Availability of a ubiquitous high capacity radio that can provide sharing of data anywhere and anytime for anyone and anything is one of five key technology trends for the future listed by Ericsson’s CTO Erik Ekudden. In other words, wireless access is no longer just for people. In fact, wireless access will provide connectivity for any kind of device that may benefit from being connected. It should also be available anywhere, in the office, at home, on the street, in the forest…the list is almost endless.
But, what are the key technology components for this future always-available radio access? What new technology in wireless communication is required for the growth of ubiquitous radio? And what are the underlying trends driving these changes?
There is wide range of new requirements on the wireless system in terms of, for example, being able to provide very low latency and extreme reliability, enabling very low-cost devices with extremely long battery life, and supporting extreme coverage enabling connectivity at the most distant locations.
Clearly, within the radio-access part of the overall wireless-access system, this path towards a truly ubiquitous radio access has already started with the evolution of 4G/LTE as well as with the new 3GPP 5G/NR radio-access technology recently being finalized. At the same time, the ever-ongoing hunger for higher data rates and the need to support higher traffic volumes will continue.
New technology trends
Spectrum is obviously the air and blood of wireless communication and we have been continuously expanding wireless communication to higher frequency bands. With the introduction of 5G/NR, we took the first step into the millimeter wave spectrum with NR initially supporting operation up to around 50 GHz with expansion to around 100 GHz already being studied within 3GPP.
However, there are also discussions, especially within academia, about going much further, up to several 100 GHz and even into THz spectrum. However, before making too detailed conclusions of the usability and use cases for such extreme spectrum ranges, one should wait for more extensive live-system data and experience that will soon be made available from the commercial mmwave networks currently being deployed.
Within a few years we will have tremendous amounts of data and experience from these networks that will be very valuable when trying to understand the usability and use cases for even higher-frequency operation.
Ekudden also highlights how, in the future, the wireless access system will expand into new topologies beyond the classical “a device communicating with a base station” structure that has been assumed since the dawn of mobile communication. This has partly already started, for example with the 3GPP work on integrated access backhaul (IAB).
With IAB, the 5G radio technology is not only used for the final step of communicating with mobile devices but also for the backhaul links between network nodes. In all practical senses, this creates a multi-hop wireless system where wirelessly delivered data jumps between network nodes to its final destination.
But, as Ekudden points out, one should also include the devices as an integrated part of the wireless access system and not only as sources or destinations for data. Devices can be used to forward data to or from other devices that are outside of the direct network coverage. Further improvements can be achieved by having devices directly cooperate in the transmission and/or reception of data by turning a set of physical devices into a distributed multi-antenna virtual device.
Historically, the argument against such device cooperation has been that the device user/owner will not accept that his or her device battery runs out due to the device assisting in the delivery of the data of someone else. However, in the future IoT world there will be large groups of devices belonging to the “the same user”, making it easier to argue that such devices should cooperate, resulting in benefits for all.
Ekudden also brings up the use of advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence for the deployment and management of future wireless access systems. There is today, undoubtedly, a hype surrounding artificial intelligence and machine learning. Everyone wants to know what impact these technologies will have in wireless communication.
Read Ericsson CTO Erik Ekudden’s Technology Review article, Five technology trends augmenting the connected society, to learn more.
Pesonal reflections on new tech in wireless communication
I think there is much to gain from considering these technologies as part of the wireless access solutions. Although there are very many definitions of the terms artificial intelligence and machine learning, I think that, in practice, it is very much about being able to predict the output or behavior of a system without having access to a detailed accurate model for the system in question. This is then enabled by the availability of a large amount of data on which to train the system.
This scenario is a common problem encountered in wireless access systems. The complexity of the system often makes it very difficult in practice, even impossible, to establish in accurate detailed system mode.
At the same time, a huge amount of data can be made available from infra-structure and devices. Thus, advanced machine learning and artificial-intelligence technology is clearly of very high interest.
Initially AI and ML will be used to address specific problems, including for example, network planning and node selection. However, in a longer-term perspective we may see the emergence of a truly natively machine-learning wireless access technology where all relevant data of the system is exposed to the machine-learning algorithms which, in turn, can be used in all parts of the system. I think that is a really exciting vision, and a puzzle, for the future.