I was in Slough recently, chatting with Rob Joyce, the phone company O2's head of what they describe as LTE — Long Term Evolution — which the rest of us call 4G, the next generation of mobile phone data technology.
O2 has designated humdrum Slough as a test-bed for 4G data services, which it is developing with the Chinese mobile company, Huawei.
Subject to getting a licence, O2 hopes to offer 4G as early as next year for mobiles and data dongles. 4G already exists in parts of Scandinavia and is going live in US cities soon.
Rob was telling me how fewer than 20 years ago, when he was an academic at Leeds University studying wireless data communication, he was celebrating with his colleagues in the pub one evening the team's achievement of demonstrating a 9.6Kbps (kilobits per second) wireless connection. He suggested that one day, wireless data speeds of up to 14.4Kbps, even 28Kbps, might become possible. He was talked down from such fantasy by his pals, who pointed out that this would practically contravene the laws of physics.
Well, the system Rob and his O2 team now have up and running in Slough was working, when I tried it out, at around 70 Mbps (megabits per second), which is over 7,000 times faster than Rob's Leeds test rig. It's also ten times quicker than the fastest 3G phone or dongle can currently achieve — and 50 per cent quicker than the fastest currently available home or office broadband.
So, within 18 months or so, we should all be able to get on to the internet in a café or on a train using a laptop or iPad type device at speeds 35 times faster than the 2Mbps average current home broadband connection.
There isn't yet a 4G phone available but, when there is, which also won't be long, we will be talking about, downloading, say, a high definition film to your mobile in two or three minutes.
While I was speculating on this with Rob Joyce, he casually tossed in the news that back in China, Huawei is now testing a 1Gbps (gigabits per second) system — 5G for want of a better designation — which is 14 times faster than 4G. So it's reasonable to suppose that by 2020 or so, we will be downloading HD 3D and heaven knows what else (holographic?) movies to our iPhone 10 or whatever in a few seconds. Although it is the kind of sentiment that will doubtless seem comical in 20 or 30 years' time, I am tempted to say this is close to technology as magic.
But just as most of us wonder what billionaires find to do with their money, the question will soon arise of what uses we will find for mobile download speeds of this order. I have a strong hunch about where we are now heading. I recently downloaded to my iPhone 4 a free app called Dragon Dictation, produced by Nuance, which makes Dragon voice recognition software and MacSpeech Dictate, its Mac version.
Dragon Dictation makes it possible to speak all your texts, emails, Facebook statuses and so on to your iPhone and have them converted into text in a few seconds. You speak at normal speed, and it recognises anyone's voice without training. It's fairly accurate and a true convenience.
Now this level of computing is beyond the power of even a sophisticated mobile; today's smartphones are mini-computers, but not very advanced ones. Thanks to existing 3G wireless, though, the computing behind Dragon Dictation doesn't have to be done in your phone; it's done instead by a supercomputer in the US, processed there, and beamed back in a second or two to your phone. (The reason it's free, I understand, is that the company harvests the millions of voices it hears to improve its paid-for software.)
And that's what tomorrow's hyperfast connections are going to bring about - the ability to do ever more complex tasks remotely, using your phone or iPad purely as a 'client' in geek-speak. I wouldn't be surprised if with 4G and 5G we start to see such developments as live, real time, Star Trek-style simultaneous translation apps on your mobile.
It may seem a fantasy now, but never forget that what we all do every day on our smartphones seemed equally far-fetched even to people in the know just a few years ago.
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