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Mobile Communications July 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Ultra-Low-Delay Networks

Why is this topic significant?

Many developers of 5G mobile-communications technologies aim to deliver data with minimal delay. Very time-sensitive applications include cloud-based virtual reality and remote control of robots and drones. Ultra-low-delay networks could enable disruptive innovations, but developers face major technical challenges.

Description

Researchers and developers of 5G technologies aim to deliver data to a receiving party only 1 millisecond after a sender transmits that data. Prominent companies including Ericsson, Nokia, KT, Qualcomm, Vodafone, and ZTE are investigating ultra-low-delay 5G networks. Recent announcements and demonstrations illustrate what researchers hope to accomplish:

  • ZTE demonstrated cloud-based virtual reality running over a "Pre5G" network. Low-delay networks have the potential to address problems with poor synchronization and therefore to prevent simulator sickness (whose symptoms resemble motion sickness).
  • KT announced that at the 2018 Winter Olympics, it will fly a 5G-compatible drone equipped with a video camera. Low delay has the potential to give a human operator fine control over maneuvers even when a drone is beyond its operator's line of sight.
  • Ericsson demonstrated progress toward remote surgery by using a robotic "finger" probe and a haptic feedback device that reportedly helps a doctor distinguish between hard and soft tissue. Low delay in a wireless link helped synchronize users' tactile sensations with video images of the probe.

Researchers and marketers have also recently revealed preliminary work or expressed favor for other applications and services that might benefit from ultralow delay 5G networks, including autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, cloud-based advanced manufacturing, and remote collaboration by musicians.

Implications

Some applications seem to have a natural synergy with low-delay networking as it is developing. They include drones, cloud gaming, virtual reality, augmented reality, music production, and high-frequency trading in financial securities. In contrast, service providers face a very high barrier to prove that their networks are suitable for delivering safety-critical information to cars, regardless of whether the information is time sensitive. Similar life-safety issues arise when considering use of networks for remote surgery, but the potential benefits in emergency, rescue, and combat situations may be sufficient to justify the risks.

Impacts/Disruptions

Realizing the vision of truly wide-area ultra-low-delay networks would entail a major overhaul of backhaul and backbone links, not just the invention new mobile-communications technologies. In 1 second, light and radio waves travel about 300,000 km (186,000 miles). Thus, for cloud-based applications that need less than a 1 ms delay, all relevant network nodes must be within 300 km (186 miles) of a human user or a remotely controlled machine. Various sources of additional delays, including electronics in radios and routers, will further limit the range of an ultra-low-delay network. Typically, such delays cause real-world mobile-communications networks, fiber-optic networks, and retail broadband services to impose delays of tens to hundreds of milliseconds. Radio waves travel faster than electrical and fiber-optic signals, but a radio link in a cellular network tends to be limited to a maximum range of a few kilometers.

A statement by Nokia that favors 5G technology for low-latency applications in advanced manufacturing also favors the technology for "extreme high-speed broadband to enterprises and homes." The statement suggests that at least some researchers at Bell Labs (part of Nokia as of the early 2016 completion of the company's merger with Alcatel-Lucent) are considering an eventual large-scale substitution of wireless infrastructure in place of today's ubiquitous wires and cables.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Cellular-network services, fixed wireless services, sensor networks, electronics manufacturers, network equipment manufacturers, managed base-station operation services, government systems, manufacturing, medicine, cybersecurity, physical security, augmented reality, virtual reality, cloud gaming

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Payment Systems and Smart Retailing

Why is this topic significant?

Champions of mobile payment systems seek to transform relationships among customers, merchants, and banks, not just streamline transactions.

Description

Use of mobile payments at brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants has been common for some years in Japan. There, many phones contain the equivalent of a contactless payment card (the technology has much in common with that of near field communication, or NFC), and monthly phone bills include charges for merchandise and transit fares.

Mobile payments are increasingly common in China, where chat apps include payment systems Alipay and Tenpay, which often execute m-commerce transactions for delivery and transportation services. In 2015, news site TechWeb conducted a survey of some 1,600 brick-and-mortar stores in Wuhan, China, and found more than 38% accepted Alipay, Tenpay, or both. Chat apps can also provide visual menus and descriptions of items that are available, so payments are not the apps' only benefit.

In Europe and North America, the benefits of mobile payments have been modest, inhibiting adoption among customers and merchants. Current developments aim to integrate Apple Pay and Google Pay with loyalty programs, and to enable e-receipts to fully replace paper receipts.

Several additional mobile-payment systems don't rely solely on NFC, or don't rely on NFC at all. Payment terminals for Walmart Pay read QR codes that smartphones display. In South Korea, LG has reportedly tested LG Pay, which uses a single physical electronic card that integrates with smartphone apps and emulates a user's multiple existing bank and loyalty cards. Potential also exists for increased mobile use of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, and of the blockchain technologies that these currencies rely on to produce highly tamper-resistant shared ledgers.

Implications

Loyalty programs, e-receipts, streamlined checkouts, and reduced need to carry bank cards might slowly but surely encourage users to adopt NFC-based mobile payments such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay. But a shift toward mobile payments implies that some share of increased market value will likely accrue to technology companies rather than to banks and merchants. (For example, Apple pockets transaction fees when customers use Apple Pay and when they make in-app purchases.) This expected change in industry structure has led organizations—banks, technology companies, and large merchants—to engage in a many-party competitive struggle whose outcome is most uncertain.

Impacts/Disruptions

Business cases in China indicate that customers and merchants need more than just a new way to handle payments. Innovative technology suppliers are pursuing alternative visions of smart retailing. Those visions all entail much use of mobile apps and infrastructure even if financial transactions do not specifically rely on NFC or even on smartphones.

Alternative value propositions for smart retailing could also arise from emergence of indoor navigation technologies. Smartphones can detect radio, ultrasonic, or optical (imperceptible pulses in overhead LED illumination) signals that allow apps and services to guide customers to desired items and bargains. Eventually, customers could experience smooth integration of automated mobile check-out with in-store wayfinding, product selection and reviews, discounts for loyalty, and simplified proofs of purchase in support of product returns, warranty claims, insurance claims, and employee expense reporting.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Retailers, cellular services, smartphone operating system developers, mobile application developers, retail financial services, point of sale terminals, financial infrastructure services

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: