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Breaking Down the Top Communications Trends and Challenges

Aug. 30, 2019
Yesterday’s communication technologies bring about tomorrow’s advances, while network necessities drive connectivity and development beyond today’s limitations in preparation for the future.

Whether it’s the past with land mobile radio or the future with 5G, communication trends and issues dominate many design considerations, especially with the advent of IoT. I talked with Dave George, President and Chief Technologist at Pryme Radio, about trends and issues in the communication and electronics industries.

Dave George, President and Chief Technologist, Pryme Radio

As a communications industry thought leader who’s been publishing trends predictions for a long time, did anything in particular stand out this year?

Yes in fact, while researching this year’s forecast, I experienced an epiphany—history is integral to future development. Trends projected long ago are now past, yet they paved the way to the present and will set the stage for what’s to come as communications continue to evolve.

How do you see the past coming affecting the future of electronic design?

One of best examples, which applies to engineers as well as many industry verticals, is the transformation of land mobile radio (LMR). LMR was once the predominant form of communications in both public and private sectors. However, range and audio quality shortcomings, as well as cost prohibitive infrastructure, eventually forced the transition toward alternative technologies. In 1996, the first commercial push-to-talk (PTT) service over cellular infrastructure (PoC) was introduced in the U.S. and users began augmenting LMR devices with PTT applications on smartphones, which often could communicate with radio systems when radios couldn’t.

Since then, PTT has evolved exponentially, primarily driven by the advent of Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks, which evolved from digital narrowband technologies and its analog predecessor. When PTT became PoC and integrated the use of smartphones and tablets optimized by advanced PTT accessories, the transition from LMR began in earnest and true mobile communications was born.

What are some of the top communications trends you foresee in relation to electronic design?

One of the key changes happening in the electronic design space is a convergence of technologies and capabilities. Cross-industry cooperation is creating multi-integrations of software and hardware, in addition to customized manufacturing and services. Meanwhile, IT is behind the shift from current communications infrastructures to cloud services and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

However, as with most advances, there’s a mix of both opportunities and challenges. Adopting new technologies can be pricey, as can integration with legacy systems. Consequently, for now and in the near future, communications will run on a convergence of systems to ensure uninterrupted connectivity.

The transition continues to promote development of hybrid technologies and gateways that enhance radio systems by allowing the use of commercial broadband networks. Perhaps some devices will be two-way radios with built-in LTE boards or vice versa. Either way, there’s increasing demand for technologies that serve multiple purposes and allow users to consolidate programs and devices. Engineers are heavily focused on developing electronic devices that are feature-packed, yet smaller, while also being much more rugged and reliable.

Where do you see network connectivity taking us down the road?

We’ve come a long way since analog. Digital narrowband, third generation (3G), LTE, and Internet of Things (IoT) are just a handful of next evolution networks that have arisen over the years. My philosophy has always been that, ultimately, it’s all about the network. Because network advances for future connectivity are continuously ongoing, I refer to it as “the next evolution network.”

5G mobile broadband services are the latest buzz. This high-speed, low-latency wireless cellular network will play a significant role in connecting large quantities of smart sensors, devices, and equipment. The sixth generation of mobile technology (6G) is already on the horizon, which will become integral with the ever-increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and vehicle automation.

Next evolution networks are notorious for inspiring new product development. Engineers will need to develop smaller antennas, semiconductors, and other wireless communications components to keep up with the capacity and higher frequency of emerging networks.

Low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites may eventually succeed in delivering high-speed broadband internet access to developing countries. Of course, this will have wide-scale impact in many areas, particularly for those who need data collection like environmental monitoring (measuring climate, managing disasters, locating natural resources, etc.)

For example, Earth-observation satellites will be able to measure sunlight, fluorescence, and soil quality for food production. With the addition of IoT sensors on the ground to determine soil moisture, pH, and so on, combined with GPS data to control spraying and fertilizing equipment, farmers will receive near real-time status, giving them the ability to optimize yields.

M2M satellite-based IoT will also provide connectivity to real-time location-based monitoring of critical systems in remote areas, which support emergency services, transportation, shipping, engineering, and many other industries.

Conventional satellite communications can no longer manage the load and operators are working toward higher frequencies and wider bandwidths that deliver faster throughput for real-time capabilities. The entire future of digital transformation is contingent on rapid and reliable communication services, which is why I believe it all comes down to the next evolution network.

Which technologies do you think will lead electronic design evolutions?

The inevitable arrival of autonomous vehicles is a big one. Engineers are laser-focused on safety, which entails creating vehicle guidance systems that encompass stereo cameras, radar, proximity sensors, signal processors, and network services for vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

Meanwhile, AI is at the top of the list as well. Object detection and audio processing are advancing by the second. The speed of object-recognition networks is increasing so fast that they’re able to detect images in almost real-time. 

IoT telemetry is another technology poised for infamy. Sensors are the key source of data input in telemetry, the automated communications process for collecting measurements, monitoring, and analyzing data from remote areas. As sensor and device numbers continue to skyrocket, the data rate will jump from fairly low to what’s now referred to as big data. That’s where IoT enters the telemetry picture.

Designing unique and specialized sensors is a direction I see Pryme moving toward. We already have extensive experience with the operating environments, and more IoT/RFID chips and modules become available every day from major players like Texas Instruments, Silicon Labs, Qualcomm, Nordic, and dozens more.

What’s the biggest challenge we’ll face during the digital transformation?

Developers will face the issue of coordinating communications between operating systems and a broad range of complex architectures. Open-source solutions will help address some of these problems by allowing multicore configuration.

Never fear, electronics engineers are always building a bigger, better mousetrap—or system, as the case may be. The old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” couldn’t be any truer. The success of all communications is riding on how well we interpret the past, adapt in the present, and prepare for the future.

Dave George holds 29 patents and is the inventor of multiple award-winning products. An RF engineer for over 40 years, George is a key influencer in the public sector’s transition from radio to broadband. He is considered an industry thought leader whose keen insight is renowned in the communications technology field. Aside from running a successful communications accessory company, George also coaches a Southern California high school robotics team.

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