The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

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A problem with the cable line running through my neighborhood has been causing an intermittent loss of signal and wreaking havoc on my and my neighbors' Internet and cable television connections. The cable company repair folks have not been able to isolate it, so as a result, the company has decided to just drop in a new segment of the cable line between some cable boxes where the problem seems to be. The repair technician who was standing outside of my house diagnosing the problem couldn't tell me exactly when the new line would be put in. But he told me that I'll know it when my TV and Internet connection go dark for a few hours.

When I asked him if there is a more proactive way of finding out when the repair was going to happen, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Look for our trucks outside your house." I am just hoping that it doesn't happen when I absolutely, positively need my connection to be up and running.

My dependence on the Internet is most likely at the same level as yours: It would be harder to do work (or shop or play) without it. The management consulting company Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has recently released a report titled, "The $4.2 Trillion Opportunity: The Internet Economy in the G-20," that attempts, among other things, to assess the value of the Internet to an individual consumer.

According to the BCG press release, the report's authors based their assessment of the Internet's value on "how much consumers said that they would have to be paid to live without Internet access."  People living in the G-20 nations say they would need to be paid (on average) $1430 each to go without it.

The press release also states that the value of the Internet "varies among countries, from $323 in Turkey to $1,215 in South Africa, to $1,287 in Brazil, and $4,453 in France."

According to this blog post over at Smart Planet, which says that BCG interviewed about 1000 online users in each G-20 country, a U.S. resident would stay off the Internet for a measly $2500; people in the UK would demand around $3450.

I don't know how much money I would want in order to stay off the Internet for a year, but I think it would be more than $2500. That figure would just about cover the value of the information I access now for free that I would have to pay for if I wanted to access it another way. Perhaps it would be enough to get me to stop using Google, like Spectrum Associate Editor Josh Romero did.

Be that as it may, how much money would be enough of an inducement to get you to stay off the Internet for an entire year? And more importantly, do you think you could actually do it?

Photo: iStockphoto

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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