The Mobile Internet Transformation - Towards 5G and Beyond
Dr. Ishwar Parulkar, Cisco Distinguished Engineer and Mobility CTO, Cisco India
The article was published in the Hindu Business Line
Wireless, mobile connectivity is rapidly overtaking wired, fixed connectivity that has dominated the Internet since its inception. According to the Cisco VNI Index, the number of mobile-connected devices will grow from 7 to 11 billion and mobile data traffic will grow 10-fold in the next 5 years. This tectonic shift towards mobility presents a unique opportunity to address the next phases of the development of the Internet with mobile devices, mobile platforms and mobile applications as centerpieces.
We have gone through generations of cellular technology since the advent of 1G in the 1980s. Roughly speaking, 1G enabled connectivity for voice and was based on analog technology. 2G still catered to voice, but with digital technology. 3G was designed for data on smartphones and 4G is targeted towards mobile broadband. Throughout this evolution, increasing speeds and efficient use of spectrum was the primary objective. However as we move towards 5G and beyond, the focus needs to shift from just speeding up the wireless interface to other aspects of the network, the most important of which are:
- densification via integration of access methods
- virtualization and cloud computing
- the internet of things, and
- content-centric networking
Densification of wireless networks aims at maximizing coverage and speed by using a combination of several approaches. Today’s cellular base stations on towers that cover km radius, will be supplemented with “small cells”, each with a smaller coverage zone, but many more in number. These small cells working in licensed operator spectrum - indoors and outdoors - will need to exist seamlessly with Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces and in the home. The 5G network will also reach into more frequency spectrum bands, currently unused, to be able to reach Gbps speeds.
Following the data center trend from the last decade, now networks are getting virtualized, where the functionality is primarily expressed in software that runs on general-purpose hardware. Complex cellular base stations will be split into parts, the air interfaces being distributed geographically, while the higher processing layers centralized and virtualized. Furthermore, the centralized, virtualized portions would be run in the cloud. Besides efficient use of resources, this allows operators to spin new services flexibly and instantly. We can envision models where services and contracts can be created for short times for specific customers, whether they are individual, enterprises or utilities.
The Internet of things (IOT) has reached an inflexion point of wide-scale adoption in certain verticals. IOT verticals such as transportation and connected cars have smart sensors and other devices connected over mobile networks. The numbers of Internet end-points in these IOT networks are orders of magnitude larger than the number of smartphones. Also unlike smartphones, these devices are very diverse in terms of the type of data they send, the throughput and the response times they need and the level of security. The mobile Internet from the wireless connectivity interface, right up to the core will need to be designed to handle this scale and diversity.
The Internet of today evolved from the telephone network and still relies on making a “connection” from a host to an end device, which have addresses assigned to them. Because of the source-destination connection, handling of mobile devices that often change their connection point to the Internet has been force-fitted. A fundamentally new approach being explored - content-centric networking - is based on naming chunks of content and not end points. The chunks of content are stored in various locations in the Internet, and an end device requests specific content by asking for it by its name explicitly and not by making a connection to a specific host. Mobility is treated as a first-class citizen in this approach and so several aspects of mobile devices and applications get handled efficiently, implicitly.
India has seen phenomenal growth in mobile connectivity in the last decade with a billion subscribers today. From simple voice and SMS connectivity to applications like mobile banking, it has had a transformational impact, enabling people from the bottom of the pyramid to participate actively in the economy. As a result, consumer behavior and market dynamics from this part of the world have started influencing ideas globally. For example, in India, tiered service models have always been essential for operators to monetize their networks effectively across a widely variant subscriber base. It is only recently that US operators followed and started deploying tiered charging based on data usage. Another example is “missed calls”, a unique mode of communication invented by the Indian mobile user. Zipdial, a startup based in India, created a successful marketing model based on it and was recently acquired by Twitter. As the next generation of the mobile Internet is designed and rolls out, it is clear that India will play an increasing role in influencing technology and business models globally.