Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

12 May 2016

WiFi and cellular inadequate for coming demand, says Bell Labs

By Charles Hall

Nokia-owned Bell Labs, the venerable technology arm of the telcos and cellcos, says that the oncoming surge in demand for wireless bandwidth will come mainly from video-enabled cameras and sensors – so much so that consumer and business demand for wireless bandwidth will soon be greater than cellcos and WiFi can provide. It divides streaming into three parts and wisely acknowledges that social-based live video streaming, which it calls “personal video sharing,” will be a major factor in bandwidth consumption.

Bell Labs acknowledges that video streaming will take most of the bandwidth. It said, “most streaming (66% to 74%) will be home-based, driven by more content and larger and higher resolution devices, with video streaming representing the lion’s share at 43% to 57% of the total streaming demand.”

Who’s going to be watching all those videos? The report said generation X users account for nearly half of all streaming demand because they can afford more expensive data plans and higher-end devices that consume more bandwidth. It breaks the demographics of viewers who watch in the home as millennial young adults 21%, mature adults 19%, millennial teens 9%, and generation Z 6%.

Outside the home where they are much more likely to use WiFi or cellular, generation X users consume 8 times more bandwidth than generation Z users and 4 times more than mature adults.

The Bell Labs study concluded that at the current rate of development and based on today’s economics; around 81% of worldwide demand will be met by WiFi and cellular – with WiFi getting two thirds of the bandwidth demand.

The bandwidth that wireless devices demand will increase from 1 Exabyte in 2016 to 7.5 Exabytes by 2020. Also by 2020, the demand for non-WiFi bandwidth will increase to over 2.5 Exabytes and 1.5 Exabytes of that will be for bandwidth that cannot be supplied by the combined wireless networks of WiFi, cellular and new wireless technologies.

Bell Labs believes cellcos urgently need to increase their investments to satisfy the rapidly increasing demand for wireless bandwidth. It said, “Importantly, we conclude that with 3G, 4G/ LTE and small cells alone, operators will not be able to profitably address even half of the demand left untouched by WiFi-like technologies.”

Bell Labs’ solution is for cellcos to adopt new and potentially disruptive business models, and start pushing the developments of 5G and cloud technologies, including network function virtualization (NFV) and software defined networks (SDN). That would be with its parent company’s equipment, of course. The increased demand for wireless bandwidth, if true, will help Nokia and its subsidiaries financially but it will also greatly help Nokia’s rivals.

The report says that the cost of the move to new wireless technologies has to be addressed on a cellco-by-cellco basis because the changes will depend on the existing state of their network infrastructure, labor costs, rights of way and local regulatory constraints. It said that cellcos also have the continuing costs of supporting existing, legacy systems in addition to building network systems for what is turning out to be a rapidly approaching demand for more bandwidth.

5G was noticeably absent. Bell Labs, one of a number of companies developing the 5G specifications, said, “while newer technologies such as 5G are emerging and some operators are planning early deployments in the 2018 timeframe, widespread adoption is not expected to occur before 2020, after the first standards are set.”

Key takeaways in the report include: video will account for the majority of the increase, especially what Bell Labs seems to call motion sensitive cameras and sensors. Social media’s live video streams will increase the demand for bandwidth, especially wireless bandwidth. Broadband services and equipment makers should bet their future prosperity on video – plus future applications such as healthcare that will also need a lot of video bandwidth.

WiFi, not cellular, will handle most wireless broadband traffic. That should be communicated loudly to cablecos who have by and large, at least so far, bet their wireless future on WiFi – even for making wireless phone calls.

It’s a bit frightening to think the consensus seems to be that, the as yet incomplete, 5G technology will not have been even fully deployed by 2020 – causing some makers of cellular gear to launch products based on something called 4.5G – so great is the immediate demand for more mobile bandwidth.

The social-based live streaming market is causing millions to upstream videos from their smartphone’s cameras, which will prompt billions to downstream them. Virtual reality will also be a wireless-dependent technology, and consumes more bandwidth per-minute than traditional video.

The continuing increase in demand for wireless broadband seems to be both universal and eternal – worldwide and with no slackening in the growth of demand in sight. It remains to be seen whether cellcos and WiFi services can offer enough bandwidth to keep up with bandwidth. Bell Labs doesn’t think so.

This first ran in Rider Research’s Online Reporter.