Yesterday Ericsson released its annual Traffic and Market report, which is based on the company’s internal mobile traffic growth modeling exercises as well as data collected from external sources. Not surprisingly, Ericsson’s report finds that mobile subscriptions, and thus, mobile traffic – particularly mobile data – will be going hog wild over the next five years.
While there might be some room to disagree over the particulars of the numbers – for example, will 85% of the globe really have 3G coverage in five years, or is that number somewhat less – there should be little dispute that mobile traffic growth will be explosive, and it will create acute technological challenges for network operators.
Ultimately, these technological challenges will fall to equipment vendors like Ericsson and its peers to solve. Ulf Ewaldsson, CTO at Ericsson spoke with RCR Wireless News about some of the challenges that operators will face as networks must scale to handle the amount of traffic growth predicted in the report. Broadly, the challenges discussed fell into three overarching categories:
- Technological enablers of small cells
- M2M communications
Below is a summary, and then the edited transcript of RCR Wireless News’ interview with Ericsson’s chief technologist.
As 3G and, ultimately, LTE become ubiquitous, the elephant in the room that everyone is looking at is spectrum. While Ewaldsson spoke to some of the regulatory issues associated with spectrum scarcity, from a technological perspective finding ways to utilize additional spectrum bands beyond the “beach front property” that network operators are eagerly snapping up, as well as better utilizing MIMO technologies will be key:
By now, it is no secret that small cell architectures are going to be necessary in order to provide the combination of coverage and capacity needed to enable pervasive mobile broadband. Typically, however, small cell discussions focus on hardware – DAS architectures, Wi-Fi, femtos – rather than the sophisticated resource scheduling software that will really be the glue that holds a small cell architecture together:
Anyone that has followed Ericsson for any amount of time knows the vendor’s “50 billion connections” mantra. Of course, the majority of these connections will consist of machines talking to each other. Given this, a key question becomes whether or not there will be a need to look at M2M traffic growth differently mobile handset traffic growth from a technology development perspective.
The full extent of the interview was much more broad ranging and covered a variety of topics in depth including the use of MIMO, deployment challenges that are leading operators to deploy active antenna solutions, and additional details on the role of M2M in the mobile traffic growth. Below is the transcript of the interview.
RCR Wireless News: What technology advancements still need to happen to help operators realize the prediction of providing 3G coverage for 85% of the world’s population by 2017?
Ulf Ewaldsson: We have already made tremendous progress with HSPA. But, the advancements that you should be looking out for would be whether operators will be using MIMO to build-out HSPA networks. We are now getting requests to do this. The kinds of technologies that we are using to make this happen has to do with integrating the radio into the antenna, which of course is [Ericsson's] AIR product. These units are being used in the U.S. market this year, and we are going to see more of that because of the difficulty in climbing towers and the skilled labor requirements associated with that.
RCRWN: What technology advances in spectrum usage need to take place to handle the anticipated 15-times increase in data traffic by 2017?
Ewaldsson: We do a lot of activities with governments all over the world to lobby and inform them about why it is so important to allocate spectrum for our industry. We have done a lot of research that shows that if you add spectrum it has a direct effect on economic growth. Adding mobile broadband usage will have a good impact on job growth. So, I think there is a growing recognition by governments world wide that more spectrum has to be allocated.
From a technology perspective, while operators are eager, to say the least, to use the lower bands for in-building coverage, eventually we’re going to have to go higher up in the spectrum band; we can’t find all of the necessary spectrum in the lower frequency bands. There are also advances being made, obviously, with LTE being more spectrally efficient. Also, with MIMO and LTE-advanced we will get better spectrum usage. And, we are pushing as hard as we can with LTE-advanced already in the standards bodies.
RCRWN: What are the technology advancements that will make indoor and outdoor coverage better suited to small cells?
Ewaldsson: The key to understanding small cells is really about software. Most folks are talking about the hardware with respect to small cells. But, it is actually the coordination of the small cells that produces the capacity gains. If you don’t coordinate them, you will actually pollute the spectrum and destroy capacity rather than add it. This is something that is in the standards. Now it is important that the implementation be handled properly because the network is becoming much more intelligent towards how it is using the radio resources with respect to the different devices that may be roaming around in that area. This is why we use the term “Heterogeneous Network” because it means that it can use different resources to handle individual users depending on what that user is doing or how fast they are moving, etc.
RCR: Are there challenges with respect to M2M that the market is not necessarily talking enough about right now that operators are going to have to deal with as M2M becomes more ubiquitous?
Ewaldsson: Yes, a lot. M2M means that very different things will communicate over the network. Much more so than mobile phones because even though smart phones are much more sophisticated, they still behave quite similar. Now, the applications are much different in the way that they behave, and that creates complexity. But, when it comes to machine-to-machine then that will be an even more advanced situation. For example, it means that a video camera will behave differently than a car sensor that is using an LTE network. Now, if we’re going to coordinate the entire morning rush hour coming in on the San Francisco highways, say 10 years from now, we’ll have to work with latency, the performance of the network, and the intelligence of the network. This is where IP becomes very important in making the networks more ‘clever’ in coordinating what is happening in the packet transport networks with what is happening in the radio access networks. This is where Ericsson’s fourth-generation investments become a differentiator.