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By David Talbot

Communications news in 2013 was dominated by serial revelations of the National Security Agency’s mass collection of data from major Internet companies and mobile carriers, leading to widespread cries of governmental overreach.

But those revelations, based on leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, were accompanied by remarkable advances in wireless communications. The Snowden documents also galvanized new efforts at making the Internet more secure and private.

The year saw several breakthroughs in basic communications technology. Researchers in China set a new speed record for a version of 4G known as LTE-Advanced. Alcatel-Lucent readied technology for gigabit speeds on last-mile copper networks. And Samsung described tests of a new technology it called 5G; it uses 64 antennas to send and receive signals on ultra-high frequencies. The technology reliably delivers 256 megabits per second, a big jump from the theoretical maximum of 75 megabits per second for current 4G LTE technology. 

The latest version of Apple’s operating system includes the capacity to automatically toggle between different wireless technologies—such as 4G and Wi-Fi—which is a prelude to the use of data-encoding technologies that might split up data and use multiple channels at the same time for far more efficient service. Akamai and Ericsson, meanwhile, teamed up to figure out how to carve out a special wireless data fast lane for customers who pay extra to get things like e-commerce transactions completed as fast as possible.

Long-discussed ideas for opening up bandwidth by sharing wireless spectrum bore fruit during 2013. Several commercial uses of television frequencies for Internet communications expanded. In a new twist, an experiment at a Navy base in Virginia tested the sharing of military frequencies. Perhaps farthest out of all: a new optical technology for space communications was sent aloft in September and tested successfully by researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.

Mobile devices not only got faster this year but also more intelligent. Increasingly, they’ll be engineered to sense their surroundings—and your intentions—to make them more helpful and easy to use.

With this year’s release of the iPhone 5, for example, came a special processor dedicated to analyzing the phone’s motions. This will allow for a more-efficient fitness app. But it also will make possible new kinds of gesture recognition or other apps that make use of always-on sensing. Similarly, the new Moto X, released in 2013 from Google’s Motorola Mobility, includes a processor that always detects and analyzes ambient sounds. This will allow voice-activated “wake up” commands, but is also the first step toward technologies that might do things like automatically compensate for a loud environment or even identify the person you are talking to.

Broadcast news: Aereo sends broadcast television shows to its customers by assigning each user one of the tiny antennas (seen here) it has deployed in a data center.

The disruption of traditional TV expanded in 2013. Startup Aereo marched into 22 markets after an initial test in New York with its novel business of capturing free over-the-air broadcasts on tiny antennas in data centers. Google pushed its high-speed fiber and TV service in Kansas City, and expanded elsewhere; evidence emerged that the result was better prices and faster speeds in those markets.

Such new technologies and altered business models were mainly relevant in developed and rich countries. But in 2013, a spate of new research efforts and investments promised more connectivity in the developing world. Developments included highly efficient base stations providing coverage in rural villages in Zambia and elsewhere, and new prototypes of rugged all-purpose connectivity hardware.  

A group at the University of California, Berkeley, even launched a village-based micro-telecommunications company at a remote Indonesian site, where a base station is now roped into a tree. This demonstrated a way to run networks without the involvement of major national carriers.

These small efforts were complemented by projects involving big U.S. Web companies to expand connectivity. Among them was Google’s investment in fiber networks in Uganda. Google proposed—to some skepticism—a scheme to deliver Internet service from balloons drifting in the stratosphere.

If the Snowden leaks created unease, they also triggered a number of efforts to make life harder for the NSA, and make the Internet more secure and private.

Members of the Internet Engineering Task Force—the informal body that creates Internet standards—proposed that an anonymity tool known as Tor should become a standard so that more people use it. The group also stepped up efforts to make encryption a default setting in Web browsers. Commercial efforts along these lines included ones to make SMS encryption far easier to use

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Credits: Illustration by Tibor Kárpáti, Image courtesy of G. Giralso | Aereo

Tagged: Computing, Communications, Web, surveillance, NSA, spying

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