The Big Interview: William Webb

What, no 4G? Futurologist and Ofcom technologist Professor William Webb says the future of wireless is here already

Professor William Webb is a man walking something of a tightrope between two roles.

On one hand, he is chief technologist of regulator Ofcom — and as such has to be seen as an impartial observer of the telecommunications industry — but on the other hand he's also an established futurologist and senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Webb, 39, who lives in Cambridge with his wife and two young daughters, has ten books on wireless communications already on the shelves and another following in January. He was director of corporate strategy at Motorola when he wrote 2001's The Future of Wireless Communications, a book that foretold the convergence of cellular and home networks that can now be seen in products such as BT Fusion. His upcoming work, Wireless Communications: The Future (imaginative book titles may not be his forte) also foresees certain existing technologies being put to more creative use, but beyond that? Not a lot.

"The key conclusion that I came to was that actually we won't see many new technologies over the next two decades, which is a long timespan to look ahead," says Webb. "At least none that make a really dramatic difference."

Not what you might expect to hear from a tech futurologist, and even less so from Ofcom's chief technologist, but Webb's justification is based on a simple combination of physics and economics. "We are getting pretty close to the theoretical limit of what it is possible to send through radio spectrum — you can go a bit further, but you're getting onto a law of diminishing returns, so you need ever more complicated technology, but the gains it brings are ever-reducing, such that you start after a while to say, well, it's just not economically viable."

The basic problem is that there is always a trade-off between range and bandwidth, says Webb. For example, good old GSM (2G) is relatively long-range, but cannot carry much data. 3G won't travel as far, but can carry more data, and so it continues down to technologies like ultrawideband. The proponents of so-called 4G — and even the "long term evolution" (LTE) of 3G — claim they can provide both higher bandwidth and great range, but Webb does not think this plausible.

"It's not impossible, you can do it, but you have to spend a lot of money to do it and it's just not worthwhile spending that much money typically. So it's a combination of technology, economics and the practicalities of spectrum allocation that make this space difficult. Difficult is enough to make it not worthwhile," Webb says.

And WiMax? "We'll have to wait and see exactly what space WiMax fits into, but in the book I argue that the underlying technology for WiMax is not really materially different from the underlying technology for 3G in its capability to carry information across the spectrum. And in practice it could be deployed at higher frequency bands than 3G — if WiMax is deployed in those high frequencies, it will find it difficult just by the laws of physics to have the same range as those 3G systems deployed in the current 3G bands."

This is very tricky ground for Webb, who joined Ofcom at its formation three years ago, having already acted as a consultant for its predecessors, such as Oftel. "Ofcom deliberately chooses not to make predictions of the future, because in doing so we may bias the market and, indeed, we would almost certainly upset certain people who we effectively say in our prediction are likely to do less well than others — given the perceived role and power of Ofcom, that could affect their funding," he points out. He stresses that the views contained in Wireless Communications constitute a personal prediction.

That prediction is not one of wireless technology grinding to a halt, however, but one of new and innovative services coming out using the technologies we already have. "In many respects this technology stability that I am predicting will be helpful for applications, because it is very hard to write applications when the underlying technology base is forever changing," Webb says. "So, as 3G and Wi-Fi and these other systems settle down and become more widely used, the applications will grow and we may well see the equivalent [on handsets] of what's happened in the internet quite recently with MySpace and YouTube and so on."

This brings us back to the two big problems for such futuristic handsets — input and display. In the first case...

...Webb sees speech recognition coming of age, but not on the device itself. "Your device, even if you're sending a command to it, may send that command as an analogue waveform off to the network, where a network processor works out what you said and sends it back to the device in text form or some machine-language form," he says, reasoning that this would enable both faster processing and easier updating of the central database if, for example, a new word came into widespread usage.

On the display front, Webb reckons we will see "large touchscreens that have a bit more intelligence behind them and are a lot more predictive".

"Potentially this brings great benefits, because if your mobile device can communicate with other devices in your home then it can become the one remote control for everything, and you don't need to learn, for example, how to reprogram a timer that you're using to turn the lights on and off. Your mobile phone will talk to the timer and work out its particular mode of operation and what to send it."

These smart homes form part of Webb's other big prediction — a surge in the use of Wi-Fi-based mesh networks, combined with small sensors. "We'll see home automation gradually happen over time," he says. "Some will be security sensors, some will be temperature sensors, some will be machines that have these built in and just mesh among themselves in the home and send the information back."

Webb even suggests that this sort of domestic upgrade could help realise Gordon Brown's recently stated vision of new builds being "zero-carbon". "There's potential for wireless to be helpful there because if you can coordinate the use of everything in the home that uses electricity, then you can start to automate that in an intelligent fashion," he argues. "So you can have clever systems that detect that there's nobody in the house and change the heating appropriately or whatever, to be more energy efficient."

The rise of mesh was one Webb prediction that crossed over into the remit of his job at Ofcom, where he takes a leading role in the regulator's research and development (R&D). It was this work that recently saw Ofcom announcing great potential not only for mesh networking, but also for dynamic spectrum access (DSA), a system whereby handsets would be able to automatically receive pricing information from a variety of wireless network types and choose which was cheapest or most efficient to use at the time.

Webb agrees it is somewhat ambitious to expect operators to play along with such a scheme, but insists that what Ofcom has done "is just to try and show that technically it is possible, to allow the subsequent commercial debate to start to happen, if indeed it should happen". If the operators ignore Ofcom's work, there is nothing the regulator can do except ask why. However, says Webb, if a new entrant to the wireless market ("Tesco or AOL or someone like that") finds themselves blocked by other operators from taking up DSA, then Ofcom might be able to step in on the basis of competition law.

It could be said that this demonstrates a central dilemma for the regulator as a whole. One focus of its R&D is to anticipate emerging technologies "before the lack of regulation starts to impact the ability to innovate" — ultrawideband being a case in point. However, the other focus — and a big reason why the Treasury funds this sort of R&D — is to make the use of spectrum more efficient.

Hence, while DSA has great potential to do this, Ofcom still cannot force it on the market. "Everybody would benefit" and "the Treasury would effectively get payback on their investment" (Ofcom argues that spectrum usage contributes 3 percent of the UK's GDP), but Ofcom also needs to avoid competing with industry's research, or effectively funding the research of any particular company. Instead, Webb argues, Ofcom's work on DSA is "blue sky" thinking which it hopes will "stimulate some downstream industry activities".

"For example, with cognitive radio, we wouldn't do that kind of research. We have done research in cognitive radio, but what we're doing there is more a kind of review of what is happening across the whole research space, in order to inform our policymaking," Webb says.

Either way, Webb and his research team at Ofcom are currently awaiting news on whether their spectrum efficiency work will continue to be funded by the Treasury. "Our research for five subsequent years is not guaranteed," he says.

"Our view is, that is very valuable work that generates benefits well in excess of its cost, but the final decision will rest with the Treasury on this one."

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