50 billion connections?

The total number of mobile phones passed the 4 billion mark in December 2008; during 2009 the figure was increasing at more than a million each day. How long can this go on?

Marie Westrin believes the pace will continue to accelerate. “If we are talking about the number of connection, I believe we have only seen a cautious beginning,” she says. “In ten years perhaps there will be 50 or 60 billion.”

Westrin is not just talking about the world’s population being able to communicate with each other, but machines as well, appliances and products. 

“Everything is going to be online everywhere. Manufacturing costs are going to fall enormously. I have been working with GSM since it began. We have always had forecasts of faster and faster growth – and we have always been way below the real figures,” says Westrin.

One important factor is that there will be many different kinds of connections. Some will need only very little bandwidth, while others will need much more to transmit large quantities of data. Some will have varying needs so that sometimes they can send a lot of information and at other times not very much.

“We will have to differentiate connections according to need,” Westrin says. “Perhaps that will be the starting point for 5G.” From this perspective, GSM is likely to continue to be a suitable technology for many of the future connections.

Up until now, mobile communication has dealt largely with the radio interface – how signals travel between the mast and the phone. But the laws of physics pose obstacles if you want to raise the speed of radio transmissions. The coding algorithms set limits. And end users normally do not care about which route the radio signals take.


Westrin’s task at Ericsson is to ensure that the right things are developed and are ready at the right time, in the smartest – and most profitable – way possible. This, she says, requires the attitude of “the future is now”.

It is a question of staying ahead of the customers, but not getting too far ahead. “Then you cannot get paid for what you offer. About three to six months ahead is enough; a year ahead is too much.”

Short lead times – establishing the right flow – are the be-all and end-all. Then you can make decisions at the right time. And that gives you more time to gaze into your crystal ball.

The system expertise that Ericsson has accumulated helps greatly here. “This is something that’s ingrained. It’s not something you can place an order for. Over the years we have learned where and when different types of decisions should be made.”

The WiMAX and femtocell development processes are good examples. Both were similar. “We had a very small budget for the work on WiMAX, with only a few hundred people involved. We could not afford to set up an enormous organization. We were not able to give the products we created any kind of luxury finish.

“Thanks to the limited resources, we had to have short decision paths. We were working in a slimmed-down organization without unnecessary levels. We asked ourselves whether all the roles we had were really necessary. We set up reference groups from different parts of Ericsson with specialist expertise. And we organized separate small management groups, a whole chain where we could make decisions rapidly.”

These lessons were used for the work on the LTE.

Westrin feels that this method of working benefits from the Swedish habit of working as a team. “Everybody listens to everybody else and it can sometimes take time to reach agreement. But when everybody has the same view of the objective, the process moves quickly. And when you get to know each other in a team, the work tends to be allocated so that the right person is doing the right things.”

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn

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