Global smartphone revenues are greater than mobile phone revenues, indicating the way technology is moving. Hakan Eriksson, chief technology officer of Swedish telecom giant Ericsson, says the epicentre of telecom devices and applications has shifted from Europe to the Silicon Valley in California. In a media interaction including DNA at the Stanford Faculty Club, Eriksson talks about the way telecommunications technology is moving ahead. Excerpts:
Is the debate on WiMax versus LTE dead and buried?
Well, there will always be little Wimax, but I have always said that this is not really about technology. We have seen that LTE (Long Term Evolution, the fourth-generation mobile phone technology) is a better technology than WiMax but that is not the main thing. The main thing is economies of scale. We assessed that WiMax at best will end up with a 1% market share, and that is why we didn’t see it worth investing in. We are now being proved right, and many companies are veering round to the same view. But I wouldn’t certainly go out and declare that the debate is over.
Why were there no takers for WiMax? Was it a technology, business or ecosystem issue?
It was predominantly an ecosystem and scale issue. We didn’t see enough benefits on that track. There was 3G, HSPA and then WiMax, but it wasn’t attractive enough to derail everything else going on in the industry.
In India, operators have sunk a lot of money on 3G, which was delayed so much. Considering that, is it too early to talk of LTE for India?
I don’t think so. It’s easy to see things as 2G, 3G, and now 4G as they are sequential things but I don’t think that’s the way the world works. You deploy certain technologies in certain spectrum. So there is 2.6 gigahertz for LTE spectrum, 2.3 gigahertz for BWA (broadband wireless) — which, for a while in India was called the WiMax spectrum; now it’s back to the BWA spectrum, though. So none of these is 3G spectrum, they are not good for HSPA either. Nobody is making equipment in that spectrum. 2.1 gigahertz is where people make HSPA equipment and nobody really makes LTE equipment in that band. And then 900 megahertz is where people make GSM equipment. So the sequentiality is based on which order the regulators give out licences for these spectrums and of course when the standards are set out. But it doesn’t mean you operate in that way; you actually operate in parallel — to use an analogy, just like a grandfather, father and son lead parallel lives. There is so much of congestion in voice in India that the 3G spectrum will just be consumed by voice. So you will need LTE for data. India is one of the few countries where there is very, very little strategy on spectrum.
What kind of a role do you think Ericsson can play in such a scenario? Do you think equipment vendors can come up with India-specific solutions for problems like having just 5 megahertz for 3G and 20 megahertz for LTE, both of which are considered inadequate? And also, there are rural rollout imperatives…
Well one good thing that has happened is that you can now deploy all the technologies simultaneously on single base stations; the Ericsson 6000 Series base stations allow both GSM and HSPA to be deployed on them … you can buy a base station to deploy 3G and 4G technologies instead of going separately. Then we also have scenarios for network sharing where you share the radio access network and it branches out to your core network. Those kind of solutions need to be discussed in India because there are so many operators! No country has so many operators per megahertz (laughs).
Mukesh Ambani is rolling out a massive broadband project in India. Have you had any talks with Reliance on this?
Well, I can’t get into the specifics, but being the leading LTE vendor, Ericsson is in talks with every operator in the world. We have already conducted a public trial with Reliance, which was very successful.
In your presentation you spoke about bandwidth capacities increasing rapidly. But are the network technologies keeping pace with devices which are getting incredibly smarter?
I think we are keeping pace. Today, the average person talks 300 minutes on phone a month, which corresponds to 20 megabyte of data. So if all the 6 billion people on earth talk simultaneously, they are consuming 20 gigabytes. On the other hand, people who use data heavily use around 4-5 gigabytes each. So there is a challenge…
What is the future of wireless technology? What comes after LTE and LTE Advanced?
I think we will see the new technologies. If you simplify, for the short range or indoors, we will see the evolution of WiFi. For wide area coverage, we will see the evolution of LTE. It will be a question of finding the shortest way to some antenna and from the antenna to optic fibre to the cloud. A smart card will keep track of what’s happening and charge you per usage and that money can then be reinvested in building an even better network. But I don’t see a 5G technology coming because we have already reached the ‘channel limit’ of what you can do.
Will fixed wirelines make a comeback at some point?
Nobody wants to be completely connected with the wireline. I think in the end everyone will have only wireless — that is why people have WiFi at home. A revival of the fixed line will depend on regulatory things but from a technical point of view there is no reason for that to happen.
When you talk of machine to machine (M to M) communications, isn’t technology becoming more intrusive? Like there is the signage technology where machines in malls record how your eyes react to a product. Does it mean class-action suits become a business risk?
What do you mean?
You are recording my reactions without taking my permission. People can be offended…
Ok, yeah. That topic is of course always in discussion. For example, take the carmaker Saab. They also make aeroplanes, so inspired by that, they started to put this traffic recorder in their cars to detect exactly what happened before an accident so that they can build safer cars in future. Of course, somebody might have an accident and survive and everything is fine. And then the police may think the most likely reason for the accident was speeding and the cop would say, “Can I please look in that box?”
And the owner of the car says, “I don’t have a box, I don’t care. I don’t want to participate in this experiment of making safer cars because I may get sued because I was speeding instead of getting the claim of my insurance.” (laughs).
Of course that was not M to M, that was just a recording. But then there are washing machine where you can download apps. I would guess Whirlpool, Electrolux and Siemens would love to see how you are actually washing clothes. Are you washing cold or warm? Most machines set their water levels automatically depending on how much clothes you put in. So they can probably detect how much dark, how much light, how many kilos of ... would you like to participate? “It will just be an anonymous average for us to make better washing machines,” the company would say (to induce you). Some would respond by saying: “Hey I don’t don’t want to participate.” Some others don’t care at all. They sit on Facebook and talk about much more private things than how often they wash.
But that’s a voluntary act…
It’s partly voluntary, its partly incompetence. I mean, I see some friends I have or relatives … they think they are talking to each other on Facebook but they don’t realise the whole world is watching.
Some of that is already happening. If you go to Google and search, they are tracking you…
Why that works is because you are not paying for it.
But the point is they are tracking my behaviour without asking me..
Yes, but they have already asked you.
The first time you used Google, I am sure there is a long agreement that you need to check but you didn’t read…
But that’s for Gmail right? That’s not there for Google. But if I move from a mall, look at something and they recorded my iris movement without asking me…
They track everything you do. But it’s much more difficult for someone who is charging you for a service to monetise you. I mean, you can easily get an SMS saying, given the conversation you just had over the phone, we can reccomend the following lawyers… The technology is there to do that. Google does that. Especially on Gmail. And if you are on Facebook … Pop, Pop, Pop! You are sitting, paying your bills through netbanking. Pop! “These are your colleagues who also have a bank account with the same bank. Do you want to chat with them right now?” Then you scream, “No, I don’t want them to know that I have an account with this bank!” That technology is also out there, but you have a different relationship with your bank than you have with your operator and your Facebook.
It is a tricky proposition in societies where people are paranoid about privacy…
I think these things go in phases. Imagine we are living like 40-50 people in a village. Everybody knows everything about everybody. After Industrialisation in the 1800s, we became anonymous. And now we are going back to the old times. I think if we look back in future, we will say, “Well, there were these 200 years in which we were anonymous. Before and after, we weren’t.” The thing is that when there were just 50 people in the village, you knew who knew. Now you don’t know that anymore. That’s the big difference.