Almost 15 years ago, I bought an issue of Wired in an airport and read it on an aeroplane bound for San Francisco. In the magazine, a bright-eyed Chris Anderson described an emerging technology called wireless fidelity (or wi-fi, for short), and I simply didn't believe it. The internet, in the air? Maybe in 15 years, I probably thought.
Believe it or not, the future of wireless is even more mind-boggling now. We're rapidly becoming a world in which you can't disconnect, a world where the internet links practically everything around us, just like electricity did in the 20th century. In this future, the internet can beam down to your palm from light posts or satellites in space. Even in the absence of a wi-fi signal, any electronic device in your arsenal can communicate with others thanks to low-energy radio signals. This technology already exists, and it's becoming more powerful more quickly than most people realise.
As for what the next big breakthrough might be, the one thing most people would correctly guess is speed. Indeed, your smartphone's connection to the internet is about to get insanely fast. We still don't know exactly what this means for the world. Faster wireless connections could power everything from self-driving cars to smart cities to holographic communications systems - just like in Star Wars.
But the things engineers will be build first depend deeply on what we want and what we need in our wireless world tomorrow rather than in 20 years. That in mind, dependability, security, and utility are three fairly boring words that describe an exciting number of incredible innovations we'll get to enjoy in as little as a few months. From there, things are going to get wonderfully weird.
The convoluted now
In considering these dual challenges, you can also imagine how the future of wireless will unfold on two major stages: one for the poor and one for the rich. The former will be big, as big as the entire planet. Companies are already experimenting with drones, balloons, and satellites to deliver internet to rural areas. The promise of bringing the next billion users online will transform how the internet works. The latter challenge will be small - as small as the tiniest microchip - and affect the wealthiest nations before any others. This will be a struggle to connect not only people to each other but also gadgets to other gadgets, anything from a lightbulb to a self-driving car. In the immediate future, these innovations will affect devices like smartphones, but in the next few years, it might involve entire cities.
For the sake of simplicity, we can think of the current state of wireless as extremely gadget-focused. Wi-fi and other types of wireless technology aren't just ubiquitous these days; they're critical necessary in many industries. In offices, desks are tidier thanks to Bluetooth keyboards and mice. In stores, short-range technologies like RFID chips help with inventory management, while NFC lets you pay with your phone pretty much anywhere these days. In some homes, Zigbee and Z-Wave devices talk to each other and to your smartphone (usually through wi-fi) so that your door unlocks when you're close to your house and the lights turn on when you walk inside.
So it's where these various wireless technologies converge and data speeds get really fast that things start to get really exciting - and complicated. The more gadgets we connect to each other, the more points of failure we create. Let's say you want to build the ultimate gadget geek's house, one with geofences that trigger certain processes, sensors that trigger others, voice commands that do even more things, and so on. For now, all of these technologies rely on different types of wireless connections to perform the duties assigned to them, and each type of wireless connection operates on its own set of standards that may or may not be compatible with other devices. It's not hard to see how broken the whole system could become with only a couple errors. (Trust me, I've tried this, and it was a nightmare -- and I say that without even touching on the endless security concerns for IoT devices.)
So as more and more gadgets become internet-connected, the more we need bandwidth and stability. This is what makes the future of wi-fi especially interesting. Imagine if all internet of things (IoT) devices just connected to a wi-fi network, sending and receiving requests through the same protocol that your laptop uses. That would be a dream, but it's probably not going to happen. Wi-fi requires a lot of power, and the hardware doesn't fit easily, say, inside of a lightbulb. Wi-fi also requires a mainline into an ethernet network, which is why "aeroplane wi-fi" is pretty different from the wi-fi in your home. In the sky, connectivity either comes from satellites or cell towers on the ground.
The future of cellular connectivity presents a more promising path forward, as it already blankets most of the nation. Cellular is especially promising, since new technologies like 5G and LTE-U offer speeds that rival broadband. The fate of 5G and LTE-U is complicated, too. We've written about the dilemma a few times here at Gizmodo. Most people expect 5G technology to start rolling out in 2020. So until then, more exciting stuff is happening in the sky.
Winning the world with lasers and drones
What's ultimately most transformational about the future of wireless - what's actually going to change the world -- is not the ultra fast speeds or scifi-inspired applications. It's something much more essential: connecting everyone on Earth to the internet. If you comprehend the impact that the internet's had on industrialized nations, just imagine what connectivity could accomplish for developing parts of the world. And when we say developing world, we're talking about the vast majority of the global population: about 5 billion people.
In a matter of speaking, the future of wireless will happen as fast as a handful of huge companies will let it. The natural monopolies of massive telecom companies tend to push wireless technology forward on their own terms, a fact that's not always in innovation's best interest. However, startups and well-funded moonshots stand to fundamentally upend the way wireless communication works. You should be excited, and you should keep your fingers crossed that the greed of a few doesn't hamper the best possible outcome for the rest of the world. The critical problem has always been the cost of building infrastructure, but wireless solutions stand to skirt around that. We're talking about satellites, drones, and lasers.
Let's call it the space internet. The idea at its foundation is pretty simple. If it's too expensive to lay cables and build a physical internet infrastructure, why not beam it down from the heavens? Facebook, Google, and SpaceX are all working on their own particular but related projects that would enable them to connect billions of people around the world to the internet, without relying on wires. Facebook wants to fly drones at very high altitudes that will beam connectivity down to the surface with lasers. (Problem: The drone crashed.) Google has a similar plan called Project Loon that would use souped up weather balloons to broadcast signals (Problem: The balloons crashed, too). SpaceX want to use small satellites in low orbit to create wireless networks in remote areas. (Problem: SpaceX rockets sometimes explode.)
Up until a week ago, the crazy idea that a company would beam internet service around the entire planet from the sky was just that. a crazy idea. Then, in the span of a few days, we've heard details from not one but three tech behemoths that want to do just that. This fantasy is becoming a reality, and fast.
To call these projects pipe dreams is terribly tempting, but, problems aside, it might not be entirely accurate. The SpaceX plan, for instance, resembles existing solutions to provide internet connectivity to the International Space Station (ISS), while Facebook and Google have already been testing their internet-equipped spacecraft. Whether or not it makes business sense for any of these companies to build a space-based internet remains to be seen. But the technology itself is a thrilling indication that wireless technology could soon stretch far beyond our smartphones, laptops, wi-fi routers, and cell towers.
In the next decade, we could actually encounter a global wireless network. It might suck! Nevertheless, the basic building blocks for a wireless infrastructure that's capable of connecting every human on the planet is there, and history's already taught us what internet connectivity can accomplish. Some of the world's largest companies, including Facebook and Google, were founded in the early years of dot com enterprise. The internet's changed how we elect our leaders and buy our stuff. The industrial internet's transformed how factories work and cities operate. And, so far, only about half the world's population has internet access. Image what happens when the other half signs online.
The beauty of good old fashioned light
Now let's talk about that second future: the future that will have the most profound effects on developed countries that already enjoy wireless connectivity. With the pervasiveness of wi-fi and the inevitable introduction of 5G technology, connectivity isn't the challenge it once was. In places like the United States, the next frontier of wireless confronts a more perplexing problem. Now that we have all this bandwidth, what the hell do we do with it?
One obvious answer is that we simply make it better. While 5G might make our smartphones faster than they need to be, cellular connectivity is still plagued by inference and coverage problems. Meanwhile, wi-fi networks are notoriously vulnerable to security risks. The connected gadget world remains a tangled mess of standards and bad design. Maybe we can fix these problems with good old fashioned innovation, coming up with shit nobody's thought of yet. And maybe that involves using novel ways to transmit information, like light waves.
Technically, the electromagnetic spectrum includes radio waves as well as frequencies that fall within the visible light spectrum. So it shouldn't come as a shock that light waves behave a lot like radio waves. They're essentially different types of the same thing. However, when it comes to communication, we're deeply accustomed to using lower frequency radio waves to connect anything from old school telegraphy technology to newfangled smartphones. Low frequency waves are great because they can penetrate obstacles like concrete buildings. They're less great at sending large amounts of information very quickly. That's part of the reason why engineers are increasingly interested in exploring the possibilities of sending information over electromagnetic waves in the visible light spectrum (a.k.a. lasers and light bulbs and stuff).
This futuristic avenue in the roadmap of wireless technologies isn't hypothetical. A number of groups are working on using light waves for communication, namely those who hope to beam connectivity down from space. However, one team at the University of Edinburgh believes this idea will also work well in small spaces. Professor Harold Haas helped develop the technology and coined the term li-fi.
"We may not have the radio spectrums to serve the future need," Haas told me in an interview, explaining that the radio waves could one day become too cluttered with signals from various wireless technology. That's why he thought of using the visible light spectrum, and he's confident about the possibilities. "Li-fi will be the nervous system of the future of smart autonomous systems, smart buildings, smart everything," Hass said.
Li-fi is basically what it sounds like. It's a lot like wi-fi, except instead of transmitting information over radio waves, li-fi uses visible light waves. Digital radio waves communicate information by sending pulses of electromagnetic waves as a string of ones and zeroes, representing on and off electrical signals. Li-fi pretty much does the same thing using LEDs that flicker in an incredibly subtle way.
And so, the team developing the technology hopes to sell lightbulbs that will double as li-fi transmitters, sending signals out to receivers in gadgets like laptops or phones. For now, the li-fi systems require some special hardware that control the transmitters as well as special receivers that look like USB thumb drives. In the future, the company developing the technology hopes that it will integrate seamlessly into existing wi-fi networks, so the need for infrastructure upgrades would be minimal.
The two big upsides to li-fi are bandwidth and security. Since the data is travelling on lightwaves instead of radio waves, li-fi can transmit more data, more quickly than existing radio-based technology. And since visible light can't travel through walls, any given li-fi network could offer a level of security that wi-fi can't. The network would literally stay confined to the structure from which it originates. Both bandwidth and security are essential for autonomous systems, like robot-filled factories or self-driving cars.
"Longer term, connectivity is the basis of the next 20, 30, 50 years of systems that are going to be managed globally: smart city, smart building, smart home," Haas explained. "With all the data that's going to be transferred or processed, we're really going to need as much connectivity options as possible."
The best part: li-fi works over long distances as well. With help from the University of Edinburgh, the li-fi team has built a prototype that uses lasers as transmitters and solar panels as receivers. They say the technology can establish a dependable connection that spans over 483km, without the need for satellites. The need for precise beam alignment makes the system very expensive at present, but they hope to perfect the technology and bring those costs low enough so that it might present a solution to connecting remote parts of the world. The team's next step is testing the system in the very remote Scottish highlands.
Meanwhile, in the developing world, we could one day let our internet rain down from our lightbulbs. The company behind li-fi promises it will be the fastest, most secure wireless technology the world has ever seen. The only question now, honestly, is what we would do with it.
This question amounts to wireless technology's most obnoxious first world problem. If we anticipate the capacity for virtually unlimited bandwidth in the next few decades, we also have to invent opportunities to take advantage of it. Some things, like virtual reality, already exist and are slowly finding a use in society. Others, like communicating through dynamic holograms, feel like some far-fetched Blade Runner reality. Except they're not.
But let's be honest: This future is for the rich people.
The killer app for wireless technology in developed countries like the United States, however, will continue to focus on communication. Since Guglielmo Marconi pioneered radiotelegraphy at the end of the 19th century, we've mainly used wireless technology to talk to each other. As Sandeep Rangan, director of NYU Wireless and a fellow of the IEEE, explained to me, the ways in which we communicate are still constrained by bandwidth -- but maybe not for long.
"Wireless connectivity is so powerful that eventually there will be demand for things like VR," Rangan said in an interview. "You can imagine a much more rich communication experience if you could augment that with video or immersive video. We are being constrained about the way we communicate right now."
There are already gadgets, like smartwatches, on the market that can connect to the internet anywhere there's cell service. That means you can stream Spotify or receive text messages on your run in the woods without carrying around a bulky smartphone. You might already have an internet-connected car thanks to 4G connectivity, but imagine if you could get broadband speeds while zooming down the highway. Now imagine that you place a phone call, and instead of seeing someone's face pop-up on a screen, a holographic version of them would appear in the seat next to you. This would be distracting, sure, but it won't matter because your car is driving itself, thanks to the same 5G connection that's handling your holo-call. This sci-fi future might not be so far away.
"We'd have a full 3D, immersive experience," Rangan hypothesized. "We'd be in a more collaborative environment and imagine sitting side-by-side in a chair. That technology could exist today, but we'd need greater data rates."
Rangan isn't talking about the technology that made Tupac appear on stage a few years ago. That wasn't even a hologram -- it was an old parlor trick called "Pepper's ghost." A true dynamic hologram would look more like the three-dimensional recording of Princess Leia from the beginning of Star Wars, except it could look even more realistic. The technology to do this exists in a lab today but requires such fast data transfer rates that a mobile version won't be possible until wireless technology exists in a much more advanced state.
In the next five years, we'll surely see a massive rollout of 5G connectivity. That technology will allow data transfer speeds as fast as 10 Gbps. And that will truly transform the way we communicate and make FaceTime seem like a cruel joke. Virtual reality, as Rangan suggested, will play a role, though it's hard to imagine today, since VR is mainly a gamer toy at the moment. With the launch of Apple's ARKit this year, we're also sure to see a lot more augmented reality applications. And as bandwidth gets bigger and bigger, we'll be able to do more interesting things with the technology.
Why so wireless?
Now that we've gotten you all excited about the future of wireless technology, you might be wondering: why not just stick with wires? If we've already connected so much of the world with cables, why would we switch to wacky signals sent over the air?
These are all fair questions. They're also reasons why wireless technology hasn't developed more quickly. At the end of the day, building new wireless technologies is expensive. And, generally speaking, huge companies that operate factories or giant cargo ships tend to care more about security and dependability than experimenting with wireless technology. Then again, the larger these connected systems become and the more autonomous the components become, the more sense wireless makes.
"The more devices you want connected the higher that cost gets," Rob McKeel, the president and CEO of GE Automation and Control, told me. "You have to lay more wires. Any time you can avoid those costs -- particularly when you're doing a big plant - is a significant savings."
Think of it this way. Once we build out the wireless networks, they will eventually pay for themselves. And once wireless technology works as fast or faster than wired technology, we'll have no reason to keep ourselves tethered to cables.
One day, once we finally figure out Tesla's dream of wireless electricity, we might finally live in a world without wires of any kind. We don't even know all the things we'll be able to do with it yet, but we do know one thing for sure: The future of wireless is bright, both for the developing world where internet access will reach billions more people, and the privileged few who will start talking to each other in hologram form.
It's exciting! It also makes you wonder what's next. We'll probably discover some crazy evidence of aliens in the form of unidentifiable alloys that may or may not be controlling our minds. Oh wait, that just happened.