How MIT researchers and carriers are trying to fix the wireless data problem

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 24, 2012

From The News Desk

I like to listen to Rdio, a streaming music service similar to Spotify, on my iPhone while I walk to the nearest subway station. It's become part of my daily routine, and I count the service off as I would anything else. Pants? Check. Keys? Check. Rdio? Check. Unfortunately, there's a point where my iPhone automatically switches from using WiFi to using Verizon's 3G service, and that point may as well be the Nile river, so far as my iPhone is concerned.

At that point, songs tend to "hiccup" and pause for a moment. By itself this isn't a deal-breaker – I'm not so impatient as to say that a second of disrupted playback will run my day – it is an annoyance. The switch is the problem: I've had apps stop downloading once I switch to cellular data from WiFi (for which I thank the Apple- and carrier-imposed 50MB limit on cellular downloads) and, whether I'm browsing the Web or trying to do something, that moment when my iPhone has to decide what network to run on is just-plain frustrating.

Fortunately, there are a lot of smart people working on ways to make this transition a little less painful. They're accomplishing this in a number of ways, from improving WiFi range and adding LTE connectivity to improving the way that the underlying technologies, the stuff that makes those WiFi and cellular data signals work.

MIT's "Technology Review" covered one method for improving connectivity on Tuesday, writing about a group of researchers that are using algebraic equations to improve the efficiency of data transfer. Rather than sending information as discreet "packets" that, once dropped, can cause loading problems and worsen already-bad connections, the researchers have found a way to transfer a series of packets using good-old mathematics. From the report:

Testing the system on Wi-Fi networks at MIT, where 2 percent of packets are typically lost, [MIT professor Muriel ] Medard's group found that a normal bandwidth of one megabit per second was boosted to 16 megabits per second. In a circumstance where losses were 5 percent—common on a fast-moving train—the method boosted bandwidth from 0.5 megabits per second to 13.5 megabits per second. In a situation with zero losses, there was little if any benefit, but loss-free wireless scenarios are rare.
For comparison, that's like switching from a shoddy DSL connection to a decent broadband connection. Dipankar "Ray" Raychaudhuri, director of the Winlab at Rutgers University, told "Technology Review" that he expects the technology to be widely deployed within two to three years.

Others are trying to solve a different problem that relates directly to the scenario I described at the beginning of this post: switching between wireless networks. Now, when I cross that invisible line between the WiFi promised land and the world of cellular data, my phone has to adjust and use a different radio. In the future, the hope is that this won't be the case.

When I asked Boingo's Christian Gunning and Xirrus' Shane Buckley about connectivity a few months ago, both said that one of the most important ways that data providers are improving their products is with the advent of the "Hotspot 2.0," a method that would make the jump from WiFi to cellular data seamless. As Gunning explained it:

[With Hotspot 2.0,] carriers can now become network agnostic and move their customers to WiFi when it makes sense and move them off WiFi when it makes sense. Based on any number of factors, they can move people back and forth in a seamless fashion.
Put another way: Rdio wouldn't stutter while I'm leaving my apartment. There are some problems with the arrangement, not the least of which being speed. (LTE networks can be faster – sometimes dramatically so – than WiFi networks.)

These efforts, combined with the trend of brand-subsidized WiFi connectivity in New York and San Francisco, could vastly improve the way we interact with the Web from our mobile devices. In the mean time, here's a little something to hold us over until that day comes: