Wireless connectivity has become essential to the way we live and do business today. There are about 6 billion cell-phone accounts worldwide for the 7 billion or so people on the planet. ABI Research estimates that cellular subscribers worldwide reached the 6 billion mark in 2011.
In the U.S. alone, cell-phone accounts outnumber the 312 million population. There also are more than 100 million smart phones enabled. And, both of those statistics are growing. Annual worldwide cell-phone sales totaled 1.49 billion units in 2010 and are expected to grow to 1.77 billion in 2016, according to research group OVUM.
The Rising Smart Phone
Smart phones only represent a small percentage of the overall cell-phone population, but they are quickly taking over where 3G and 4G networks are available to support them. Look for mid-range feature phones to gradually fade and be replaced by smart phones. There will always be a low-end voice- and text-only phone market.
Samsung with its Android models is the number one smart-phone provider. Apple is second with its iPhone, Nokia third, HTC fourth, and RIM BlackBerry is fifth. However, these positions change quarterly as it is a fluid market influenced by the latest new model introductions.
ABI Research projects growth to 245 million smart phones by 2016. In-Stat expects total cellular subscriptions to reach 6.5 billion in 2015 with LTE handsets shipments to surpass 154 million in 2015. HIS predicts 2011 smart-phone sales will hit 478 million units with that growing to 1.03 billion in 2015.
The continued buildout of 3G systems worldwide will occur in parallel with the rollout of Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and 4G systems. Global Industry Analysts estimates that there will be as many as 4.27 billion 3G users by 2017. But how fast can the carriers and operators build out their networks to meet the seemingly endless growth in mobile video usage?
LTE systems are gradually coming online, but a full conversion will take years. Keep in mind much of the world has yet to implement even the most basic of 3G systems. Many HSPA systems can hit 21 and 42 Mbits/s, LTE territory, making some wonder if LTE is needed yet. Capital equipment expenses and spectrum will continue to slow the network upgrades.
Traffic, Tablets, And Backhaul
There will be massive increases in mobile data traffic thanks to smart phones and tablets. Video dominates, increasing pressure on the carriers to build faster networks sooner.
Smart phones and tablets also are rapidly replacing other standalone electronic devices like wristwatches, alarm clocks, GPS personal navigation devices (PNDs), MP3 players, e-readers, video cameras, and digital cameras.
For operators, backhaul networks are the main bottleneck to higher data speeds. The older T1 lines are rapidly being replaced by more fiber connections as well as microwave links (see “Spectrum And Backhaul Inhibit Wireless Growth”).
The future is small cells. Metrocells, microcells, and picocells are growing in popularity because of their low cost and ease of placement. Also, smaller cells can deal with the greater subscriber growth and the higher data speeds than traditional macro basestations.
Home femto cells will take the load off the cellular network in some areas. LTE metro/micro and pico cells are the wave of the future for LTE rollout. Many believe that the smaller cells are the key to the success and rollout of LTE-Advanced with its 1-Gbit/s potential.
Tom Flanagan of Texas Instruments’ infrastructure group has put forth an even different architecture for basestations called C-RAN or cloud-radio access network. With this approach, smaller cell sites contain only the radios and antennas with a connection back to the switching center by fiber where all the standard processing is concentrated including that previously done in the macro basestation.
Clustered basestation functions make for smaller, less expensive, and lower-power consumption cell sites. TI’s KeyStone architecture chips are a good fit with this new arrangement as well as for other smaller cell sites (see the figure).
New IP Methods
There is an ongoing movement from older cellular voice technologies to new Internet protocol (IP) methods. Smart phones use 3G and 4G LTE for data but still incorporate the older technologies (GSM, cdma) for voice. Ultimately, voice will be carried over the LTE systems.
The standards have not been fully established, nor is there one agreed upon method. Instead carriers are testing voice over LTE (VoLTE) and circuit switched fallback methods. Imagination Technologies of the U.K. believes its HelloSoft 4G voice over IP (VoIP) software will help push VoIP as the ultimate standard.
Near field communications (NFC) is finally coming into its own. NFC involves short-range, 13.56-MHz radio technology for use in financial payment and transportation access transactions. NFC transceivers built into cell phones will permit users to pay by just taping their cell phone on the access terminal.
While the transceivers have been available for years, it has taken a while for companies to adopt this system and for the necessary back office software and systems to be established. Some cell phones have NFC now, but look for massive growth in the years to come. It is expected that the cell phone will become the “digital wallet,” heavily replacing standard credit cards. 2012 is targeted as the year of NFC. Pyramid Research projects that there will be 250 million NFC-enabled smart phones or 28% of the market in 2015.
The Internet Of Things
The Internet of Things is beginning to take place thanks to machine to machine (M2M) connections of practically every device not now connected to the Internet. M2M is mostly cellular connections that are used for remote monitoring and control. But Wi-Fi is also used, as are other wireless and wired technologies.
Look for more appliances and other devices to be connected over the years to come. Juniper Research predicts that enterprise M2M connections will increase from 81.8 million in 2011 to 217.3 million in 2015. While most cellular operators have M2M business units, new companies are emerging to address the huge potential market.
“The key to M2M success is speed and flexibility. Most carriers have not understood this and that is why we created a new business model to meet the needs of the market,” said John Horn, president of RACO Wireless.
M2M is a huge growth opportunity for new and existing operators. Pyramid Research expects the 2010 figure of 72 million M2M connections will grow to 282 million in 2016.
In The Cloud
The growth of cloud computing is growing thanks in many respects to wireless. Mobile devices like smart phones and tablets will increasingly rely on remote databases and cloud services to handle video, music, and data. For example, Amazon’s Kindle Fire relies almost entirely on cloud files, services, and access.