Disruption 2: Multihop relay networks
Some researchers and futurists believe that multihop relay networks will eventually supplant technologies such as WiMax and LTE. With these networks, wireless signals will route themselves through a series of access points. Like the Internet itself, the route that the data takes is variable, depending on conditions.
"The network will find the best route and the best transmission mode," said Wen Tong, director of Nortel Networks' wireless technology laboratory. "I see initial deployment in three years."
A variant of the multihop relay network called ad hoc networks could come even later. With this technology, data would be relayed through, among other things, devices themselves. In other words, your phone will also be a movable access point.
"The defining quality of the ad hoc network is that it has no infrastructure," said Anthony Ephremides, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland. "I'd guess it'll be [ready] in a five-to-10-year time frame."
Why it's important: These networks will extend network access to where none exists without building a lot of infrastructure. Because there is little infrastructure, the networks can withstand catastrophe. That is why, Ephremides said, the military is sponsoring a lot of research into ad hoc networks.
What could hold it back: This technology is still very much in the research phase, particularly ad hoc networks. A variety of issues, not the least of which is security, have yet to be resolved.
Disruptions 3 and 4: Femtocells and fixed-mobile convergence
Both these technologies enable you to have one phone and one phone number with which you can communicate from virtually anywhere.
A femtocell looks a bit like a Wi-Fi router but performs the same function in the home or office as cellular base stations that sit in brick buildings at the base of cell towers. That is, they communicate directly with your cell phone and carry the signal to the larger network via a broadband line such as DSL or cable.
"Carriers will offer femtocells the way cable operators offer cable modems," said Paul Callahan, vice president of business development at femtocell vendor Airvana. "They'll give you five bars in your home."
That means you'll be able to ditch your landline and use your cell phone everywhere. Sprint is offering femtocells, on a trial basis, to customers in Denver and Indianapolis and is charging US$15 a month for individuals or US$30 for a family. Subscribers can then make as many local and national calls as they want.
T-Mobile USA launched its fixed-mobile convergence Hotspot@home program last June, which requires a cell phone that supports both Wi-Fi and regular cellular access. Built into the phone is software that enables you, for example, to walk into your home or office while talking on the cellular network and have the call seamlessly switch to voice-over-IP on the Wi-Fi network. You also need a compliant Wi-Fi router.
As with femtocells, fixed-mobile convergence allows you to lose your landline. T-Mobile is charging about US$30 a month for unlimited local and national calls. The program has met with generally good reviews.
Why it's important: Having a single phone and a single phone number will be a great convenience and money saver. Also, some of the disruptive applications discussed later depend on the ability to track your availability no matter where you are. Using only a cell phone makes this more possible.
What could hold it back: To some extent, these technologies will duke it out against each other. That will take time to sort out.