Smartphones: They are called that for a reason.
Over the last few years our mobile handsets have been transformed into portable computers packed with an ever increasing digital intelligence. Today, devices like the iPhone pack the same punch of one of the iconic Cray supercomputers that dazzled computer scientists in the 1980s.
But, according to Rich Howard, former head of Wireless Research at Bell Labs, it is wrong to assume that this raw computing power is used for smartphones most obvious functions.
“Most of what it does is make the communication work, not running some app you've pulled up,” he says.
In fact your smartphone is in a constant dialogue with the mobile phone network, working out which radio mast it should associate with and how best to transmit any information. When it is time for a call or a spot of browsing, the smartphone then has to encode and compress data as well as protecting it from degradation. At the same time, it constantly has to navigate the complex network of base stations and mast, ensuring there is a smooth transition as you move from one to another.
This is where a mobile’s computing power comes into play and it has allowed the amount of data handled by the networks to grow a by a factor of a million since the first phones were introduced in the 1980s.
The trouble is, there is more and more demand being put on today’s networks, with some predicting that the amount of data that they will have to handle will increase by a further factor of a thousand by 2020. Making phones even smarter will help. But the industry is now also exploring innovative new ways to shuttle this data around and keep up with our insatiable appetite for data.
The most basic approach is just to build more base stations for our mobiles to talk to.
The whole concept of cellular networks is based on dividing up cities and countries into “cells” served by a single base station that connects to a number of customers. As long as the transmissions from different masts don't overlap and interfere, everyone is happy. So halving the size of each cell and turning the power down is a quick way to double the number of wireless connections. But it comes at a cost. Each 3G tower costs around $50,000 . Add all of the cabling infrastructure to connect them to the network, and the total soon mounts up.
Nevertheless, mobile operators have increasingly been decreasing the size of cells and increasing the density of the network, adding nanocells, picocells and femtocells to public areas like malls and airports, buildings and even to single homes.
Perhaps the logical conclusion of this is the so-called attocell, proposed by Professor Harald Haas of Edinburgh University. His idea would allow individual rooms in a house to be further subdivided into individual cells. To do this, rather than using a wireless radio antenna, he proposes to use the humble light bulb as an antenna.
“Every light bulb in your house could form an individual access point,” Professor Haas enthuses.
“You could serve a laptop in one corner of a room with one bulb and have another bulb serving your tablet in another corner.”
What makes Professor Haas' proposal possible is the development of ultra-high-performance light emitting diodes (LEDs), which can flicker at tens of millions of cycles per second. Data can be encoded into those flickers – too fast for anyone to notice or be disturbed. And the data can be sent to the bulbs through a buildings standard electrical wiring.