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Networks, the unsung heroes of today’s connected lifestyle

Networks, the unsung heroes of today’s connected lifestyle

Morgan Kurk, Senior Vice President of Wireless at CommScope

Communication technology continues to evolve at an amazingly accelerated rate. In 1972, with the start of HBO, cable TV began its rapid growth. Later in the decade, the PC era kicked off with the introduction of the Apple II. The cellphone industry broke free in the early 1980s, while the Internet, a mostly educational communication method, became the World Wide Web in 1992.

Today, almost 5 billion mobile subscribers have instant access everywhere to information, according to the GSMA. Soon, billions of unattended devices will be connected to create the so-called ‘Internet of things’ and usher in an era of enhanced environmental awareness. Virtually every industry in the world is now dependent on Internet connectivity after less than 20 years of commercial existence. The backbone of the network – that which makes the connectivity happen – for telecom, cable and other access networks has changed radically over the last 40 years.

We all know some of the big names behind major innovative products in history. Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. Bill Gates and Windows software. Steve Jobs and the iPhone. They deserve to be celebrated for their companies’ major technological innovation.

There are a multitude of inventions that are less visible and well-known, but which have also contributed greatly to the communications industries. For every new smartphone, streaming service and Internet-connected gadget, there’s a network engineer somewhere innovating to ensure the data from these devices is moved quickly, error-free and cost-effectively. Without a robust network behind these devices, they would be rendered virtually useless. While we rarely think of the network as the epicentre of an ongoing series of innovations, that is exactly what it is. Its continued evolution is what enables the services that people have come to love.

Moving back in time, for example, when operators worked to expand cable television networks, they faced technical challenges. The existing coaxial cable was too brittle and had too much signal attenuation. CommScope innovated by introducing Parameter 3 cable that could carry signals farther, was easier to install and was more durable. P3, which became an industry standard, enabled the rapid expansion of the cable networks that revolutionised television and home entertainment and today are a major component in broadband connectivity to the home.

As personal computers took off in the early 1980s, companies began to network them together so that employees could communicate and share resources such as printers. Early local area networks (LANs) were haphazard affairs with cabling running everywhere from along baseboards to near lighting in ceilings. Bell Labs innovated with the first structured cabling system in 1983 – a system of cables and connectors that organised the network so that changes could be made without disruption. Structured cabling became the standard way of connecting devices inside buildings and still is being used today.

In the 1990s, wireless operators began to rapidly build out cellular networks as demand for cellular service increased. The cellular base stations at the time were expensive, and required hard to get backhaul connectivity. Repeaters offered a cost-effective and fast way of extending coverage, as they did not require traditional backhaul. However, they suffered from an interference problem created through their own retransmission. The Extend-a-Cell repeater by Antenna Specialists solved the interference problem through an innovative frequency translation, resulting in a more time and cost effective coverage solution. These types of repeaters are no longer deployed today, but led to other innovations that accelerated wireless network deployments and led to the pervasive wireless world we see today.

How rapidly have communication networks been innovated? Look no further than your electrical socket for the answer. There is a stark contrast between the innovation in communications networks and that in the electric network over the last 100 years. Today’s electrical grid is largely the same as it was since inception. Yes, there have been improvements, but they have been ancillary to the network rather than fundamental architectural migration. One of the major reasons is believed to be because innovation in the telecom industry began as it was deregulated and competition grew. The limited deregulation that happened in the electrical network drove competition in energy creation, but not in transportation.

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and competition drives necessity.

The communication industry innovations have enabled a tremendous shift in the world – the move to a connected lifestyle. Much of the world relies on an omnipresent data network for daily life. CommScope’s recent global study of Millennials, who were born between 1981 and 2000, revealed that they value their smartphones more than indoor plumbing and second only to electricity (the theory being that without power, smartphones would not work). Technology has embedded itself more deeply in our daily lives, economies and entertainment than we ever could have imagined, and it will only get more integrated.

The network technology ecosystem continues to reinvent itself. As important as the innovations from the past have been, it is expected that tomorrow’s ideas will be even more transformational. Operators face a scaling issue with exponential data growth. They continue to face cost and speed challenges with designing, installing, optimising and operating communications networks. And they still need to find ways of minimising their energy consumption while supporting the latest consumer applications.

Over the years, innovations have made network installations faster and more efficient, lowered costs and provided more usable bandwidth. Without them, the industry would not have evolved into the dynamo for economic growth as it has.

CommScope innovates every day to come up with solutions that make communication networks easier to design, simpler and faster to deploy and more efficient to operate. We are proud to have been a substantial partner in enabling communications for 75% of the world’s population. Future success in this ecosystem requires understanding and addressing the network’s most pressing problems, something which can only be done by close interaction with the network operators. The more a set of problems are understood, the more flexible, cost effective and beneficial a solution can be created.

The ecosystem that exists behind-the-scenes will continue to advance the network technology that will enable tomorrow’s connected lifestyle. For 40 years, CommScope has made networks faster, better and more efficient and will continue to play an important role for the next 40. Undoubtedly, we will look back then in wonder at the applications and devices that are enabled by the future’s connected world.