CES 2014 Trends: Wireless Networks Need to Learn to Cooperate

As the demand for bandwidth increases, wireless engineers are trying to figure out how to efficiently use all available networks, without sacrificing privacy and security

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Josh Romero: Hi, I’m Josh Romero for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations”.  Today we’ll be talking with Stephen Cass who’s part of IEEE Spectrum’s team that’s live in Las Vegas covering CES 2014.  He’s here to talk about the latest trends in wireless.  Good morning Stephen—how’s Las Vegas?

Stephen Cass: Busy.  It’s only 8:00 in the morning, and already the place is getting pretty crazy, so it’s going to be another big day here at CES.

Josh Romero: I want to know what’s next and new with wireless systems. What have been the trends you’ve been hearing about the most this year, what are the themes emerging from the show?

Stephen Cass:  The big trend is everybody having to get their wireless technologies working together.  I think, in the past, you had one device and it might have one or maybe two wireless technologies.  If you had a cellular phone, it might have just had a 3G or 4G connection and Bluetooth; if you had a laptop it had Wi-Fi. And I think now we’re moving to a world where every device will be expected to negotiate multiple wireless systems, so you can move very seamlessly from place to place.  The reason why everybody—from device manufacturers to the cellphone carriers—are interested in this, is being able to deal with huge amounts of traffic. The idea is the ability to offload traffic.  Most traffic occurs in buildings, so if you’re on a cellphone and you’re doing a streaming video call, there’s not really a need to send that traffic to a cellphone tower down the block. Instead, why not pick it up inside the building, where all the other people who are trying to do video calls are.  So it’s really about how to very seamlessly hand off between these different technologies. Of course, a big challenge with that is the interference; now you’re combining multiple radios into one board or one chip, and with five or six radios you’re talking about interference within the device. And then you’ve got to deal with huge amounts of interference between users on the scale of city block.  So that’s kind of the big technical challenge, but there does seem to be huge momentum to overcome this. 

Josh Romero:  So there’s increased cooperation between these previously separate networks at this point?

Stephen Cass: Yes exactly.  So for instance, the Wi-Fi Alliance now is in talks with the near-field communications community to talk about ways that you could maybe tap with your phone and get access to a wireless point.  The cellular people are also talking with operators of commercial Wi-Fi access points, like the type you might find in airports and hotels, again about how to seamlessly hand-off between the cellular network and the local Wi-Fi network. 

Josh Romero: This is kind of an evolution of the wireless trends that we’ve been seeing for a couple years, but is there anything particularly new or distinctive that stood out to you at this year's show?

Stephen Cass: Yeah. I think one is the emphasis on control and privacy. In the past, it has always been, “Sure it’s there,” but it’s only imagined that very paranoid, or hardcore, or sort of techies would want to use it.  I think that recent concerns about surveillance has changed that. So everyone is taking security and privacy very seriously.  And how do you guarantee that, especially when you’re moving from all these different technologies and all these different networks?  How do you expose that control to users in a way that makes sense, that they don’t feel that things are being done underneath the hood that they don’t like, while at the same time not making it completely overwhelming so that every two seconds you’re hitting an “I agree to this” or “I agree to that” or "OK these terms of services" notice on your phone.  So that’s been a big issue. 

So one issue where you have all these things working together, of course, is monetization and “How do we create a business model?”  Another issue that I asked about is net neutrality.  In the past, wireless mobile, because of it’s limited spectrum, has always made a play for saying that the rules of network neutrality shouldn’t quite apply to them, that there should be exceptions, they should be allowed to do  traffic shaping, so that everybody can make their cellphone call without getting swamped by one person doing a Bit Torrent.  So there are still elements of that idea, that spectrum is very scarce and very constrained but it will be interesting to see how it plays out when I move from fixed wireless systems like Wi-Fi, or the new system called Wi-Gig which is emerging in the next few years, onto cellular network and how that traffic is handled.  I think there’s a lot of work to be done, both technically, and with the business models and some of the technical administration models.

Josh Romero: So it sounds like the big trends this year were increased focus on cooperating and handoffs between networks, and increased focus on privacy and security—is that about right?

Stephen Cass:  I think that’s about right—and also an increased emphasis on how you would make money off it all.

Josh Romero: Great, thanks Stephen. We’ll look forward to hearing more of your reporting from the rest of the show.

Stephen Cass: Thanks Josh.

Josh Romero: We’ve been talking with Stephen Cass, who’s part of IEEE Spectrum’s team covering CES 2014.  For all CES coverage, check out the website

For Techwise Conversations I’m Josh Romero.

This interview was recorded 8 January 2014.

Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Image: iStock

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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