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Written By:

Elena M. Neira, Director of Online Content, IEEE ComSoc Board of Governors

Published: 20 Jan 2015


CTN Issue: January 2015

As we enter the 15th year of the twenty first century, what are the emerging communications technologies that will be hitting the news headlines, and what trends will be at the top of research and development agendas in industry and academia?

Here’s ComSoc IEEECTN list of the top ten technologies worth watching, including possible twists on the horizon for 2015 and beyond. Topics include 5G, cybersecurity, green communications, virtualization, cognitive networks, IoT, smartphones and connected devices, molecular communications, NetNeutrality, Internet governance and fiber everywhere.

These topics were selected with the advice of ComSoc experts, with the help of IEEE Xplore analytics, and with inputs from Google Trends data. Not a perfect all-inclusive crystal ball gazing. Yet as we work on the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology trends, these do seem to be the prime time “must-watch” areas in our industry.


The Mobile Industry is on the move again, innovating and inventing its way to new pervasive always-on, always-connected broadband 5G services. Realizing these services is not trivial; challenges to target x1000 higher throughput of 1 Gbps will need new antenna/RF technologies (Massive MIMO, wider bandwidth), deployment of small cells in higher frequencies (mmWave), shorter transmission time intervals, reduced latency, and new modulation methods besides OFDM.

5G will not only be about a new air interface with faster speeds, it will also address network congestion, energy efficiency, cost, reliability, and connection to billions of people and devices. In 2014 we saw 5G activity around securing funding for R&D work, gaining influence in the specification process, attracting development partners, and highlighting IPR portfolios. In 2015 we will get more concrete answers about: (1) what is 5G; (2) what disruptive technologies are shaping 5G; (3) how fast is 5G; and (4) what will be different in 5G networks, devices and connections. With a 2020 commercialization horizon, this will be the year when we move from concepts to technology trials and standards development.

Virtualization, SDN & NFV

Anywhere you look in the Communications Technology Industry – mobile networks, content delivery, home connectivity, wireless, enterprise, IoT, data centers, cloud computing and backbone networks – you see and hear about “software-ization” as one of the most important transformational forces underway in the industry.

In 2014, we saw open source going main stream with the news that Midokura and Microsoft, the last two major players with closed source solutions, released their source code and went open.  In 2015 open source solutions based on OpenStack, OpenDaylight, OpNFV will continue gaining momentum. This is as far as software and services aspects goes but hardware will also experience a similar trend based on Open Compute. In addition, virtualization will continue full speed in 2015 transforming network computing platforms as well as the architecture of Today’s communication networks.

Cognitive Networks, Big Data

Communication systems handle volumes of data generated by embedded devices, mobile users, enterprises, contextual information, network protocols, location information and such. It is a vast amount of information. For example, a global IP backbone generates over 20 billion records per day, amounting to over 1 TB per day!  Processing and analyzing this “big data” and presenting insights in a timely fashion are becoming a reality with advanced analytics to understand the environment, to interpret events, and to act on them. This is a positive development that helps unleash the intelligence in communications systems where networks are no longer labeled “dumb pipes” but highly strategic and smart cognitive networks.

In 2014 we witnessed the emergence of sophisticated precision analytics and probabilistic methods of processing end-users and network data. This trend will continue in 2015 with further developments of context information residing in the network to decide on things such as the real-time price of a service or app. This and other computations may incorporate the time of the request, the user location, the app originating the request, the current data usage pattern on the network, the overall level of network congestion, the type of data being requested, or any other potentially relevant aspects. The trend includes analytics not only for everyone but also for everything.

Everywhere Connectivity for IoT & IoE

Bob Metcalfe, inventor of the Ethernet, suggested that the power of a network increases proportionally by the square of the number of users. Over time this has become known as Metcalfe's Law: The larger the number of connections to a network, the more powerful that network becomes. As billions of devices connect to the Internet, the Network of networks, and remote interaction with these devices becomes a reality, the power of Internet – per Metcalfe’s Law – is about to grow exponentially.

Over the last year we have seen heightened interest in the Internet of Things (IoT) including several acquisitions by major players such as Google’s purchase of Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. The prediction by the GSMA calls for 24 billion devices all connected to the Internet by 2020, Cisco predicts this number will be 50 billion. Regardless of the exact number, the challenge that IoT faces is that everything sits in isolation. Stating in 2015, there is a need for an IoT standard to emerge, and bring everything together if the prediction of billions of connected devices is to be realized in the long term.

Smarter Smartphones, Connected Sensors

The race to connect the world is creating a device revolution that impacts our lifestyles, businesses, institutions and even the environment. The indisputable rock-start of devices is the smartphone, and its future can’t be brighter. In 2014 we saw that only a few days after the iPhone 6 was released, there are already articles being written about the next-generation iPhone 7. This situation, similar in Android and in other major smartphone platforms, is set to continue in 2015 and beyond.

There is no question that size, shape, and capabilities of these ever-present ubiquitous communication devices are evolving in numerous and different directions. Inside every smartphone resides a large number of sophisticated components such as application processors, modems, sensors, chipsets, radios, and battery. All of them are growing in complexity and numbers; at the same time, their prices – driven by cost and performance improvements in digital technologies – are falling rapidly.  2014 was the first year where the average selling price of the smartphone went down. This trend is to continue in 2015 with low-cost OEMs Xiaomi and Lenovo in the lead.

Disruptive device trends in 2015 will not be limited to the smartphone. Mobile tablets, connected sensors and body-worn wearables will also be disrupted. Google glass, Apple’s Smartwatch and Virtual Reality devices are just some examples. Devices will also continue to find their way into our vehicles (smartcards), into our urban areas (smartcity) and, into our infrastructure (smartgrid). Proof of concept and initial commercialization is expected in areas such as autonomous vehicles, advanced robots, remote infrastructure management and virtual personal assistants.

Network Neutrality, Internet Governance

Network Neutrality (NetNeutrality) continues to be a hotly debated topic among telecommunications industry leaders as well as among law and policy makers and the general public. The Internet as we know it has been operating since its inception under “open” principles, i.e. an open standards-based network that treats all the traffic that flows across it in roughly the same way. These “open” principles are referred to as NetNeutrality and may be summarized as supporting no unreasonable discrimination of traffic. Specific NetNeutrality principles include, among others, no connection blocking, bandwidth transparency, universal connectivity, and best effort service. Can NetNeutrality be sustained in a new word of data-hungry applications and services? Some argue that regulation is needed to prevent hypothetical traffic throttling, unfair raise of fees, and even construction of preferential high-speed Internet lanes. In 2014 the discussion focused around transit and peering agreements among ISPs, and later added Content Definition Network (CDN) aspects. No final decision has been made but we know that governments and institutions around the world will be working on it during 2015. In the U.S. with the FCC set to vote on it in February, more about NetNeutrality this year is a given!

2015 will be a key year for Internet governance. In September the U.S. Commerce Department’s contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will end, and plans to transition control over to governments or to an international organization are underway. The industry is hoping for a resolution that facilitates a fair and neutral administration of the global Internet.

Fiber Everywhere, Gigabit and Carrier Ethernet

2014 was the year of “fiber everywhere” propelled by efforts to improve connectivity and address the demands arising from increased use of high definition video, 3G/4G, streaming, and podcast services. This increased demand exposed existing bottlenecks in the communications infrastructure. The solution that the doctor prescribed was a fresh new round of investments and activity in fiber (FTTx.)

The year started with FTTH (fiber to the home) news from Google announcing in February that it had started discussions with several cities to explore what it would take to bring a new fiber-optic network their communities. This effort is expected continue into 2015. In Western Europe and other mature telecommunications markets around the work the situation is similar and fiber demand is high and driven by FTTH/FTTC. In the FTTdp (fiber to the distribution point) camp, ITU approved the new G.Fast standard with a planned beta-trial for mid-2015, and implementations expected to hit the market by the end of the year.

In the backbone network, the Carrier Ethernet trend is well underway and it will continue to make inroads in 2015 towards 100/400G switching hardware deployments, and around Tb/s of bandwidth.


2014 was most remarkable for demonstrating that everything connected to the Internet can, and will be hacked. On daily basis we heard of retailers (Target, Home Depot, Neiman Marcus), financial institutions (Chase), technology companies (Snapchat, eBay, Sony) being hacked. No one is cyber-safe, and the road to the future leads through new cybersecurity technologies beyond current perimeter firewall-like defenses. This means (1) adding sophisticated risk assessment and mitigation tools; (2) counting on applications’ active role in security; and (3) ensuring availability, integrity, authentication, confidentiality, reliability, fault tolerance and non-repudiation of the communications infrastructure, its related end systems like databases, and its applications.

The coming year will bring significant changes in the security industry as it responds to recent increases and sophistication of cyberattacks. In 2015 we will see the emergence of the next generation of endpoint protection products. We will also see advances in the default use of encryption. Operators will be forced to consider their mobile security strategy in 2015, and seek secure solutions to support the continued rise of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend.

Molecular Communications

Molecular communication is an emerging paradigm where bio-nanomachines (e.g., artificial cells, genetically engineered cells) perform coordinated actions. This new area is considerably different from the traditional communication systems, since it utilizes not electromagnetic waves but biological molecules both as carriers and as information. It mimics communication mechanisms in biology such as communications among micro-organisms. The advantages provided by this “molecular” approach to communications are size, biocompatibility, and biostability.

Recently applications in the biomedical, military, and environmental fields are starting to emerge with the most promising ones in the area of biomedical applications like drug delivery system (DDS), bio-hybrid implants, and lab-on-a-chip (LoC) systems. Nanotechnology, recently, defined a new branch of research called Nano Communication Networks (NCNs), which may be realized by several methods. For example, it can rely on traditional RF communication systems and as such it has to overcome traditional RF design barriers. As an alternative, some researchers have proposed utilizing diffusion techniques which are especially useful for short-range communications. This is a trend not ready for mass market but with an approach so radically different to communications, following its developments is a must.

Green Communications

It is being reported that communications technologies are responsible for about 2-4% of all of carbon footprint generated by human activity, approximately equal to 25% of car emissions, and equal to 100% of airplane emissions worldwide. This data highlights the need to focus on managing these numbers.

So far there has been a big focus on mobile networks because of their high energy use. Basestations and switching centers alone consume between 60% and 85% of the energy used by the entire communication system. Environmentally friendly batteries, renewable energy sources like solar, and intelligent management of the power systems are some of the solutions already part of basestations and related equipment in the field. To realize further savings, power needs to be properly managed over time, thus the reliability of operations turns into a key factor to ensure that the energy savings will be realized. Besides this mobile network focus, there is a 2015 and beyond trend of increased awareness in the industry surrounding total energy usage, compute-to-consumption ratios and related KPIs.


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Statements and opinions given in a work published by the IEEE or the IEEE Communications Society are the expressions of the author(s). Responsibility for the content of published articles rests upon the authors(s), not IEEE nor the IEEE Communications Society.

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