How LTE Direct Can Free Us From Cell Towers

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Imagine walking into a mall or underground to a subway station, and instead of losing cellular service your phone sends you an alert that your favorite store is running a sale, or that your train is running late, or that one of your friends is nearby. All without the help of a cell tower or a WiFi signal. That vision is the future of connectivity, powered by an upcoming addition to the LTE protocol that your smartphone already uses.

MIT Technology Review reports that a new feature — expected to be added to the LTE protocol that smartphones use to connect with cell towers later this year — would enable your phone to skip the cell towers and communicate directly with other mobile devices, and beacons placed in local businesses. The new technology, LTE Direct, has a range of up to 500 meters — farther than Bluetooth or WiFi — and is included in an LTE update expected to be approved this year. Mobile devices capable of taking advantage of the feature could be available as soon as 2015.

So what is LTE Direct? As Qualcomm, which has been working on the technology for about seven years, explains, LTE Direct “is a new and innovative device-to-device technology that enables discovering thousands of devices and their services in the proximity of ~500m, in a privacy sensitive and battery efficient way.” Because the technology is power-efficient, LTE Direct would enable “always on” proximal discovery, letting your smartphone stay on the look out for other phones to find your friends, and for beacons to find businesses, services, or events.

Existing proximal discovery solutions are cloud-dependent, and “based on the application perpetually tracking the user’s location and comparing it against a database of what is in the vicinity,” while LTE Direct keeps discovery and the determination of relevance at the device level, rather than in the cloud. LTE Direct uses radio signals that can be kept private or made public, and because they use the same radio spectrum as regular cellular links, carriers would authorize and control access to the system. That could create a new businesses for carriers, who could charge companies who want to build apps and services that use the technology.

Devices with LTE Direct capability could automatically discover nearby people, businesses, and information. Beacons using LTE Direct could also broadcast advertising or special offers. Technology Review gives the example of a beacon installed at an airline’s check-in desk. The beacon could offer information on delays to people nearby who are booked on affected flights. LTE Direct can be used like the iBeacons that Apple announced last year, but iBeacon devices use the Bluetooth protocol, which has a shorter range than LTE Direct, and many consumers switch off Bluetooth on their devices.

At Qualcomm’s Uplinq conference in September, the company announced that it was helping partners, including Facebook and Yahoo, to test the technology. Facebook is testing ways to integrate the technology with its mobile app, and Jay Parikh, Facebook’s vice president of infrastructure engineering, said at the conference that LTE Direct would enable Facebook to facilitate “user experiences around serendipitous interactions with a local business or a friend nearby.”

Facebook has tried GPS-based services to find friends nearby in the past, and LTE Direct would represent a much more capable, efficient way to enable Facebook users to find friends or interesting businesses close to them.

Technology Review learned that Yahoo has begun developing apps that use LTE Direct, experimenting with the concept of a digital tour guide that can suggest a route past points of interest, using information it finds online about the places detected with LTE Direct. Beverly Harrison, a principal scientist at Yahoo Labs, says that the app will begin testing in January.

LTE Direct could also be useful in situations when a large number of users are trying to connect to the same cell tower. R/GA, a digital agency in New York, is reportedly designing a system that would keep up to a million people online in and around Times Square on New Year’s Eve. With technology and design consultancy Control Group, R/GA is also interested in using LTE Direct to serve targeted promotions, directing users to nearby businesses based on the type of food or products that they’re interested in, and offering customized deals.

Additionally, the technology could be used to build communication apps that route data from device to device, in much the same way that existing apps use WiFi and Bluetooth to connect mobile devices. As Tech CheatSheet reported in June, an app called FireChat uses multipeer connectivity to enable phones to connect with each other using Bluetooth, without the use of an internet connection or a cell network.

Open Garden, the maker of FireChat, has also extended the app’s capability, which relied on relatively short range of Bluetooth, with mesh networking, which enables communications to get between two phones that would otherwise be out of range with connections to intermediary devices.

LTE Direct will offer better range and better performance than apps that rely on Bluetooth or WiFi. For Facebook and other companies interested in building apps and services with the new technology, LTE Direct will enable the creation of better user experiences with apps that would enable users to find their friends, discover local businesses, and take advantage of relevant ads and promotions. In the very near future, it seems that even in the locations or situations where you would normally be off the grid, you’ll still be able to stay connected, using options beyond the cell tower to stay informed of what’s going on around you.

LTE Direct hotspots could, in theory, broadcast a broadband signal to devices in range, which could then share the signal further. And while Telecoms Tech reports that Christophe Daligault, Open Garden’s vice president for sales and marketing, is optimistic that “in a year or two from now, I think people won’t even remember that you had to be on Wi-Fi or get a cell signal to be able to communicate,” it remains to be seen how quickly the new technology — and the apps that take advantage of it — catch on.

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