The Mobile Device Bandwidth Arms Race

By Tom Hollingsworth, Blog Contributor
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As I begin to spend more and more of my time on mobile devices, I can't help but marvel at the pace they are keeping to stay current on wireless support. It wasn't all that long ago that my laptop was sporting an 11g PCMCIA card that was barely enough to keep up with the demands I was throwing at it. Now, I can buy a phone that has both 2.4GHz 11b/g/n and 5Ghz a/n support. There are even rumors that the next round of mobile devices are going to include support for the forthcoming .11ac standard. I'm beginning to wonder how much is too much though?


For tablets, faster wireless speeds is a no-brainer. The 7,8, and 10-inch tablet market is quickly replacing the laptop as the preferred computing method for both consumer and enterprise user alike. As more and more applications are released that improve on our ability to do our jobs from a small piece of glass, the need for those applications to be able to perform at peak speed is increasing. It is a much more preferable situation to be performance bound by a processor or by RAM than it is to be constrained by the bandwidth available to your network applications. We've seen quantum leaps from 2G to 3G and now to LTE. Wireless seems to be on the same path. I think that seeing tablets that can take advantage of .11ac would quickly give users a reason to switch. Of course, those big hungry radios will need to have a respectable battery life in order to meet the customer requirements of fast speed and long use time. Add in things like high-definition screens and power hungry LTE radios and you can see some of the challenges.


What about the mobile phone? Does there really need to be a .11ac-capable iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S4? We've spent a large amount of time trying to optimize our websites and applications for mobile viewing. Reducing the amount of content to fit neatly on a 4.3" to 5" screen has also done wonders in reducing the amount of data that is fetched with each call. That gap is only going to grow wider with the advent of technologies like .11ac. You're going to have a 8-lane superhighway dedicated for data packets the size of a tricycle. You also need to think about the issues with battery life that I mentioned above with larger tablets. You think it's hard squeezing battery life out of a device the size of a magazine? Try doing it with a device the size of a deck of playing cards. Some of the greatest technological advances in mobile phones haven't come with radios or communications. Instead, it's been in the batteries that continue to provide 7-8 hours of use with all this extra electrical use. I'll be very curious to see how many mobile phones will end up having advanced wireless radios.


Phablet by MokshaDolphin, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License "Phablet" by  MokshaDolphin 


That brings up another interesting category. What about the mid-range devices that are bigger than phones but still smaller than 7" tablets (the so-called "phablets")? These devices live in rarified air indeed. How do we balance the desire for tablet-sized utility with phone-sized mobility? Does a phablet need the same kind of connectivity it's bigger (or smaller) brethren need? Are these phones? Or are they mini-tablets? Are they something else entirely? Time will tell if these devices end up taking the world by storm like the iPad or become an evolutionary dead end like the Newton.


In the end, I think wireless is going to play a huge role in the relative positioning of each of these device markets. Higher speed wireless radios, like .11ac, are going to make the tablet the go-to device in the next two years for the knowledge worker that is mostly concerned with digesting content in an office area or teleworker scenario. These folks will need high-speed LAN access to servers and content that is formatted for viewing on full-sized computers. On the other hand, the nature of the mobile phone will lend itself less to high speed wireless and more to high speed cellular connectivity. These devices rarely find themselves on the corporate wireless LAN for long periods of time. The need for LTE/5G connectivity is paramount for them as they spend the majority of their time in remote locations. That leaves the phablets. With the ubiquity of high-speed wireless LANs, we may see this device become a sort of "mobile tablet" inside the office, used for quick note taking in meetings instead of lugging the tablet down to the conference room. That would drive adoption of high speed .11ac wireless deployments even faster. However, if the utility of these devices is in the mobility aspect, LTE may be the way to derive the most use from them outside the office. That in turn would leave the wireless LAN to the domain of the full tablets and laptops. Only time will tell how the mobile arms race will shape our wireless landscape.