There are certain fundamental limitations when it comes to current wireless communications. Mostly it comes down to the bandwidth of the frequencies used as more devices come online the more congested they become. Simply changing frequencies isn’t enough to solve the problem however, especially when it comes to technology that’s as ubiquitous as wifi. This is what has driven many to look for alternative technologies, some looking to make the interference work for us whilst others are looking at doing away with radio frequencies entirely. Li-Fi is a proposed technology that uses light instead of RF to transmit data and, whilst it posits speeds up to 100 times faster than conventional wifi, I doubt it will ever become the wireless communication technology of choice.
Li-Fi utilizes standard light bulbs that are switched on and off in nanoseconds, too fast for the human eye to perceive any change in the output of the light. Whilst the lights need to remain in an on state in order to transmit data they are apparently able to still transmit when the light level is below that which the human eye can perceive. A direct line of sight isn’t required for the technology to work either as light reflected off walls was still able to produce a usable, albeit significantly reduced, data signal. The first commercial products were demonstrated sometime last year so the technology isn’t just a nice theory.
However such technology is severely limited by numerous factors. The biggest limitation is the fact that it can’t work without near or direct line of sight between the sender and receiver which means that a transmitter is required in every discrete room that you want to use your receiver in. This also means that whatever is feeding data into those transmitters, like say a cabled connection, also need to be present. Compared to a wifi endpoint, which usually just needs to be placed in a central location to work, this is a rather heavy requirement to satisfy.
Worse still this technology cannot work outside due to sunlight overpowering the signal. This likely also means that any indoor implementation would suffer greatly if there was sunlight entering the room. Thus the idea that Li-Fi would be 100 times faster than conventional wifi is likely just laboratory numbers and not representative of the real world performance.
The primary driver for technologies like these is convenience, something which Li-Fi simply can’t provide given its current limitations. Setting up a Li-Fi system won’t be as easy as screwing in a few new light bulbs, it will likely require some heavy investment in either cabling infrastructure or ethernet-over-power systems to support them. Compare this to any wifi endpoint which just needs one data connection to cover a large area (which can be set up in minutes) and I’m not sure customers will care how fast Li-Fi can be, especially if they also have to buy a new smartphone to use it.
I’m sure there will be some niche applications of this technology but past that I can’t really see it catching on. Faster speeds are always great but they’re all for naught if the limitations on their use are as severe as they are with Li-Fi. Realistically you can get pretty much the same effect with a wired connection and even then the most limiting factor is likely your Internet connection, not your interconnect. Of course I’m always open to being proved wrong on this but honestly I can’t see it happening.
I’m not exactly a corporate jet setter (although the past couple months would attest otherwise) but I’ve see the inside of a plane enough times to know the law of the land. For me I spend the majority of my time buried in a book, right now its the Wheel of Time series, as I don’t really get a chance to read for pleasure at any other time. For long haul flights I’ll usually have my laptop in tow as well although lately I’ve left that in the checked baggage, mostly because the in flight entertainment systems have gotten a lot better. Still I’ve had the pleasure of being on some flights that offer in flight wireless and whilst its usability was on the low side it was an apt demonstration of how far aviation technology has come, and where it was heading.
Rewind back a decade or so and the idea of allowing radio transmitting devices to operate on flights was akin to wanting to make the plane crash. The stance of the various aviation bodies was easy to understand however: they were simply unable to test all of the available transmitting devices with their aircraft to ensure that no interference was possible and thus had to ban them all outright. Their relenting on wireless networking was due in a large part to the rigorous specifications of 802.11a/g/n which include transmission power limits as well as their frequencies being well outside of any that aircraft use for necessary functions. Of course not every device strictly adheres to it but there’s little to be gained from juicing up the power levels on your wireless, especially if it’s running on a battery.
However the use of these systems is usually restricted to after take off through until the plane is making its final approaches for landing. Whilst I’ve heard a lot of people say that this was due to the interference I thought the reasoning was far more simple, it was to keep you aware during the most risky points of flight: take off and landing. Of course my theory falls apart in the face of reality as I’ve not once been told to put my book away during these times, even when they’re doing the safety demonstration, but have been told on numerous occasions that my laptop should be put away until I’m told it’s allowed again.
Recent announcements from the Federal Aviation Authority in the USA however show that the rules against electronic devices are slowly being changed to allow more broad use cases with them now allowing use of electronic devices during take off and landing. They’re still limiting the use of wireless to the in flight system (although whether the 10,000ft restriction is still in effect isn’t something I could ascertain) and about and the outright band on all other transmission devices remains in effect. It might surprise you to find out that I actually agree with the latter restriction but not for the sake of the airlines however, it’s for those poor cell towers.
You see when you’re on the ground your mobile phone has a finite transmission range that’s limited primarily by the numerous things that get in the signals way as it travels from the cell tower to you. As a consequence of this you’re likely only ever hitting a handful of different towers, something which they deal with easily through hand-offs between each other. However when you’re in a plane those obstructions are no longer in your way and suddenly you’re effectively able to hit dozens of towers all at the same time. This, in effect, is like a small denial of service attack and they’re simply not designed to handle it. The best way to combat this would be to use some form of picocell on the plane itself, something which I had heard was in development a long time ago but can’t find any links to support now. Still for the short term this is unlikely to change unless the telecommunications companies think its worth their while to support it and the FAA agrees to change the rules.
Personally though I’m far more interested in technology that makes those in flight wireless systems more usuable like the new Ground to Orbit systems that GoGo wireless has been testing. Whilst the current 10Mbps of bandwidth might be enough for the odd Tweet or Facebook post it’s rarely usable for anything else, especially when there’s a few people online at the same time. Of course some also take solace in the fact that they’re incommunicado for the duration of the flight, something which I don’t quite mind myself.
I remember getting my first ever phone with a data plan. It was 3 years ago and I remember looking through nearly every carrier’s offerings to see where I could get the best deal. I wasn’t going to get a contract since I change my phone at least once a year (thank you FBT exemption) and I was going to buy the handset outright, so many of the bundle deals going at the time weren’t available to me. I eventually settled on 3 mobile as they had the best of both worlds in terms of plan cost and data, totaling a mere $40/month for $150 worth of calls and 1GB of data. Still when I was talking to them about how the usage was calculated I seemed to hit a nerve over certain use cases.
Now I’m not a big user of mobile data despite my daily consumption of web services on my mobile devices, usually averaging about 200MB/month. Still there have been times that I’ve really needed the extra capacity like when I’m away and need an Internet connection for my laptop. Of course tethering the two devices together doesn’t take much effort at all, my first phone only needed a driver for it to work, and as far as I could tell the requests would look like they were coming directly from my phone. However the sales representatives told me in no uncertain terms that I’d have to get a separate data plan if I wanted to tether my handset or if I dared to plug my sim card into a 3G modem.
Of course upon testing these restrictions I found them to be patently false.
Now it could’ve just been misinformed sales people who got mixed up when I told them what I was planning to do with my new data enabled phone but the idea that tethered Internet usage is somehow different to normal Internet usage wasn’t a new idea to me. In the USA pretty much every carrier will charge you a premium on top of whatever plan you’ve got if you want to tether it to another device, usually providing a special application that enables the functionality. Of course this has spurred people to develop applications that circumvent these restrictions on all the major smart phone platforms (iOS users will have to jailbreak unfortunately) and the carriers aren’t able to tell the difference. But that hasn’t stopped them from taking action against those who would thwart their juicy revenue streams.
Most recently it seems that the carriers have been putting pressure on Google to remove tethering applications from the Android app store:
It seems a few American carriers have started working with Google to disable access to tethering apps in the Android Market in recent weeks, ostensibly because they make it easier for users to circumvent the official tethering capabilities offered on many recent smartphones — capabilities that carry a plan surcharge. Sure, it’s a shame that they’re doing it, but from Verizon’s perspective, it’s all about protecting revenue — business as usual. It’s Google’s role in this soap opera that’s a cause for greater concern.
Whilst this is another unfortunate sign that no matter how hard Google tries to be “open” it will still be at the mercy of the carriers their banning of tethering apps sets a worrying precedent for carriers looking to control the Android platform. Sure they already had a pretty good level of control over it since they all release their own custom versions of Android for handsets on their network but now they’re also exerting pressure over the one part that was ostensibly never meant to be influenced by them. I can understand that they’re just trying to protect their bottom line but the question has to be asked: is tethering really that much of a big deal for them?
It could be that my view is skewed by the Australian way of doing things, where data caps are the norm and the term “unlimited” is either a scam or at dial-up level speeds. Still from what I’ve seen of the USA market many wireless data plans come with caps anyway so the bandwidth argument is out the window. Tethering to a device requires no intervention from the carrier and there are free applications available on nearly every platform that provide the required functionality. In essence the carriers are charging you for a feature that should be free and are now strong-arming Google into protecting their bottom lines.
I’m thankful that this isn’t the norm here in Australia yet but we have an unhealthy habit of imitating our friends in the USA so you can see why this kind of behavior concerns me. Since I’m also a firm believer in the idea that once I’ve bought the hardware its mine to do with as I please and tethering falls under that realm. Tethering is one of those things that really shouldn’t be an issue and Google capitulating to the carriers just shows how difficult it is to operate in the mobile space, especially if you’re striving to make it as open as you possibly can.
So I’m sold on the tablet idea. After resisting it since Apple started popularizing it with the iPad I’ve finally started to find myself thinking about numerous use cases where a tablet would be far more appropriate than my current solutions. Most recently it was after turning off my main PC and sitting down to watch some TV shows, realizing that I had forgotten to set up some required downloads before doing so. Sure I could do them using the diNovo Mini keyboard but it’s not really designed for more than logging in and typing in the occasional web address. Thinking that I’d either now have to power my PC or laptop on I lamented that I didn’t have a tablet that I could RDP into the box with and set up the downloads whilst lazing on the couch. Thankfully it looks like my tablet of choice, a wifi only Xoom, can be shipped to Australia via Amazon so I’ll be ordering one of them very soon.
Initially I thought I’d go for one of the top of the line models with all the bells and whistles, most notably a 3G/4G connection. That was mostly just for geek cred since whenever I’m buying gadgets I like to get the best that’s on offer at the time (as long as the price isn’t completely ludicrous). After a while though I started to have a think about my particular use patterns and I struggled to find a time where I’d want to use a tablet and be bereft of a WiFi connection, either through an access point or tethered to my phone. There’s also the consideration of price with all non-cellular tablets is usually quite a bit cheaper, on the order of $200 with the Xoom. It then got me thinking, what exactly is the use case for a tablet with a cellular connection?
The scenarios I picture go something along these lines. You’re out and about, somewhere that has mobile phone reception, but you don’t have your phone on you (or one not capable of tethering) and you’re no where near a WiFi access point. Now the possibility of having mobile phone reception but no WiFi is a pretty common event, especially here in Australia, but the other side to that potential situation is you either can’t tether to your mobile phone because its not capable or you don’t have it on you. Couple that with the fact that you’re going to have to pay for yet another data plan just for your new tablet then you’ve really lost me as to why you’d bother with a tablet that has cellular connectivity.
If your reason for getting cellular connectivity is that you want to use it when you don’t have access to a WiFi hard point then I could only recommend it if you have a phone that can’t tether to other devices (although I’d struggle to find one today, heck even my RAZR was able to do it). However, if I may make a sweeping statement, I’d assume that since you’ve bought a tablet you already have a smart phone which is quite capable of tethering, even if the carrier charges you a little more for it (which is uncommon and usually cheaper than a separate data plan). The only real reason to have it is for when you have your tablet but not your phone, a situation I’d be hard pressed to find myself in and not be within range of an access point.
In fact most of the uses I can come up with for a tablet device actually require them to be on some kind of wireless network as they make a fitting interface device to my larger PCs with all the functions that could be done on cellular networks aptly covered off by a smartphone. Sure they might be more usable for quite a lot of activities but they’re quite a lot more cumbersome than something that can fit into my pocket and rarely do I find myself needing functionality above that of the phone but below that of a fully fledged PC. This is why I was initially skeptical of the tablet movement as the use cases were already aptly covered by current generation devices. It seems there’s quite a market for transitional devices however.
Still since nearly every manufacturer is making both cellular and wireless only tablets there’s got to be something to it, even if I can’t figure it out. There’s a lot to be said about the convenience factor and I’m sure a lot of people are willing to pay the extra just to make sure they can always use their device wherever they are but I, for one, can’t seem to get a grip on it. So I’ll put it out to the wisdom of the crowd: what are your use cases for a cellular enabled tablet?
Telstra was a brilliant example of why natural monopolies should never be put in the hands of private share holders. Whilst the situation has improved quite dramatically over the past decade thanks to strict regulation and enhanced competition we’re still suffering a few headaches of not jumping on the broadband bus earlier than we should have. Still though the Australian government is being no slouch when it comes to charging forward into the future with the National Broadband Network which, if fully implemented, will see Australia able to count themselves amongst the top tier of Internet enabled nations. Still with the high cost and long implementation timeline many are looking at alternatives that can provide similar benefits, and the first place they turn to is wireless.
Today the issue was brought into the spotlight again as Telstra announced their plans to do a nation wide rollout of 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) wireless broadband services. The comparisons to the NBN flowed thick and fast, with many questioning the benefits of having both:
Telstra will significantly upgrade its mobile network to take advantage of fast 4G technology that will allow users to obtain speeds similar to home broadband connections while on the go.
The announcement comes on the back of a government-commissioned report warning uptake to its $36 billion network could be stifled by wireless technologies.
Long time readers will know I’ve touched on this issue briefly in the past after having a few long conversations with fellow IT workers over the NBN. On a pure theoretical level 4G wins out simply because you get similar speeds without having to invest in a large scale fiber network and you get the speeds wherever you have coverage. The problem is whilst the 4G specification does make provisions for such high speeds there’s a lot of caveats around being able to deliver it at that level, and they’re not all just about signal strength.
Upgrading the current 3G network to support 4G is no small task in itself, requiring all towers to be upgraded with additional transceivers, antennas and supporting infrastructure. Whilst upgrading the towers themselves won’t be too difficult the real problem comes in when people start wanting to use this new connection to its fullest potential, attempting to get NBN speeds from their wireless broadband. This at the very least requires an infrastructure upgrade on the scale of Fiber to the Node (FTTN) as the bandwidth requirements will outstrip the current infrastructure if they are used as a replacement for the NBN. Most critics looking to replace the NBN with wireless neglect this fact and in the end not upgrading the backhauls from the towers means that whilst NBN speeds would be possible they’d never be realised in practice.
Wireless is also no replacement for fixed line as it is much harder to provide a guaranteed level of service, something businesses and government entities rely on. Sure many of the limitations can be worked around with good engineering but it will still lack the scalability of a fixed fiber solution that already has implementations in the multi-gigabit range. Wireless might make sense for some low use consumer products (I’d love to get my mobile videos faster) but the fact is that if you’re relying on your Internet connection for critical business functions you’re not going to be doing them over wireless. Heck I don’t think anyone in the 4G enabled parts of the USA is even attempting to do that.
In reality the NBN and Telstra’s 4G network shouldn’t really be seen as being in competition with each other, they’re really 2 completely different products. The NBN is providing the ground level infrastructure for an Internet revolution in Australia, something that will bring extremely high speed Internet access to the masses. 4G should be seen as an evolutionary step in the mobile sector, enabling much more rich Internet services to be delivered to our handsets whilst offering some of the capability of a fixed line when you’re on the go. The sooner everyone realizes this the better as playing them off each other is just a waste of time and won’t lead to anything positive for Australia as a nation.