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The Future of Mobile Networks: Beyond 4G

The Olympic Stadium in London being dismantled and transformed on Sept. 13, 2012

Photograph by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Olympic Stadium in London being dismantled and transformed on Sept. 13, 2012

Carriers worldwide will begin their first small-cell deployments next year, with the aim of creating dense layers of 3G and 4G capacity. The goal of these shrunken cells is to put massive amounts of bandwidth precisely where people are using it: in malls, arenas, public plazas, urban parks, and busy business districts.

The first wave of small cells, mounted on outdoor street poles and ceilings, could just be the beginning. A consortium of technology companies and universities brought together by the European Commission is investigating a concept called the super-dense network, which could put multiple tiny cells in every room. We’re not just talking networks on the small scale, but on the human scale.

The consortium has the rather ungainly name of Mobile and wireless communications Enablers for the Twenty-twenty Information Society. Fortunately, it’s using the moniker Metis for short. With the help of a €16 million (U.S. $21.2 million) grant for the European Union, Metis is tasked with identifying the network technologies beyond the LTE-Advanced standards being developed today.

These so-called 5G technologies could take the form of new radio air interfaces, new cellular architectures such as heterogeneous networks and wide-area mobile mesh, and even the virtualization of the network itself, says Jan Färjh, head of standardization and industry for Ericsson (ERIC), the network vendor spearheading Metis. Färjh uses the word “could” because no one in the consortium knows what form the network of 2020 and beyond will take. These new technologies are on the bleeding edge and it is Metis’s goal to determine which are technically and commercially feasible.

“We have to be prepared for the world 10 years after LTE and LTE-Advanced,” Färjh says. While vendors and the standards bodies have some good ideas about what the capabilities of our networks should be in 2020, Färjh said, it’s not obvious what those networks should look like.

To that end, Metis is opening up multiple fields of investigation, digging into research projects in the labs of such academic institutions as Aalborg University in Denmark and Poznan University of Technology in Poland. Though the big vendors and carriers like Alcatel-Lucent (ALU), Nokia (NOK), and Telefónica (TEF) are all there, Metis is also reaching beyond the traditional wireless industry to include companies such as BMW (BMW:GR). One of the big areas Metis will explore, Färjh says, is vehicle-to-vehicle networking: One day, rather than being mere end-points in the network, cars will be nodes within it.

Another field that Färjh says Metis will delve into is the possibility of moving baseband processing to the cloud. Today’s radio access network (RAN) is designed so that every base station processor can handle its cell’s peak load, but most cells are at peak capacity for only a small portion of the day. That’s a lot of processing power sitting idle throughout the network. Vendors such as Intel (INTC) have proposed moving those base stations into the cloud, creating a set of shared processing resources.

“What if we had a flexible architecture in which you can move around processing power to wherever its needed in the network,” Färjh says. “We could take the virtualization model and apply it to the mobile network.”

In addition to car-to-car connectivity, Metis will also look into making devices nodes in ad hoc networks, Färjh says. Instead of communicating directly with a tower, our phones and gadgets could relay their data among one another in a giant mesh, eventually offloading data into the mobile network proper through the most efficient connection, or combination of connections. These are concepts being explored by startup Open Garden and the Commotion open-source mesh-networking initiative.

Whether all or any of these technologies make it into Metis’s final set of recommendations 30 months from now is hard to predict, Färjh says. The technologies themselves might be viable on their own, but their practical implementation is another story. For instance, backhaul is a real obstacle to super-dense networking and Cloud-RAN, both of which would need to be plugged into huge transport pipes. We can’t just plan future networks. We have to plan the networks that will support those networks.

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Fitchard is a writer for the GigaOM Network.

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