Home UCSD Study: Not Enough Bandwidth for an ‘Internet of Things’

UCSD Study: Not Enough Bandwidth for an ‘Internet of Things’

Yesterday’s groundbreaking proposal by IBM for a new and open-source asynchronous protocol for machine-to-machine (M2M) Internet communication, called MQTT, cites a projected 1000x (put another way, 100,000%) increase in broadband device-generated traffic by the year 2020, and the need for a formal protocol for managing it all. Now, a study from the University of California San Diego’s Global Information Industry Center (GIIC) projects, using data supplied by numerous sources including the FCC and network systems leader Cisco, suggests that bandwidth of that magnitude doesn’t just simply fall out of the sky.

Without even taking into account the M2M traffic increases IBM researchers seek to facilitate, state Michael Kleeman, director Roger Bohn, and the GIIC team, the rate of mobile traffic growth is forecast by analysts to be a mere 1,800% over four years. GIIC is responsible for the annual “How Much Information?” report which estimates, as reliably as any research institution has been able to do so far, how much data is served to information workers globally through servers every year. For 2010, the number of bytes breached the 22nd power: 9.57 zettabytes.

It isn’t that the Internet is running out of room, says Kleeman, but rather that the world will run into a serious traffic jam if it continues to increase its reliance upon wireless telecommunication. There are transmission media capable of handling the data explosion, but wireless is not among them. GIIC Director Bohn is on the record as an advocate of fiberoptic.

“We have reached a point of disconnect between the capacity of wireless networks and the emerging needs of today’s customers,” writes Kleeman in GIIC’s latest paper. “This disconnect is driven largely by multimedia and multimodal Internet-based traffic, real-time applications that operate independently of user transactions, and an explosion in the use of mobile video for calling, education and entertainment. Our demand for quality high speed capacity enabled by wireless network infrastructure is growing exponentially and the technology and economics of wireless network capacity are struggling to catch up.”

Using data from Bernstein Research as his guide, Kleeman demonstrated that U.S. mobile data traffic will likely grow from 40 petabytes (40 quadrillion bytes) per month last year to 451 petabytes by 2013. He then did a little math demonstration: Assuming TV ratings service estimates are correct, and that the average consumer watches an average of five hours of programming per day, the equivalent of that being 1,266,000 petabytes of streamed data annually. With the current wireless network’s capacity to transmit data at maximum service levels, GIIC estimates, in one year’s time it would only have been able to transmit the equivalent of about three hours and twenty minutes of programming.

In a strategically placed sidebar, Kleeman adds the following little gem: “Fiber optics is an amazing technology. It can send 40 billion bits per second 100 miles down a highly engineered, beautiful glass fiber by simply using pulses of laser generated light. Need to double the capacity? No need to add another fiber; just get another color laser and send multiple colors (or frequencies) of light down the fiber. If you need more distance just add a booster to amplify the laser light and you can go thousands of miles via a medium that is protected from weather and other interference.”

Indeed, fiber may have more than enough capacity for the job, except there’s one little problem the sidebar omitted: It’s difficult to imagine all the world’s M2M traffic-generating devices, whether they follow GIIC’s projections or IBM’s, plugged into fiber – especially all the RFID tags. Perhaps this could be resolved through the use of unforeseen technologies: for example, Wi-Fi-like hotspots that are themselves linked via fiber, but which retransmit over short distances to M2M devices the way wireless routers do today. Kleeman’s paper does call upon people’s willingness to provide, among other things, “active support and acceptance of some unpopular ideas.”

However, one can only imagine the number of single-points-of-failure that could be introduced into a wireless “micro-cell” network of things. Consider, for example, the case of a grocery store whose shelf goods were all microtagged, sending active signals of their presence to the inventory system (in another country). This way, the story wouldn’t need guards to secure its merchandise. At least theoretically, that is, unless someone brought in a signal jamming device, turned it on, and walked off with several 12-packs without setting off an alarm.

There may not be enough space in the public airwaves for all the things that want to chatter with one another. But the solution may not be as simple as declaring a victor in the “wired vs. wireless” war.

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