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...