Friday, June 19, 2015

The Wings of Mercury - Part 2

Hermes and Athena (c. 1585), Bartholomaeus Spranger (source:

And over all the sky — the sky! far, far out of reach,
studded, breaking out, the eternal stars. - Walt Whitman, "Bivouac on a Mountain Side"

In the first installment of this series back on May 23rd, we looked at the latest wired communications standards, what they potentially offer and the ramifications of their deployments. But Mercury, the Messenger of the Gods and patron of knowledge and trade, is most in his element when his winged sandals carry him across the blue reaches of the sky. In this installment, we will switch gears and focus on the wireless world, concluding with a discussion of some of the implications of these new communications technologies.

Bluetooth 4.2

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled. - Richard Feynman

The Bluetooth standard has been with us since the late 1990's and has an enormous market presence. BT dongles are pervasive in smartphone and desktop applications for peripherals such as keyboards, mice, headsets and others, along with native installations for game consoles, automotive electronics and industrial applications.

The BT specification operates in the 2.4GHz medical band and uses 40 channels, each separated by 2MHz out to 2.48GHz. It is a very flexible standard - up to 7 devices can be slaved to a master and run on the master clock, but the master/slave roles are transferable in most applications.

Though the standard was originally intended for non-line-of-sight short range transmissions with low data rates at very low power, it is extensible to greater distances. Connection experiments have been successful out to 1km, though data rates collapse and power consumption goes thru the roof. Typical applications are at ranges of less than 10m with power consumption in the low single digits of the mW range.

Bluetooth began to 'muscle up' with the release of the revision 3.0 in 2009, as the data transmission rate was increased to 24Mbps. OS support has become ubiquitous, with longstanding support by Apple's OSx, Windows and Linux.

IoT developers at first looked to BT 4.0 as a natural fit for their systems, but had their expectations dashed by a host of nagging problems. It was heavily promoted as "Bluetooth Smart" by the BT SIG and encompassed three protocols - a high speed one based on WiFi, a convention that provided legacy BT support and a "LE/Low Energy" profile. 

"Bluetooth Low Energy" became an endlessly repeated phrase in marketing hype for new BT products. The LE codicil proved to be anything but, however, as its power efficiency (in terms of power weighted by bit rate) was exceedingly disappointing. Other bitter experiences for designers included serious difficulties in supporting IPv6, bandwidth saturation in public spaces with heavy BT usage and the lack of effective P2P (peer to peer) transmission.

The latest revision (v4.2) has begun to ameliorate some of these problems, in particular the support for IPv6. Nevertheless, troublesome issues remain. The SIG had to abandon adoption of UWB, with all its bandwidth, channel and power efficiency advantages, when several WiMedia Alliance members refused to sign IP transfer agreements for their defunct organization. 

How the SIG will now address pressing bandwidth. power and channel issues is anyone's guess. It will pay to follow further BT developments very closely, as they will illuminate how the technical underpinnings and end user markets of the IoT are evolving.



Times of great calamity and confusion have been productive for the greatest minds. The purest ore is produced from the hottest furnace. The brightest thunder-bolt is elicited from the darkest storm. - Charles Caleb Colton

Mobile phone networks based on 4G are just starting to become widespread in the USA, so it seems a bit premature to already be talking about its successor. Nonetheless, mobile telephony has evolved along such lines, with standards evolution preceding system and network implementation by at least a decade. 

The requirements for 5G are almost nightmarish. User bandwidth and performance demands are expected to increase substantially, with consumers accessing a rising volume of HD multimedia bitstreams and migrating to progressively more sophisticated hardware platforms with enhanced multimedia features that continue to progressively blur the distinction between laptops, tablets and smartphones. 

Furthermore, as cars and homes get 'smart', users will use their portable processors (perhaps including certain wearables as well, such as head or wrist mounted devices) to manage home security systems, HVAC and lighting remotely and access all sorts of services while still in motion (thru their self-navigating automobile or even while biking or on foot), further expanding the load on LTE networks as user lives become ever more intertwined with/dependent on the internet.

Concurrently, the saturation of the mobile computing market means that service providers can no longer count on organic user growth to drive earnings. Competition has now become a zero sum game where rivals will have to steal market share from each other in order to increase revenue. In order to support heavier service requirements in a low or zero growth market under increasingly severe pricing pressure, the network providers will need 5G to be defined in such a manner as to help them flatten or even reduce their systems and administration costs.

The above market forces are driving a migraine-inducing wishlist of requirements:

- User bandwidth up to 10Gbps
- Millimeter wave networks out to 90GHz (which implies potential overlap with or outright incorporation of Wi-Fi)
- Layering the granularity of network nodes from widely spaced base station cell towers down to ubiquitous small-cell distribution and even ad-hoc networks where user hardware platforms (smartphones, tablets and such) can temporarily become part of a jury-rigged network
- More sophisticated MIMO antenna deployments to better separate users and channels
- Network virtualization for increased security, protection against physical infrastructure failure, greater efficiency thru better load distribution and even the sharing of spectrum and physical resources between competing service providers

One can quickly discern how the above list is self-contradictory, with cost and performance frequently at odds.

Some of the above might become a reality before the 5G specification is written in its final form. Qualcomm, for instance, is already working with a variety of service providers to turn smartphones into 'gypsy' basestations:

There are currently multiple research programs in the USA, Europe and the Far East involving governments, universities and corporations that are all attempting to define the salient features of 5G. Many have goaled themselves with delineating a specification for the standard that would allow deployments to begin by 2020. 

Frankly, I think that's a fantasy. The most we can realistically hope for is that the specification will be in a final form by then. But considering both the number and intensity of market forces driving it, we could see something arise from this boiling cauldron of requirements, organizations, priorities and proposed capabilities that is truly amazing.


The "Archimedes Screw" (source:

It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on. - Ursula K. Le Guin

Back in the late 70's, I was a hormone-fueled teenager growing up in northern New Jersey. While I behaved with the typical frantic exuberance and irrationality of a teen, I nevertheless had a studious side that exhibited itself in some odd ways. 

A television show which particularly enthralled me back in those days was a PBS program imported from England called "Connections." James Burke, a British citizen from Northern Ireland, narrated the series, which was essentially a study of the historical evolution of technology leading to the modern world. What was extraordinary about the program - other than the madcap enthusiasm and wonderful sense of humor of the presenter - was the perspective of the series on the history of science and invention. In particular, "Connections" demonstrated that the creation of devices or the discovery of scientific principles resulted in a distinctly non-linear wave of change over time whose repercussions were altogether unrelated to the initial motivation for developing the original instrument or theory. Stated differently, the long term societal changes stemming from innovation and invention do not progress in a steady and straightforward manner but are, in fact, quite abrupt and fractal.

Outlining and reviewing the evolutionary progress of standards for wired and wireless communication may seem quite mundane - interesting only to technophiles and driven by company executives with an immediate business priority to attract new customers and generate revenue growth. Yet one cannot fail to notice the extraordinary power implicit in harnessing today's information networks. 

Tyrannical regimes across the globe can only hold their oppressed citizenry in control by collectively keeping them in the dark and cutting off their access to the outside world thru the internet - something which only the regressive hermit kingdom of North Korea has had any real success in achieving. The internet, now available even over smartphones, is something that terrifies these autarchs. 

Even somewhat less noxious political authorities and other public, corporate, religious, media and social institutions are continually vexed by today's easy flow and rapid distribution of information. Someone with a smartphone can post a video and break a story so quickly that it can take cable news and national governments hours or even days to catch up. 

Communications technology has triggered a near infinity of cascading ramifications to social, political and economic spheres worldwide. Further improvements to communications in terms of data volumes, accessibility and cost will not provoke linear changes, but unpredictable ones of geometric amplitude. We can already see the potential of great change on the horizon from the IoT, Robotics and AI. Communications advances facilitate and energize all of that, as well as helping these technologies evolve in unforeseeable directions.

We are on the cusp of disruptive transformation of every aspect of the human experience - much more dramatically convulsing than the first industrial revolution in the 19th century. We won't be able to anticipate all of the transitions and variations, but understanding where technology is today and how it is evolving will help us understand the connections between "what is" and "what will be."

That is, in fact, why I write this blog and call it Vigil Futuri. ;-)

There are many, many other things in the technology sector that we still haven't covered, and I'll be getting to those during the rest of the year. VR, multimedia, security, virtualization, 'after silicon' materials & technologies, storage, enterprise software, supercomputing - the list is huge.

Let me know if there are other topics you'd like to see me cover, and thanks for taking an interest in my blog, folks.  :-)

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