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Modems still matter. (Part 1)

However, the not-so-humble modem is the foundation, the absolute bedrock, of the global mobile experience and modern, well-designed modems bring immense benefits to the entire mobile ecosystem.

It's simple really: modems are what make a mobile network work. Without them there wouldn't be any mass market for mobile devices and, as LTE, '4G' and Wi-Fi grow in consumer popularity, network complexity is increasing to the point that the vital task of measuring its performance becomes an ever more vital and ever more difficult task.

Of course, as far as the end user of a mobile device is concerned, his or her appreciation of the quality of the network being used is practically determined by the perceived performance of the handset itself rather than that of the network to which the device is connected.

However, the fact is that the performance (and the quality) of cellular connections vary significantly across service providers, geographic location and network load (the number of active subscribers) at a given location.

That's why, despite the blandishments and advertising on which mobile network operators spend so much money, end users soon learn that, in practice, it is almost impossible to achieve the promised speeds. The actual bandwidth available is affected by several factors including signal strength, competing network traffic, the mix of up upstream and downstream communication being generated and the version and limitations of the network communication protocols used by the service provider.

But then the consumer doesn't care about the network - and shouldn't need to. As far as he or she is concerned it's all about the handset and how well it is perceived to work in terms of connectivity, coverage, power consumption, signal degradation, thermal effects (such as how hot a mobile device gets when it is in active use or on stand-by) and so on.

What's more, the all-important 'speed' of any network depends not only on the amount of supported bandwidth but also on its latency and cell phones suffer from very high latency because they provides ether-borne, open-air communications carrying big amounts of bursty data.

And, of course, user experience is predicated on and moderated by the weakest link in the chain of connectivity - be that slow call set-up, feeble data download speeds, excessive power consumption, interference, poor voice quality and a myriad of other niggles that can make a mobile call a bane rather than a benison.

Thankfully, well-designed modern modems can and do mitigate many of these problems but modems are complex and measuring their performance is daunting. It requires a strict regime of benchmarking best practice and continual performance testing to keep things on an even keel.

Consider this; according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley over the course of 2013 to date, more than one TRILLION GB of data traffic has passed across the networks per month and traffic will continue to increase, month-on-month, year-on-year, seemingly indefinitely.

It is evident that pressure on networks is immense and increasing. For example, by 2017, 60 per cent of all new cars shipped will be connected through mobile technologies. M2M traffic is going to go through the roof as is telehealth, e-government, GPS and so on, and so and, so on Somehow this explosion must be contained and managed.

So how will that be done? Well, one way it won't be solved is by just capturing and analysing throughput. Things will have to be rather more proactive and farther reaching than that.

San Diego, California -headquartered comms equipment manufacturer Qualcomm recently held an intensive seminar for journalists during which the latest modem technology was led out of the shadows and into the limelight of centre stage to take a bow and show what it can do.

That will be revealed in the upcoming second part of "Modems still matter". Watch this space.

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