The future of networks: lighting up the digital world

3 Oct 2016

The data world is exploding all around us but we are running out of space as more devices and people join the networks of today. Image: Phil Daint/Shutterstock

The biggest challenge facing the communications world, driven by more and more connected people, devices and bandwidth-sucking apps, will be physics.

For the past two centuries, the communications revolution was principally about connecting people; from Morse code and the telegraph along thousands of miles of rail track and across oceans, to voice and data in our hands today. For the foreseeable future, people will be outnumbered by billions of things and will have to jostle with bots and devices on increasingly crowded airwaves and pipes.

The oft-quoted definition of cloud – the network is the computer – could never be truer, especially as we hurtle into a world where even fibre networks will have capacity issues and 5G will not be the silver bullet that policy makers and the telecoms industry imagine it to be.

‘Some homes today can get 60Mbps broadband. 15 years ago that was the total bandwidth into the country. Our expectations keep changing’

The fact of the matter is that networks as we know them have capacity problems. It’s all down to physics. Wireless spectrum as we know it is finite, and even fibre optic cabling is not as efficient as even stock markets or media giants and social networks want it to be. In fintech, for example, a picosecond – one-trillionth of a second – of latency will not cut it, even in today’s data-hungry world.

If you’ve lived the last 30 or so years, your lives have been defined by advances in networking. You’ve gone from rotary and push button phones to the smartphone currently in your pocket; from 56k dial-up modems to broadband-enabled Wi-Fi to the invasion of machines into your home, thanks to the internet of things (IoT) revolution.

The next 30 or so years will be just as revolutionary.

But there is a problem: physics.

Will 5G really be the next generation of networks?

The future of networks

Nokia CTO and Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon believes we are about to run out of radio space unless we develop a whole new dimension. Image: Connor McKenna

Marcus Weldon, CTO of Nokia and president of Bell Labs, outlined this to me two years ago when we met at the venerable Bell Labs R&D hub in New Jersey.

He had set a challenge for his R&D teams to boost networks as we know them by 10X in the next few years, just to keep up with people and machines.

‘The final frontier of radio is we need to go to shorter distances for fewer users’

“We put that number out there (10X) because we actually need 100 times more radio capacity. We say that because it’s an easy round number but in fact, the better statement is we need to build a network that has seemingly infinite capacity.”

He added: “We have only one dimension left to do this in and that is down to space. The final frontier of radio is we need to go to shorter distances for fewer users, which means creating small, indoor cells. Otherwise, in terms of wireless, we are going to run out of dimensions again.”

It is a race against time and space. Almost three-quarters of the world’s population will be connected to a mobile network by 2020, according to the GSM Association. It calculates that there were 4.7bn unique mobile subscribers worldwide at the end of 2015, which is 63pc of the world’s population. That is some milestone when you consider most people did not own, or could afford to own, a mobile device 30 years ago.

Already, regulators are holding up their hands and admitting they didn’t foresee the capacity issues. Recently, in Ireland, the communications regulator ComReg published its radio spectrum management strategy and conceded that when the last strategy was published in 2011, the true impact of the smartphone could not have been foreseen.

Back then, 4G license auctions presented windfalls for governments around the world, and former TV spectrum in the 800MHz range was re-farmed to let teenagers today enjoy unbridled access to Instagram, Netflix and Snapchat. But as Ireland’s telecoms regulator Gerry Fahy has pointed out, we will need to prepare for 200pc more wireless capacity in the next two to three years, as further spectrum bands such as 700MHz, 1.4GHz, 2.3GHz and 2.6GHz are released to support demand.

This brings us on to the next sacred cow: 5G. Already, marketers at various telecoms and tech companies are salivating at the prospect of new campaigns around 5G. But they are missing a core point: unlike 2G, 3G and 4G before it, which were all about incremental increases in speeds, 5G will not be about speed. Instead, it will be a collection of standards around the management of data and cells.

3G, which is now a 14-year-old technology, still has a shelf life and networks will still be trying to eke value out of 4G for the next decade.

But that hasn’t stopped people getting slightly ahead of themselves. The EU is looking for a complete overhaul of the union’s telecoms rules, to include setting a minimum requirement of 100Mbps in every household and a 5G minimum connectivity of urban centres by 2025.

Such targets will require massive investment, the EU admitted, putting an estimated cost of €500bn on achieving its targets – an investment that will come largely from private sources.

Recently, some of the world’s biggest telecoms and automotive companies agreed to join the 5G Automotive Association, to integrate 5G technology into future connected and autonomous vehicles. The new association includes AUDI, BMW and Daimler from the automotive side; and Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia and Qualcomm from the telecoms industry.

People are imagining 5G will represent a step change in speeds. It won’t. It will be a step change in network intelligence.

Aileen Smith Huawei

Huawei’s head of ecosystem development, Aileen Smith.

‘The first advantage of 5G will be increased bandwidth because the network world is running out of bandwidth fast and is striving to find bigger pipes’

In reality, 5G will be a collection of standards and will incorporate a variety of existing 2G, 3G and 4G signals. It will be combined with other forms of connectivity, including Wi-Fi, and new, emerging IoT networks, including Sigfox and Narrowband-IoT. 5G will need to accommodate a world where instead of base stations being every few miles or even 500 metres apart, there could be clusters of smaller, low-power, low-latency base stations that could be just 50 metres apart.

The intelligence will be in the network. Think of it as having the power to optimise your smartphone in favour of your Whatsapp communications today; of setting the priority on your home IoT network to security/safety/priority when the Super Bowl is on; to tune all devices to get you the best bandwidth and quality for video.

The intelligent network switching power of 5G could also represent a chance for telecoms companies to wrest back the control taken by over the air (OTT) players like Facebook and WhatsApp, who have decimated SMS as a revenue path for telcos. Facebook is already crowing about the death of the phone number.

“The service providers are working through a transition from being hardware centric to virtualising their networks and hardware is starting to become a commodity,” said Huawei’s head of ecosystem development, Aileen Smith.

According to Smith, the promise of 5G will be in the software.

“The first advantage of 5G will be increased bandwidth because the network world is running out of bandwidth fast and is striving to find bigger pipes.

“Another critical promise of 5G will be less latency. If you have 5G networks with lower latency and you have self-driving, autonomous vehicles travelling at high speed, then low-latency becomes very important, especially if it is the network telling the car to brake.”

A light bulb moment that could change everything

In universities across the world, researchers and scientists are working hard to overcome the physics challenge and deliver network innovations that most humans could not even imagine.

Companies like Apple and Google are understood to be taking an active interest in a technology called Li-Fi, which uses LED light bulbs to pulse and transmit data at 100 times the speed of Wi-Fi.

‘If you think of today’s networks as a road with one lane, imagine how much data would flow if it was expanded into a highway with 1,000 lanes’

Li-Fi could be a potential solution to the struggle Wi-Fi is going to have in transporting its share of the 35 quintillion bytes of information each month that will be in the world by 2019, according to the World Economic Forum.

One of the pioneers of Li-Fi is Harald Haas, who originated the technology in 2011. He currently holds the chair of mobile communications at the University of Edinburgh and is co-founder and chief scientific officer of PureLiFi Ltd, as well as the director of the LiFi Research and Development Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

Speaking with, Haas explained: “Essentially, we are using LED light bulbs to transmit data wirelessly to a mobile handset at very high speeds.

“We have shown 10Gbps and we have also shown in the lab that in the near future we can scale it up to 100Gbps.”

Haas, traditionally a radio engineer, surprised colleagues 13 years ago when he started focusing at another dimension of the electromagnetic spectrum: light.

“Unlike radio, which is limited between zero and 300Ghz, the visible light spectrum can go up to 300 THz, which is 1,000 times more bandwidth compared to the radio spectrum.

“If you think of today’s networks as a road with one lane, imagine how much data would flow if it was expanded into a highway with 1,000 lanes.”

The idea behind Li-Fi is that LED light bulbs will intelligently transmit data to phones with the right sensors, even in low light. As people move from room to room, Li-Fi-enabled LED bulbs would send the data after them. Cars equipped with Li-Fi LED bulbs, for example, could transmit spatial and diagnostic data as they pass each other on the road.

While what Haas is proposing sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, the idea is gaining ground. In July this year, his company PureLiFi raised over £7m in Series B funding from Singapore’s state-owned investment firm, Temasek.

Not only that, but the new 3,500 square metre Sogeprom office – located in the commercial La Défense area of Paris – is set to become the first major workplace in the world using high-bandwidth, bi-directional Li-Fi to provide internet access. It will provide the technology and French manufacturer Lucibel will supply the LED luminaires for the ambitious installation at the headquarters of Sogeprom, the property arm of French bank Société Générale.

Haas, who sparked the imagination of the world with a famous TED talk on the potential of Li-Fi in 2011, predicts that it could be could be ubiquitous in the next 10 years.

He told “It took Wi-Fi 14 or 15 years to become ubiquitous.

“If you give us another 10 years, I am pretty sure that Li-Fi will be everywhere, in every home appliance that has an LED light, which will allow every home appliance to connect to the internet. It will enable true IoT because, theoretically, you could have IoT in every lightbulb on every street, every home, every vehicle. Every street lamp could be a 5G access point, even in daytime in direct sunlight.”

Fibre will underpin everything about the future of networks

The future of networks

UCC graduate and PhD researcher at the Tyndall Institute in Cork, Niamh Kavanagh, is working on hollow glass fibre that will make light travel even faster down fibre networks. Image: Tyndall

If Haas’s vision to provide connectivity at speeds that are 1,000 times greater than Wi-Fi today is to become a reality, then the broadband networks underpinning each bulb will have to keep up.

Every digital experience we take for granted, from a Whatsapp message to a voice call on your landline, involves fibre. Every bank transaction, every email, involves a pulse of data flitting from your device, flying over the air to base stations, hurtling down fibre pipes, bouncing off servers in data centres, and succeeding in arriving in a nanosecond on the other side of the world, or indeed, the room you are standing in.

‘At present, light travels along fibre at 70pc of full speed, it’s akin to trying to jog through water. But when travelling through hollow air, that speed increases to 99.7pc’

But fibre isn’t perfect and just like with wireless spectrum, it has physical capacity issues too.

In countries like Ireland, we stand on the cusp of the fibre to the home (FTTH) era; this is only the beginning. And while fibre is being heralded as a silver bullet that will future-proof communications for the next century, even that will run into problems.

But have no fear, because in Cork at the Tyndall Institute, Niamh Kavanagh, a UCC PhD researcher funded by the Irish Research Council, is one of many researchers focusing on the future of fibre and photonics.

This year, Kavanagh gave a talk at FameLab, an international science communications event, as well as the Cheltenham Science Festival on the subject of hollow fibre that will transform speeds over fibre.

The thrust of Kavanagh’s argument is that in the future, complex surgeries could be carried out using robots operated by skilled surgeons on the other side of the world. This will require fibre networks of the highest speed quality; any network judder, even for a picosecond, could be life-threatening.

“At the moment in optical communications, digital information travels along optical fibres, and the one thing people aren’t aware of is that they are using optical fibre links all the time, even when talking on their smartphone.

“Currently, the fibres are made of solid glass that is the thickness of a human hair. The laser of information travels down the fibre bouncing off the wall and we can encode that light with information – similar to Morse code – or we can tune it by sending different wavelengths using different colours.

“That is where we are at today and photonics is all about finding different ways to maximise the use of bandwidth using different wavelengths,” she told

The problem, Kavanagh warns, is that we are reaching the maximum bandwidth capabilities for the fibre we have at the moment.

“One solution would be to increase the amount of power we are using to send signals but the danger is [that] that can corrupt the information being transmitted.”

At Tyndall, Kavanagh and her colleagues are working on creating new kinds of fibre cables that are hollow rather than solid glass.

“This would be structured similar to a drinking straw, where the glass surrounds the hollow core, and that’s where the light travels through the air, rather than through a fog of glass.

“This reduced interaction of light with the material means you can send much higher amounts of power too. At present, light travels along fibre at 70pc of full speed, it’s akin to trying to jog through water.

“But when travelling through hollow air, that speed increases to 99.7pc. One of the biggest industries interested in this type of fibre is the financial markets, particularly the stock markets of London and New York,” Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh agrees with Haas that it is a race against time. “Fibre to the premises is happening and we need to stay a few steps ahead of the demand. The way networks are structured at the moment, they don’t scale upwards very easily. We have groups here at Tyndall who are looking five to 10 years down the line and are designing the network architectures and infrastructure to be simpler and more upwardly scalable so we continue to expand into the future.

“Technologies like Li-Fi can have such amazing benefits, but at the end of the day the data still needs to go through the fibre optic link so the battle is staying a few steps ahead,” said Kavanagh.

Her vision of fibre being core to telesurgery of the future is already a reality. “They did a surgical operation between France and America in 2001 called Operation Lindbergh. There are surgeons in Canada and the US who regularly operate over distances of 400km. Robotic surgeons are becoming more and more commonplace and at Cork University Maternity Hospital, for example, we have a robot called Da Vinci that is used for gynaecological operations with the surgeon just a few metres away. But if we want to make robotic surgery a reality across our planet, low latency fibre is the key.”

The wireless world beckons

The future of networks

Dr Ronan Farrell, head of RadioSpace and the SFI CONNECT Centre at Maynooth University. He believes 5G will not arrive as fast or as easily as people think.

Because fibre will underpin everything that is transmitted (even wirelessly) to the human eye in the coming years, the days of messing with cables to connect devices like TVs and computers to networks will come to an end.

This is already happening thanks to Wi-Fi and 4G but it is going to become even more profound. New spectrum ranges will be unlocked to accommodate 5G-related technologies, and a mysterious new wireless technology called E-band, a former NATO radio spectrum between 71GHz and 95GHz.

‘If you really want to get to a point where 1Gbps to the phone is the reality or the reality between TVs, computers and other systems, then that technology is going to be E-band’

“5G is mainly a branding term and it is going to have five physical challenges,” explained Dr Ronan Farrell from the SFI CONNECT Centre based at Maynooth University. “The first challenge is latency, then there is throughput, connectivity, mobility and density.

“Latency is the term for when you ask for data and how fast you can get it back. At the moment, it is in the tens or hundreds of milliseconds range, which is faster than you or I can observe from a human perception perspective. But you will need data to travel much, much faster if we are talking about self-driving cars. If artificial intelligence in the cloud is going to be in our lives, then you will need extremely low latency links.

“None of the existing telecoms systems will do that. If you really want to get to a point where 1Gbps to the phone is the reality or the reality between TVs, computers and other systems, then that technology is going to be E-band.”

As part of the CONNECT national research centre for telecommunications, Maynooth University is to be the site of a new national radio test facility with aims of developing devices for 5G connectivity and the IoT.

The centre, to be known as RadioSpace, will provide a large-scale, interference-free facility that will allow scientists and engineers from industry and universities to develop new 5G communications technology.

Farrell, who is leading RadioSpace, said that 5G could be further off than people believe. “It is very far from deployment and I believe 4G will play a role for some time. What needs to happen is more and more cells with smaller and more numerous base stations. And who is going to pay for that?

“I think it is telling that Google is putting Google Fiber’s expansion on hold because the profit margins aren’t there and the infrastructure is expensive. European telcos are seeing roaming charges being removed and SMS is being killed by WhatsApp. One of the headline claims is that 5G will deliver 1Gbps to your phone, but it could be 10 years before we see the rollout of such networks.

“My prediction is that 5G, which will constitute many different technologies and standards, may not happen the same way as 3G and 4G.

“What we are seeing instead is an unbelievably rapid advance in E-band technologies, which can deliver 1Gbps to 2Gbps in short range links. This will be critical to the future of self-driving cars because it will enable car radar, for example. Samsung has demonstrated 1Gbps E-band speeds over 100-metre ranges. The mobile operators are taking interest and fibre backhaul will be the key to everything.”

In conclusion, Farrell said that research teams at Maynooth University’s RadioSpace are exploring E-band and other ways that the IoT can flourish, even using satellite.

He predicted that the future of networks will be a world without wires, where small hospitals and digital homes will have equipment connected using either E-band, 5G or other new wireless standards.

Underpinning all of this, he said, will be fibre.

“We are entering the fibre to the premises world. We have spent most of our lives carrying mobiles. And now, our homes will be invaded by the IoT.

“5G or E-band or whatever comes next will happen in the next 10 years.

“But prepare to be surprised. Some homes today can get 60Mbps broadband. 15 years ago that was the total bandwidth into the country. Our expectations keep changing.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years