The future is all about inter-connectivity. That means data transfer. Here’s your primer for how all that data is transferred – and how we’ll do it in the future.

You probably associate the word data with your smartphone’s ability to give you access to the internet. While that’s not entirely inaccurate, there’s more to it. The rate at which that communication, for instance, is dependent on the speed of your data network. Now imagine the internet as a server and the story begins to unfold. What’s actually happening is that one machine is asking another machine for something.

The internet of things is highly dependent on one device’s ability to transmit noughts and ones to another. That’s called data transfer. When the 5G demos were done at the 2016 Mobile World Congress, it was chiefly machine to machine communication. Finally we have a fast enough communication that can be deployed to make the autonomous car more efficient. The last thing you want to experience when carrering into a ditch is a slow connection.There is information flowing all around us, we just need to stop and appreciate the magic of technology.

What is data speed?
Data speed is the rate at which media is transferred from one device to another. The transfer rate is measured in multiples of bits: the basic unit of measurement in computing and digital communications. The increments are kilobits per second, megabits per second, gigabits per second and terabits per second. Although data speed is dictated by technological capabilities, things like the optimal transfer rates and technology used, etc are regulated.

Who regulates mobile data speed?
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies. The agency manages a variety of services to ensure networks and technologies across the globe connect seamlessly. Standardising telecommunications allowed companies to compete globally without the hindrance of technical barriers. The Radiocommunication sector of the ITU, known as the ITU-R, manages international regulatory frameworks for the use of spectrum and satellite orbits by radiocommunication services. This includes the generations of network standards – that is, regulatory guidelines for mobile communication companies.

4G and LTE – which is best?
As technology changes and improves, so do network standards. 2G was the second generation of network standards, 3G the third, and 4G the fourth. LTE, short for Long-Term Evolution, is simply the natural upgrade path for mobile communication companies and not a complete generation shift. Although LTE does hold the potential for high-speed mobile data transfer, the global average is 12,6 Mbps, writes OpenSignal, a company that specialises in worldwide mapping mobile coverage and performance, in its third quarter of 2015 report. Last year the Singapore-based telecommunications operator StarHub recorded the highest 4G LTE download speed at 38 Mbps.

Mobile data speed in South Africa
By the third quarter of 2015 local mobile communication companies ranked below the global average, reports OpenSignal. Vodacom’s LTE speed ranked 144th globally, with an average download speed of 10 Mbps; MTN ranked at 173rd, with an average 4 Mbps download speed. It’s worth noting that poor data speed is not only the fault of network providers. For network providers to increase data speed, they need access to increased broadband spectrum. Spectrum is a range of electromagnetic frequencies that wireless devices use to transfer data, and this is regulated by Icasa, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. Icasa hopes to auction spectrum to network providers to ensure fair competition, Independent Online reported in February.

NFC
Near-field communication, commonly known as NFC, is used for short-distance data relay. It enables portable devices such as smartphones to communicate at a distance of up to 4 centimetres. NFC data speeds range between 106 and 424 Kbps. Although NFC technology has not become popular in SA, in some countries banks have adopted it as a method for mobile transactions.

Bluetooth
Bluetooth Core Specification, or simply Bluetooth, is the smartphone connection technology of choice for hands-free communication in vehicles and wireless connectivity between computers and peripherals. It allows communication between devices up to 10 metres apart. Latest-generation Bluetooth 4.0-capable devices can transfer data at up to 24 Mbps.

Wi-Fi Direct
Developed as a method for devices to communicate without the use of a wireless access point such as a router, Wi-Fi Direct allows for data transfer at speeds of up to 250 Mbps. The technology was first adopted by Intel in 2008, and has steadily grown in popularity in recent years. Ease of user can set it up. At the moment a limited range of mobile devices and peripherals come with Wi-Fi Direct as a feature, but the mobile industry firmly believes its popularity will grow.

4G now, 5G soon?
Not quite. Globally countries are still actively adopting 4G and LTE, and increasing existing coverage of these technologies. And although much of the world is abuzz with the potential 5G could have on connectivity between devices and even vehicles, the reality is that the technology is at least four years away. The ITU-R recently published a timeline outlining the steps towards the 5G standard, with 2020 being the estimated year for the rollout of next-generation specifications.

5G: from device to data centre

By 2020, 50 billion smart devices are expected to be in use.* 5G will help support the massive growth in the Internet of Things and enable devices to communicate with each other seamlessly through the convergence of mobile communications and computing. 5G networks will also diffuse intelligence across the entire network, from the device to the data centre.

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This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.