Archived Viewpoints

About This Technology

Cell phones and mobile services are simply part of the fabric of most people's lives. Mobile-communications technologies have transformed the way we work, play, and relate to one another. Fourth-generation cellular technology is now available to the majority of users worldwide. Nearly three-quarters of the world's population use at least one mobile phone, with about 55% of mobile-communications users using a smartphone. Roughly 3 billion people make use of smartphones, mobile apps, high-data-rate connections, and new forms of social interaction that generate a steady stream of news and commentary. For many of these people, mobile devices have become highly available channels for just-in-time information access, work-anywhere productivity, find-anything shopping, pay-anywhere transactions, real-time navigation advice, and other transformative offerings.

People often use the word mobile to refer to typical cell-phone services that enable users to remain connected wirelessly to a network even in motion at high speeds. Much interest focuses on the competition among mobile services, smartphone brands, and app vendors. Yet Wi-Fi has become increasingly important for containing the price of data services and industry's costs for supporting increased data traffic on congested mobile networks. Wi-Fi also increasingly helps smartphones control connected everyday objects via cloud services. Additional wireless technologies—especially Bluetooth, GPS, and near-field communication—are also contributing to new waves of innovations, such as wearable devices, location-based information services, and mobile transactions. In some sense, smartphones have become universal remote controls for managing everyday life.

Now that the world has experienced several decades of mobile-services developments, what do technology road maps have in store, and what new applications and services will emerge? Developments in 5G networking aim toward dramatic increases in capacity, bandwidth, and coverage of networks. Such improvements aim to accommodate many wirelessly connected devices per person, eliminate network congestion at peak times, and accelerate creation of new applications. Emerging technologies include rapid creation of software-defined services, support for a greatly expanded Internet of Things, cashierless retail stores, use of artificial intelligence to enhance communications, and use of cellular radios for police and other emergency services. "Softwarization" promises to reduce infrastructure requirements and may offer many opportunities for carriers to outsource and for new partners to perform subsets of network operations. Automation and AI also promise to revolutionize network operations. Other advanced developments promise to use smart base stations and other computers near a network's edge, high-performance links for automated and driverless vehicles in motion, and miniature satellite phones that work anywhere on Earth. Many developers also envision a future that is rich with machine-to-machine communications, wearable sensors, and head-mounted augmented-reality displays that will allow users to multitask while standing and walking, leaving their hands free to use for diverse tasks.