When the first car phones appeared in the 80s, most people wrote them off as a luxury for the ultrarich. In the early days, many experts assumed that the need for wireless phones would be limited to specific jobs and industries. In fact, McKinsey put out an article toward the end of the decade saying the market would be limited to around 1 million subscribers in the US. But once you cut the cable, you can’t go back. By the 90s, people were trying to join analog modems to the cellular network, so more people could connect to the internet. But it simply didn’t work.
The old phone lines had limited capacity because of the circuit technology they relied on. When cell phones were used only to make calls, phone companies got by continuing to charge by the minute. Texting changed that, as did the growing desire to browse the internet. For cell phones–and then smartphones–to be adopted, both hardware and infrastructure needed to be improved.
In Episode 4 of the Traceroute podcast we explore the realities the wireless opportunity brought about. With annual growth rates north of 30%, a lot of engineering advances were needed to scale the networks enough to meet the demand.
Early glimpses of wireless technology’s potential came with the early personal digital assistants, or PDAs. “This was the idea of little handheld computers that you could use to keep your notes, and keep your calendar, and keep your phone book, and maybe a little bit of information,” Sascha Segan, of PC Mag, recalls. “And those devices ended up becoming the first really prominent smartphones around 1998, 1999, based on really the 2G digital networks. Once you can natively get data into a cell phone, you could start getting things like email into a cell phone easily.”
Blackberry was poised to be the most successful model with these emerging technologies, because of its simple internet connection and texting features. But by 2006, companies began to produce touch screens, which required a whole new kind of interface. Blackberry wasn't successful in making the switch to this new world of touch-friendly interfaces and fast wireless networks, resulting in its downfall. This gave rise to iPhone and Android devices, which finally had a 4G network to optimize performance.
Growth in demand for wireless connectivity isn’t slowing down anytime soon, says Ed Knapp, CTO of American Tower, one of the world’s largest owners and operators of wireless towers. “It's all about infrastructure and the types of infrastructure that we want to put in place to support the future networks.”
Laying more wire underground alone isn’t enough to support faster and faster connectivity. It also requires building towers and other infrastructure closer to our devices, shortening the distance data needs to travel.
Today, we’re implementing 5G and looking toward the future. Twenty years from now, wireless networks will expand globally, especially in areas where there is little to no internet access. This development in delivering information will give massive opportunities to raise living standards throughout the world.
Better infrastructure that comes with 5G doesn’t just support phones. Sue Marek, an industry expert, points out John Deere Tractor Company, which owns wireless spectrum licenses. “Their tractors are already somewhat self-driving,” she says. The manufacturer also wants 5G to help automate the factories that make those tractors. It’s also been talking about future applications such as tractors that can tell the difference between a weed and a useful plant, so that they can decide whether to spray weed killer or fertilizer. “And all of that kind of runs on a network.”
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