Montréal, Québec. The future of wireless is bright—so go out and make it happen. That was the advice Thomas H. Lee provided to International Microwave Symposium attendees at the conclusion of his IMS closing ceremony keynote address Thursday afternoon. Lee, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford currently on leave as he serves as director of microsystems technology at DARPA, used his address to predict the future by extrapolating from previous innovations.

Lee cited a quote variously attributed to Mark Twain, Niels Bohr, and Yogi Berra: “Making predictions is hard, particularly about the future.” But he said he was willing to make predictions about what he calls the fourth age of wireless, which moves beyond the Internet of things to what he calls “the Internet of Everything,” or IoE. His predictions were based on observations of past and current wireless industry innovations.

He began by noting that industry sells 4 million cell phones per day, and that subscribers send 250,000 text messages every second. In 2001, he said, the world went mobile, with mobile phone subscribers outnumbering landline subscribers. With 6 billion mobile subscribers today, he said, out of a population of 7 billion, there are hardly any subscribers left for carriers to acquire. The world, he said, has gone mobile in a single human generation, and business conditions will necessitate that carriers look for new applications.

Lee traced today's communications picture from the origins of telegraphy, with Western Union being founded in 1851. The then-dominant Western Union ultimately rejected Bell's offer to acquire the rights to the telephone for $100,000, leading Bell to attempt to sell his invention to the British. The British were equally resistant, with one official noting that the U.S. might need the telephone, but Britain had plenty of messenger boys. Ultimately, of course, Bell became powerful enough to buy control of Western Union.

The telephone, Lee said, democratized communications. One didn't need to know Morse code to communicate.

Lee described Marconi's “age of spark” and his early “crude ultra-wideband lightning-bolt generator” that enabled wireless Maritime transmissions but failed to democratize communications. Reginald Fessenden believed that wireless links should be able to carry the human voice, and ultimately was able to achieve “RF” voice communications using an electromechanical approach operating at less than 100,000 cycles per second, opening the door to broadcasting, a term that originally applied to farmers spreading seeds.

Innovation proceeded apace. Le De Forest, moving to technology hotbed Palo Also to escape legal woes on the east coast, discovered that vacuum tubes could be made to oscillate. Early transmitters had to be powerful because receivers lacked active components, a situation that was alleviated when Edwin Howard Armstrong helped develop the superheterodyne receiver architecture—all without using CAD tools—this was “real engineering,” Lee said. Armstrong is said to have given his wife the world's first “portable” radio as a wedding gift in 1923. The advent of cheap, capable receivers displaced Marconi's spark technology.

World War II, Lee said, saw the large-scale use of personal mobile wireless devices. In the 1980s, AT&T saw cell phones as a way to milk rich customers. AT&T commissioned McKinsey & Company to forecast cell-phone penetration in the U.S. by the year 2000, and the consulting firm came up with 900,000—less than 1% of the actual figure, making the consulting firm about as accurate as Western Union contemplating Bell's offer and the British official's predictions about messenger boys.

With person-to-person wireless communication now ubiquitous, Lee asked, have we reached the end of wireless history? Whenever someone says we are done with a technology, Lee said, we know that's a falsehood. Technology evolves through its own momentum, and, said Lee, business conditions will also spur on innovation. Carriers, he said, are finding that ARPU is declining, even as there are fewer and fewer non-users to attract. Carriers need to add more conversants, Lee said, and those new conversants will have to be objects.

Many objects, Lee said, have data that you might want to interact with, and the next step in communications evolution will be M2M, people to machine, and machine to people. Indeed, he said, the IoE revolution is happening now—we just don't recognize it yet, because you don't recognize exponential increases until the exponential function rises above the noise floor.

There will be challenges to driving IoE, Lee said. Today, PCs, laptops, cell phones, and access points represent strong verticals for wireless technology providers. With IoE, aggregate demand will be high (there are many objects), but there won't be strong verticals that will readily attract investment. Nevertheless, Lee suggested IoE proliferation is inevitable as users employ wireless communications to configure and control, access content, monitor and alert, and in general interact with objects. He cited the smart thermostat as an example: such a device can be hard to program using its couple of buttons and limited display. Skip the buttons, Lee said, and let the thermostat communicate wirelessly with a full-featured app running on a smart phone or tablet.

Lee cited a variety of other applications, including health-care sensor-integration technologies such as those being pursued by the West Wireless Health Institute. He also cited the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize—a $10 million competition to bring healthcare to the palm of your hand. Further, he said, the collection of massive amounts of anonymous data over large populations could help identify the onset of epidemics.

Carriers should embrace IoE, Lee said. Many applications will operate with low data rates, and QoS won't be an issue. Although IP-based platforms will dominate, he said, point-to-point technologies including NFC will offload base stations. IoE represents the fourth age of wireless, Lee concluded, and it will rely on a variety of technologies extending back to the first wireless age. Indeed, he said, “The best is yet to be.”

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