The Mobile Internet

By on 27 Feb 2015

Category: Tech matters

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It’s again time for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It used to be a big event for the telephone companies, but these days its a big event for the Internet as well. There may be some 2.9 billion users of the Internet out there, but some 2.3 billion of them have a mobile smart device in their pocket, and these days just a little under half of the session traffic is now coming from these mobile devices. Given that the iPhone is less than 10 years old, this has been a rapid transformation.

There are many aspects to this change: device makers are constantly searching for a “just right” size for the device. The early tablets were too big, but the small phones were challenging to use for folk with normal sized fingers! The recent “phablet” offerings have been trying to compromise with a device size that is large enough for our hands, yet small enough to live in a pocket. At the same time we are seeing device makers head towards out wrist, with the offerings by Samsung, Motorola, Sony, Pebble and Fitbit about to be confronted by Apple’s entry to the same market. While our wrists appear to be hotly contested there is less interest in eyewear, and Google Glass has not managed to engage consumers’ interests to the same extent. Perhaps its just a case of early days for this new mobile market of wearable “smart” devices.

All devices need control software, and these days the most popular approach is to use a general purpose operating system platform and load applications on top. This approach leverages the massive quantity of open software, reducing the lead costs and time for new products. The early incumbents in the phone world, such as Nokia, the Blackberry and Sony all used custom software platforms running on top of their custom device. These players have been swept aside and these days the mobile market space for operating system platforms  is dominated by Google, Apple and Microsoft. Google’s Android system is used by some 84% of all devices shipped in 2014, while Apple’s iOS had around 14% and Windows, with its Windows Phone system, had the remainder.  84% of any market is a major share, but in this case the market is massive. Some 1.5 billion units were shipped in 2014! Apple was reportedly selling some 34,000 iPhones each and every hour over the last quarter. But if Apple’s story with iPhones is impressive, Google’s Android is almost six times its volume!

While devices are improving their battery life, screen quality, memory size and processing, and the software folk expand the associated world of apps at almost unbelievable rates, the underlying world of mobile radio is also expanding. The initial approach for digital services was that of using a digital modem and a single voice channel. The 3G data standards changed all that and allowed the mobile device to scavenge otherwise idle channels from the same access point. This coupled with better digital signal processing allowed the devices to commonly achieve connection speeds of multiple Mbps. The set of 4G products has upped the ante and allowed the devices to connect with speeds of tens of Mbps. The current announcement, timed for this year’s Mobile World Congress is Ericsson’s 5G announcement, which claims 5Gbps over a radio connection in the lab! They say it will not be in production networks until 2020, but it’s an impressive announcement.

However this is not the full story, as WiFi is a vital part of the world of mobility. The technology of WiFi is being constantly refined, and the latest 802.11ac standard is able to operate at speeds of up to 1.3Gbps. The advantage of WiFi lies in its use of shared spectrum. It is essentially free to use as long as the transmission power is limited. Oddly enough this limited power requirement has proved to be an asset, in that WiFi has been turned to operate optimally over short distances of tens of metres, and its been possible to extract remarkable remarkable levels of efficiency from the available spectrum. The disadvantage of WiFi lies in its use of shared spectrum. Because its is essentially free to use then it is used, and in many areas of the urban environment it’s a very crowded space.

All of this paints a very rosy picture of the mobile industry. But I can’t help but notice that at the same time as the industry punched out 1.5 billion devices into the Internet in 2014, all these devices  were connected into the IPv4 network, and were crammed into approximately 100 million IPv4 addresses. It’s just not possible today to operate a mobile service that only supports connections on IPv6, but at the same time the use of NATs in the middle of the mobile network operator’s network is not a infinite genie! Some operators have rolled out mobile network platforms that support both IPv4 and IPv6 in a dual stack scenario, such as Verizon’s LTE network. Others have taken this one step further and use an IPv6-only network and tunnel IPv4 between the device and the network’s NAT using 464XLAT, such as T-Mobile’s network in the United States.

But these are temporary measures to support a transition away from a 32 bit IPv4 protocol that is just not able to keep up with the expectations we are placing on it. The assumption from most parts of this mobile industry is that the next ten years will see far higher volumes than the past ten years. The industry is on an inexorable path of growth. However, if we are going to realize those expectations then the IPv6 protocol is going to have to play a central role in the future of the Internet.

A more detailed exploration of some of these issues within the mobile world can be found here.

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