepublic.com.
Weldon has to have one of the most fascinating jobs on the planet right now. Think about it: economy aside, it’s his job to envision future demand for communications across a world where 6bn out of 7bn people carry mobile devices.
This is a world where the internet economy is growing exponentially along with our appetites for digital entertainment, social media and video and which is putting enormous strain on existing telecoms infrastructure.
This is a world where countries will fare better economically depending on how much bandwidth is available, a world where individuals from developing countries can build businesses on the web and take on industry titans in first-world countries. But this is also a dying planet in many people’s eyes as the implications of climate change and lessening food and water supply will dominate our lives in the coming decades.
Weldon has to perform a sensitive balancing act between technological advancement, which is the business of Alcatel-Lucent, and its telecoms industry customers and sustainable environmental actions, which is the business of the world.
A profound transformation
“The transformation we are going to see is profound and I think the smartphone is only just the beginning,” Weldon explains, pointing out that tablet computers are quickly becoming the “life device” of many.
Referring to Apple’s iPad (his own iPad is engraved ‘CTO’s iPad’ on the back), Weldon says such devices are replacing games consoles, DVD players, TVs and e-book readers in people’s lives and many executives no longer need to use laptops or desktops because of them.
“This device becomes your life device and it’s a very interesting idea because up until now your smartphone was your mobile device and you only really communicated via it. Now tablets are going to be your universal ubiquitous consumption of everything device.”
This, he says, presents an interesting conundrum for the telecoms world because the lack of storage and significant processing power will mean these functions will have to take place in the cloud while simultaneously connected to the user who could be anywhere.
This, he says, will drive phenomenal change. “Once you connect the cloud to the hand there’s one vital ingredient and that’s the network. Before the network was there for basic connectivity, now it’s going to be there for your life delivery, connecting the cloud to the hand and that means the growth in the network is going to be much, much greater in future than it has been to date and although we’ve seen amazing numbers in data growth, from now on various predictions are that this will grow 80- to 100-fold in the next three years. I think other people are saying it will grow 1,000-fold by 2020.
“No matter what you believe the number to be, the fact is that it is a very large number all driven by this type of device connecting to the cloud delivering your life to you anywhere and anytime,” Weldon said.
Ushering in the 4G future
Weldon was in Dublin recently where the local Bell Labs team developed the antenna that sits inside Alcatel-Lucent’s environmentally-friendly lightRadio technology – tiny little cubes that can be clustered to deliver high-speed data in cities and rural areas.
Aware of the upcoming 4G LTE spectrum auctions in the UK and Ireland, Weldon points out that successful deployments of 100Mbps LTE for 20Mhz of spectrum will ultimately depend on how many people have to share the spectrum.
Holding one of the tiny lightRadio devices in his hand, he points out that if 10 people shared a 100Mbps signal via one of the devices they would get 10Mbps of consistent connectivity which compares favourably to the 10Mbps to 12Mbps typical of most DSL connections today.
“To get a mobile network to the point where it’s almost the bandwidth of a fixed network in terms of average throughput per user is an amazing evolution from where we were a few years ago.”
The elephant in the room, however, is fibre, and delivering the quantities of fibre that will usher a universally connected planet. Countries like Ireland are gingerly tackling the infrastructure when the answer, Weldon warns, is lots and lots of fibre infrastructure for generations to come.
“Definitely we’ll need more fibre in the access part of the network – so it’s fibre to the kerb for VDSL plus vectoring deployments, fibre to the home for direct fibre connectivity for consumers, fibre to the business, fibre to the cell site, fibre to the small cell. In the access portion a lot more fibre is going to have to be laid to backhaul that 100Mbps from the small cell to where the packet core is and process it.”
Video, he points out, is the biggest bandwidth hog and because of services like Netflix and catch-up TV services from Sky, the BBC, RTÉ and many more, personalised video will put a serious strain on the network.
To handle this, he points out that a massive expansion in core and metro networks will be required. “We’re talking 100Gbps to 400Gbps connections and even terabit per second connections.”
In other words, governments and telecoms operators may be underestimating the demand that lies ahead.
“We’re working on something called special division multiplexing where in a single fibre we can send multiple paths down multiple cores.”
Follow the moon – the intelligent, sustainable data networks of tomorrow
Paraphrasing Google’s ‘follow the moon’ philosophy, Weldon says we will see the onset of intelligent data centres that switch themselves on and off, depending on demand.
This sustainable approach brings us on to the whole area of green tech and Alcatel-Lucent’s approach to sustainable network and device planning. Two years ago, the company revealed a significant four-fold expansion of its Bell Labs R&D group in Dublin, generating 70 new jobs.
To Weldon, being green isn’t just about being socially responsible, it makes practical sense. “To build this 100Mbps network that we talked about where these cubes are serving just a few users, that would require in principle a massive increase in power consumption. So yes, the ICT industry is always talked about being 2pc of the overall energy consumption globally in terms of Co2 equivalents but, if it were to build this network to have 100-fold the capacity of today’s network you could argue that would be as if you just carried on a 100-fold increase in power consumption.
“And that is bad business because of the opex bill for operators, that part the network represents is 7pc of their opex bill. If I make that number 10 times larger suddenly you’ve got 70-80pc of operational bill that is energy consumption and that makes no business sense.
“We’ve reached the point where green is not only the right thing to do from a long-term planetary view but it’s the right thing to do from a business standpoint.
“It’s that confluence that means to us it’s the perfect storm of influences or factors.
“We would love to make these devices solar powered and wind powered and turn them off when they’re not being used. You could imagine them deployed in the city centre but when everyone goes home in the evening why don’t we just turn them off and let the macro layer take over.
“In many ways we are looking at not only more energy-efficient designs but renewable sources of energy to power these so we don’t have to bring power to them and so the ability to turn things on and off dynamically as demand comes and goes. It’s all good business, as well as socially responsible.”
Weldon says the R&D group in Dublin is driving the antenna and cooling design features of new generations of lightRadio devices.
“Some of our competitors actually have fans in their small cells, but you could imagine these things in bus shelters and on the side of buildings will get clogged up and stop working.
“Fanless, self-cooled and energy-efficient designs and antennas that are high bandwidth so you can use them on any frequency band are all the work of Bell Labs Ireland.
“Think of the dimensions of energy efficiency, wideband antenna designs, novel antenna designs and the analytics to use those degrees of freedom and deliver the experience in the best possible way – Bell Labs Ireland is front and centre in our thinking and it is innovating for us as we go forward,” Weldon says.