When the first car phones appeared in the 80s, most people wrote them off as a luxury for the ultra-rich. 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. In episode 4 of the Traceroute podcast, we explore the realities that come with wireless opportunity. With a growth rate of 30+% a year, engineering advances need to scale to support demand. We know the future is bright, but how will we get there?
what's the future phone look like. It's going to be may not be phone. It's going to be something completely different.
So whether it's, you know, autonomous platforms as drones or vehicles or robot robotic platforms, that's where ultimately 5G is going to shine how is that going to really change the landscape and how is infrastructure going to respond to that?]
GRACE: This is Traceroute [rowt]...
a podcast about the inner workings of our digital world - all the PHYSICAL STUFF that most of us never have to think about. In a world that is increasingly defined by digital…. We look at the real people and services building, maintaining, and scaling the internet.
I’m your host, Grace Ewura-Esi. a technical storyteller and product evangelist at Equinix.
In this episode: WIRELESS.
##[Act I: What’s Wireless Got to Do With It]
Picture an early cell phone - you might think… 80s. Power suits. Cheesy music…
wireless was just at the beginning and i just really starting to take shape] That’s Ed Knapp, now CTO at American Tower. His career spans 40 years, mostly in the wireless industry. And as he was starting out , he saw some interesting technologies emerge - like the car phone.
They drill the back of your trunk, put an antenna with a little squiggle, you know, if you remember those. And then you have to wire the car into the dashboard and put a phone on your console. For someone interested in building things, in creating infrastructure - the wireless industry was the place to be - even if it seemed a little crazy...
Wireless demand had just been really limited at the time, was a really expensive service. McKinsey wrote an article back in the late 80s that said that they didn't think there would be more than a million subscribers in wireless
in the U.S. just goes to show, you know, some of these forecasts aren't what they mean, but they were thinking about the car phone business] That full on 80’s glamour - limos and convertibles cruising through Malibu - it was only available to a select few at the time.
it was 50 cents to a dollar per minute in the early days. And then those networks, the demand was so great that they got really constrained with from a capacity demand. In L.A., New York and Chicago, the demand far exceeded the supply of how to get sites built and how to densify the network]
It seemed like a luxury - the ability to take a phone call on the road. But there were serious,|| life saving possibilities as well. For doctors, cellular phones - even more so than pagers - meant the ability to be reached immediately.
It had tremendous value for those individuals But we knew we needed to get that to mass market] It was an exciting technological problem - and a market that was poised to rip open and be huge, if those technological problems could be solved.
We actually had an analog modem that we tried to put over the cellular network to reach the Internet and do Internet, you know, communications to websites and stuff in the early 90s. But you were you were modulating an analog signal, much like the old you remember the the when you used to have a dial up modem and it made those weird sounds right. That's what we were doing over cellular. We were trying to do the same thing over cellular analog back in the early 90s.
And then i realized that that was really difficult] It would be really difficult. And it’s a problem that just one person or company couldn’t solve alone. There would need to be industry standards. success would hinge not just on phone technology... but also a massive infrastructure network.
[ACT II: Paths Diverge]
How do many of us use the internet every day? On our phones. When we’re talking about networks, a huge piece of that environment is the WIRELESS networks that make our smartphones run. Today, wireless and internet networks are intertwined, if not one and the same. So how did we get to this moment? The wireless industry developed at the same time, in parallel, with internet infrastructure. And as each developed, they fueled a corresponding demand. Again, Ed Knapp.
The demand is insatiable for wireless That keeps going up 30, 40 percent a year. And we need to be as engineers. How do we figure out the network to support that? And what protocols will be the ones that really enhance thing, [00:03:52]it's all about infrastructure and the types of infrastructure that we want to put in place to support the future networks] So far, when we’ve talked about infrastructure, it was largely about copper wires underground connecting people... cables under the oceans connecting people… and Fiber - glass - connecting people. To get cell phones connected to networks - we also need TOWERS. Cell towers. Now, These towers are expensive to build. So as the industry progressed, it started making sense for some companies to SHARE this equipment, instead of building their own. It allowed for efficiency, and scale. And there’s a parallel between the growth of this model - and what would eventually happen at data centers. The benefits of colocation.
And when the iPhone exploded, traffic into 4G and operatives needed to grow more capacity. What do you do? You have to add more spectrum where you have to densify your network. So now if I had a tower down the street or across town that I wasn't on, I can now go on that. If an independent company was was offering it, if my competitor was offering it, they may not have let me on we opened up the the wireless network to an independent model and that allowed sharing that sharing became more efficient. Collocations became easier to do, allowing the networks to densify and hence supporting the types of demands that a smartphone was putting with an open, let's say, back in the Internet to support applications and services] The industry evolved to a point where it no longer made sense for telecomm companies to own all pieces of the infrastructure. Instead, independent businesses started to manage towers. The industry was evolving in other ways too - and in fact, the internet… and cell networks - have a lot in common because of their roots in legacy telephone companies. Landline phone companies - giants like NYNEX and AT&T - set the ground rules for the early days of cellular…
I was I was the the lead engineering manager in the New York system for a number of years in the early 90s [00:34:29] And I remember getting those angry customer calls from the phone call dropped. They had tech challenges to solve - but customers also had other complaints - about the way they were billed by the minute, like a long distance land line call.
And one of the things that people started to complain when did my call start and when did it actually end and how did you round the billing? it was just how people, I guess, were trained in the wire line days of the phones. You saw your phone call, you saw the you know, where who you called and what the components of time you spent. And it was still an analog, you know, sort of model. And I was still thinking about voice as a circuit technology]
Phone lines had limited capacity, because of circuit technology. In the early days of cell phones, companies could get away with keeping the billing system the same - charging per minute, as though there was limited capacity. That’s when cell phones were only about making a call.
when we got into text messages that counted your text and it was a limited number of characters and then we got into voice in digital, it was still counted as time] As tech changed, capacity opened up. It didn’t make sense to charge people the same way. What pushed things over the edge? Well, the growth of a certain parallel communication technology might have had a little something to do with it.
you remember in the mid 90s, there was this whole voice over IP. People were gaming the system of long distance calls. You would be able to call Israel and find a VoIP connection and then they would trombone it through the U.S. and then send it to Singapore. And you do it for like a fraction of the cost, right. Because the Internet was a cheaper way to send information. And so there was a lot of ways people started to work around the traditional, you know, telephony network and that that became a different way to think about voice]
So there was business pressure to change the model - but changes were also made possible by technological innovations. Which brings us to…
What even is a G?
More after the break.
[ACT III: Nothing But A G Thing]
You hear the phrase 4G and 5G thrown around a lot. In short - G stands for generation. In the context of wireless, it’s shorthand for a phase of technology that is the industry standard. Each generation of technology hit a max speed of data transmission. We usually think of these developments - from 1G to 2G and so on - as being about cell phones. But they are really about infrastructure - and protocols.
I mean basically we go every generation of cellular is about every 10 years. So 2020 is 5G, 2010 was 4G, thousand was really the 3G and 3G was really when we used to talk about the mobile web or the wireless Internet]
Sue Marek has covered the cellular industry for decades. And she’s followed the advancement of technology not just in the phones themselves - but in the underlying infrastructure.
the industry was like, how do we get a, you know, a Web MAREKbrowser? Like, how do we browse the web on a phone? So there went through these technologies.
[00:03:46] That one was called WAP. Everyone kind of makes fun of it today. Wireless application protocol where they were. Yeah. Trying to get make it possible for you to browse the web on this tiny screen because, you know, the traditional web browsing just didn't work. HTML you couldn't get HTML on your phone an initially. So that was kind of a technological hurdle that that everyone was working on back in the 3G] Earlier generations of cell phones were clunky and big, for sure. But that wasn't the reason they weren't ready to connect to the internet yet.
I would say it was that 3G era [00:06:44] There was always like the special way you had to have the special kind of way to get on mobile with the Web. That was not the same as just your your regular web. So it was always sort of like the separate thing. And then I would say and then about 2010 or maybe even a little before that, they they finally started to come together. So now you have you can build a website and you can get it on your computer and you can get it on your phone. And there's not like this separate, almost mobile web that people thought about almost as they almost thought about it as it was different than the regular web.
it was slow and it was clunky. But it worked. It worked. It was just like dial up in the early days of broadband. It worked, but it wasn't great. [00:07:26] And so it seems really silly now, but it really wasn't that long ago.
A great leap forward came with each generation - but there was also a big jump when you started to be able to connect to cell phones over digital networks, versus analog.
the real reason that they digitalized the cell phone systems starting in the late 1990s was to increase the number of users you could have on each cell Sascha Segan is the lead analyst for Mobile, at PC Mag, and he’s covered the wireless market for over 15 years. He explains that they started doing something called multiplexing - meaning multiple people could use the same channel at the same time. Digital encoding made it possible.
SEGAN The best way to think about that is like you have 15 people in a room. They're all talking at the same time, but they're talking in 15 different languages. You if you only understand one of those languages, you will only understand the conversation that's directed to you. The other 14 conversations will be understood by the 14 people who understand the other languages code division, multiple access has much more once you once the phones became digital, you could push the Internet through them. But more importantly, you could just get a lot more people talking at once on each cell.
Getting the industry to agree to the same protocols was a vital step towards the fast internet we get on our phones today. But, building towers to strengthen the network was also critical. Although, the internet we get in our homes, on our computers, that might be carried across fiber or wires - underground. To get to our cell phones, it has to go through the air. And to continually improve that, it means building out networks by utilizing ever more spectrum. Again, Sue Marek.
So 5G is to accommodate speed and latency and latency is like that delay. So for for 5G, they really want to get it down to like less than 10 milliseconds of delay. So you wouldn't even know there was a delay. And that's important when you talk about applications like autonomous drive, autonomous cars, there can't be any delay. You know, even gamers, they don't want delay because then they can't play their games as well. So to get that to happen and to get that speed and you just also need a lot of capacity. So how are you going to do that? Moving data through the air isn’t nearly as efficient as moving it over wires - which means there’s a limited distance it can really travel. And there is only so much spectrum to grab.
So the way they're doing it, they're trying to build I mean, T Mobile did a really good job of describing it like a layer cake. The bottom layer is where you're going to. It's going to be in the low band spectrum and that's where you're going to get the widespread coverage that goes throughout the country. And that's where you can build your bigger towers and and the signal will travel further, but you're not going to get the speed. So it's really going to be very similar, maybe a little bit better than 4G, but you're not going to get those big, huge speeds where it's like one gigabit or higher and just racing faster speeds and all that and the low latency. So that's where you're going to then you're going have a middle band that's going to be better. And so then that will give them wider coverage and fewer towers. But the really racing high speeds are the ones that are millimeter wave. And Verizon's doing a lot of building of those towers right now because they have a lot of millimeter wave spectrum. And that's where you're going to get, you know, a couple megabytes and no latency at all.
So they sort of picture urban areas, downtown areas having that millimeter wave. That's where the racing fast stuff is. And then maybe, you know, out further in the suburbs, you've got better speeds, lower latency. And then in the rural areas, yeah, it's going to be a little bit better than then 4G. And hopefully, you know, with technology, it will get better. When a new G comes to town - it also means the creation of businesses and consumer goods that never existed before. With 4G - we got the gig economy - the Ubers, the GrubHubs, the app stores.
I just think the thing with 5G is really think about that instantaneous. [00:48:22] First of all, really pervasive connectivity, fast connectivity, you know, no more lag time. And what can be done with that?] [00:34:40 ish] they can talk about gaming and they could talk about, you know, the self-driving cars. But beyond that, they're kind of hoping they're hoping that they'll be innovative developers and and entrepreneurs who will come along and go, oh, wow. Look, let me try this. With 5G - we still don’t really know where things will go. But companies you might not expect are jumping onboard.
John Deere Tractor Company, they have some spectrum licenses. And it's really interesting. you know, they're their tractors are already somewhat self-driving. And so but they want to like they want their factories to all be automated. So they want 5G in their factories so that they can build these tractors. They want their farmers to be able to have tractors that and and run on networks so that they don't have that. The farmer doesn't have to actually sit in the tractor
They have this technology to where they can you can spray a weed with weed killer and spray a plant with fertilizer. And it will the tractor will be able to tell the difference. And all of that kind of runs on a network. Their goal is to like, you know, increase food supply. [00:43:13] So maybe that's not like a sexy consumer app. But when you think about how that could change the world, that's pretty interesting.
[Act IV A Brief Sad History of Blackberry]
Cell phones are our most personal computers. Everybody has a strong opinion about theirs. Everybody hurts when there's doesn't work. People have an emotional connection and a social connection to their phones and to these networks in a way they don't necessarily have to their P.C. or their office printer.
Sascha Segan, of PC Mag, has witnessed how phone technology has developed over time… How infrastructure tech has improved… and how they have fed off each other. Segan[00:23:56]the overlap between cell phone companies and Internet service providers and telephone companies has been pretty heavy all along. I mean, if you think about if you think about the names, AT&T, Verizon, formerly Bell Atlantic and Sprint, well, these are all companies that started out as phone companies.
And the development of phone hardware is part of this story.
So smartphones grew out of an up as the same time as things called PDA or personal digital assistants in the late 90s. And this was the idea of little handheld computers that you could use to keep your keep your notes and keep your calendar and keep your phone book and maybe a little bit of information. And those devices ended up becoming the first really prominent smartphones around 1998, 1999, based on the 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, and that really appealed to the business people who were the core market for these early smartphones]
Companies like Palm Pilot sprung up - and competition intensified.
Nokia was so big that business magazine stories were run saying basically, well, Nokia, eat the world. Could anyone possibly overtake Nokia? And then, of course, there was BlackBerry.] Ah… BlackBerry. I miss those days… BlackBerry’s technology took off because it served a market need.
So everybody in finance started adopting this and everybody in law started adopting this. And everybody in the government started adopting this because it was a great way to very securely distribute the company email to a lot of workers and also control the devices from afar with a BlackBerry. If you were the I.T. administrator and somebody got fired, you could press one button and their BlackBerry would be a brick. No walking out of the office with a briefcase full of stolen documents. No, their BlackBerry was fried. And at the same time, if there was a new if there was a new employee, you could press one button and their BlackBerry would be live and they would be in the flow.Blackberry really made that happen at the turn of the century. And so we had this very business oriented smartphone culture from 1998 until about 2006, 2007]
BlackBerry of course… isn’t really around any more. And while some of that was about the iphone - and touch screens - taking off...It also had something to do with infrastructure
I would say very much in the in the two thousand four to eight frame 3G wireless data networks were starting to become common, data was becoming cheaper. So it was becoming easier to provide to consumers who didn't have to charge businesses high rates for business data plans. And consumers were becoming crazy about texting. And if BlackBerry did one thing really well, it was transmitting messages in text all the super popular Blackberries of the of the of the mid two thousand knots which were which had these great keyboards, because texting is all about the keyboard. People were all about the texting networks were not quite fast enough for real web browsing.
The company succeeded - and soared - for a few years because of the sweet spot it hit in the generational developments of internet connectivity - it was good for text and SIMPLE internet connection.
So pared down web browsing was the order of the day. And BlackBerry servers were really great at boiling down Web pages into little pared down bits that transmitted well over these slow networks. what they didn't see coming and what killed all of the first generation smartphone giants in something that was like the mass extinction of the dinosaurs were some network and hardware changes which the next generation of smartphone companies, specifically Apple and Google, were able to pick up on And along comes the iphone - heralded for its success packing many tools into one tiny, pocket sized computer… calculator, phone, flashlight, bank, ride hailer… and more. But again, it happened because of advances in infrastructure.
Around 2006, companies began to produce touch screens, which could easily be used with your fingers. That demanded a completely new kind of interface, a finger friendly interface. And none of the early smartphone companies were really willing to adapt to that quickly enough. And so is the sad story of Blackberry - and Palm Pilot - and all those other early phones that quickly went out of style. They capitalized on the tech of the time, but couldn’t adjust to the next generation.
Apple and Google utterly eradicated them. None of those first gen none of those first 10 companies are still in the smartphone business in the way that they were, So it was it was really a big die off when these companies couldn't adapt to the new world of touch, friendly interfaces, fast data and great applications] And stronger network capabilities also helped iphones and Androids gain steam in the market.
The networks were hugely important because if you're going to have a big color screen, for instance, with a high resolution camera, you need to feed that big color screen. You need to be able to transmit the images from that high resolution camera. And I actually remember back in, it was around like 2005. Camera phones were starting to take off at that point. And one of the most frustrating things about camera phones at the time was you could not figure out how to get your pictures off the darn phone. And people were taking all these pictures and they were actually leaving their old phones in drawers because they wanted to be able to look at their old pictures and they couldn't think of any way to get the pictures off the phone. And the the whole culture we live in now, this this multimedia Internet culture. Is enabled by really by 4G wireless networks. Otherwise, we would just have a lot of old phones in drawers that we scrolled through, looking at or looking at our old pictures]
What’s true of photos… is also true of that streaming video we now take for granted.
in terms of the huge transition to a streaming music streaming video, mobile audio and video production, social networking. These are all things that absolutely required new hand-held hardware to do. They needed faster processors. They needed better video codecs, they needed better screens, they needed clearer interfaces. But if they had just hit a wall at getting out of the phone, none of these markets would have taken off.
And so with the explosive growth of smartphones came not only with the advancement of phone technology. But also network technology. And changes in one, spurred on the other.
Segan: [00:07:27]what happens with each generation is that as computers get more powerful and the computers in phones get more powerful and the computers and towers get more powerful and more wireless spectrum becomes available, it becomes possible to encode the airwaves in new, more complicated ways. And each time you break with the previous path, that's a new
One of the funniest things about the transitions, though, is that we all in the industry try to predict what the killer app is going to be for each one and every time most of the industry has failed. the capabilities we think they're going to unlock and the capabilities they actually end up unlocking often turn out to be very different]
[Act V: Convergence and 5G and Beyond]
So we started in the early days of cellular - with analog networks. Around the same time, the decentralized internet grew and developed - largely on the backs of legacy phone companies.
And as both industries expanded, so did the ways they rely on each other.
4G definitely dramatically increased the demand for fiber. [00:51:55] And. It accelerated in the 3G and 4G era. The telecoms companies spun off or tried to spin down their legacy, copper landline businesses. It really became and is becoming everything running on fiber.[00:52:20]And now we see the whole wireless world and fiber world really kind of blurring together there, don't we? Where? Where your your ISP may be using a combination of fiber and microwave backhaul, but your Verizon consumer five key phone is using twenty eight gigahertz, which was previously a backhaul band for its ultra wide band, consumer, 5G, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So, yeah, it really is. It really is one Internet. And although there are players who specialize in particular parts of that Internet you know, there are tower companies that don't own fiber and there are fiber companies that don't own towers. And there's T-Mobile, which is a pure play wireless carrier that doesn't own any of its own backhaul.
They really are one ecosystem in a way that wasn't true 20 years ago.
So what will the next 20 years bring? For starters, says Sascha, connectivity will increase globally.
There are still billions of people around the world with a B who are not connected to reliable Internet. And that can seem shocking. You can say billions, but yeah, it's true. And access to that reliable Internet can help them in all sorts of ways[00:58:39] I've seen I've seen efforts to use the Internet through mobile networks for education in places where the educational infrastructure is very poor. I've seen, for instance, letting small farmers get a better idea of prices at different markets, letting them increase their income and push their families forward, there are massive opportunities to raise living standards through delivering people better basic information. And the way you do that right now is through the Internet and in a lot of the world where there isn't necessarily there either isn't great physical infrastructure or building more infrastructure is a tremendous pain. Delivering that through wireless is by far the cheapest, easiest, most efficient way to do it That brings access to this information down to an income level that was previously completely inconceivable.
And that means that the cutting edge of technology - the growth of 5G - will offer even more promise.
if you look at how much 3G changed the world and how much 4G changed the world. You know that 5G is going to change the world in some unexpected way. If you think about how you communicated with your family 15 years ago, if you think about how culture was transmitted 15 years ago and you think about today, so much of that is what people were able to do on their phones through these networks. And 5G is almost certainly going to have at least that big of a change in the world. We just really aren't sure about the details yet.
###[01:05:11] We don’t know the details, but we are imagining the possibilities… - with uses in the connected home, driverless cars, and more efficient and effective use of networks. American Tower, where Ed Knapp now works, is the leading independent tower company around the world. They are in over 20 countries. And most of their revenue comes from renting their infrastructure - their towers - to wireless service providers.
And my role there is really about trying to find extensions to that core business and what sort of innovations, what sort of new areas of infrastructure can we extend into. And so that gets into data edge computing, obviously transport and networks that open up the fiber. There's a lot of work in power and energy for sustainability and renewables
Everything from satellite to rural networks and shared infrastructure to in building so that my strengths have been more in the wireless side and looking at the transformation of that as it moves to more of a cloud native architecture. And that'll be one of the drivers to the edge, particularly 5G] Edge computing is the idea that as more and more people want more and more speed in a connected world - you have to reduce latency with closer access to towers or other infrastructure.
that transition and transformation is at the heart of what everybody's discussing. It's that and it's the arrival of 5G and it's flexibility to cover a lot of use cases and driving these low latency applications to the edge when what is going to be the the killer app and 5G beyond just, you know, more and better write more bits and, you know, better capacity. But there has to be something there that that really transforms the user experience, not just the consumer, but in the enterprise and the machine to machine. So whether it's, you know, autonomous platforms as drones or vehicles or robot robotic platforms, that's where ultimately 5G is going to shine because because once it gets pervasive in each market
And what about the 6G on the horizon?
so 6GM will look at really higher frequencies things in the event like you see or Vauban, you see things like above. [00:54:44] Let's say 70, 80 gigahertz, even stuff into they call terahertz. We went from millimeter wave, so we measured one way and then we go back to terahertz. But things that were going to be how do you get super high performance, but all of a shorted maybe short distances. And then there's also a lot of work around. How do the how do the networks really behave from a mobility standpoint? Right. So, you know, how do you. Deliver these services, you know, at really different speeds and latencies, right?
Because, you know, more bandwidth will give you capacity, but then you have to think about it at a system level. What use cases are you really going to need 60 for? You know, so they talk about things around medical and other types of haptic applications and stuff that 5G may fall short with that that'll become part of what it will say. These are the objectives for 2030 vision for 6G. And then, you know, the researchers are all working on that now and different different communities, including, you know, satellite communications and space based communications will become part of that.
Next time on Traceroute...
Thanks for listening to Traceroute, an Equinix production. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Be sure to subscribe in Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can learn more by heading to metal dot equinix dot com slash traceroute. Want to get in touch? Reach out to us at [metal dot equinix dot com]. And make sure to leave us a review and tell us what you think!