No, you are not about to read some Luddite rant about how smart phones are destroying our society. I love smart phones and most of you do too. It’s remarkable how quickly we have gone from arguing over the definition of a smart phone to not being able to live without them. In fact, the rapid adoption of smart phones has led to the problem I am going to talk about: smart phones can overwhelm dumb wireless networks.
Many of the networks that carry the wireless data to and from our smart phones are built with chips that were designed before Apple announced the first iPhone® in June of 2007. It takes a year or two to get a new semiconductor chip designed and built. Then another year or two for network equipment manufacturers to get their products into the market. By the time that new equipment has been deployed into networks around the world, five or six years have passed since chip designers decided what features their networking chips would have.
Even the latest 4G networks are built with chips that were designed before Apple invited everyone to store their music libraries in the cloud and before Vine enabled every kid with a phone to create and distribute videos. Today’s networks were not designed with these wireless data applications in mind and they are struggling to keep up.
Making dumb networks smarter
The problem is proving hard to solve because data traffic is growing faster than the obvious ways to cope with it. Network operators can’t simply deliver more network capacity. Available spectrum is limited as is the capital to invest in expanded networks. The seemingly inevitable improvements in technology performance aren’t enough to solve the problem either. Demand for data traffic is growing faster than Moore’s law can answer. Doing more of the same thing or doing the same thing faster isn’t enough. Networking companies need to figure out new ways to handle data. We need to make dumb networks smarter.
When I say “dumb networks,” I am referring to the fact that most of the existing wireless data networks were designed to move a packet of data from point A to point B in a reasonably short time. That’s a fine approach when wireless networks can easily carry occasional stock updates and photo uploads from a few million early adopters. But now, when 90% of handset sales are iPhones or Android® phones, the networks have become overwhelmed with data. Treating data packets with equal importance – whether they are part of a VOIP phone call, business critical data or the 40 thousandth download of a cute panda video – doesn’t make sense anymore.
Prioritizing data for higher speed
As networks get smarter, they will be able to triage data – for example, identifying voice packets to maintain call quality. Smart networks will know if the same video has been downloaded 5 times in the last minute, and will store it locally to speed the next download. Smart networks will know if a business user has contracted for a guaranteed level of service and prioritize those packets accordingly. Smart networks will know if an application update can wait until times of the day when the volume of network traffic is lower. Smart networks will know if a flow of packets contains virus software that could damage your phone or the network itself.
To be smart about the data being transported, networks need a higher level of real-time analytical intelligence. We are now seeing the introduction of networking chips and equipment designed in the era of the smart phone. Networks are now gaining the ability to distinguish the nature of the data contained in a packet and to make smart decisions about the way the data is delivered. Networks are, in a word, becoming smarter – better able to manage the crush of data coursing through them every day. Smart networks may soon be able to stand up to smartphones, and perhaps even outwit them.