People on cell phones

Generation 5G

Could giant cell phone towers soon be relics?

NYU Abu Dhabi engineers are dialing into an advanced, next generation telecommunications model they say could improve mobile service, reduce demand on aging cell phone towers, and reward people willing to share data connectivity with others nearby.

Currently, cell phone traffic has to go through a basestation, which can cause dropped calls and weak internet connections if there are too many users in the area or if you’re too far away, like in a tunnel or basement.

Communication between individual devices, however, could transmit data quickly in short-range interactions, which would eliminate the need to send information through a tower.

Device-to-device (D2D) technology is complex but the concept is fairly simple: it works similar to personal hotspots shared between individuals. Each person is like a temporary router. The results: better connectivity between users, less traffic going through cell phone towers, and less money needed to maintain them.

To enhance mobile service, we need more routers to forward data. Instead of adding more basestations, the operator can develop device-to-device communication and a reward policy to encourage data sharing between users.

Jian Gao, PhD candidate in engineering

Data-Sharing Model

“Telecommunication companies currently provide 4G networks in the UAE through big mobile phone towers,” explained Jian Gao, PhD candidate in engineering. “When person A makes a phone call, the signal goes through these towers to reach person B. With a growing population, more towers are needed to provide a quality connection. To cover the cost, person A is charged for making a call. This type of transmission is a waste of resources if person B is physically in the area.”

Instead, Gao’s model proposes using a local device — person C — to transmit the data, and importantly, to incentivize person C to share. For example, they could get paid directly by person A, paid by the phone operator, or receive credits and a trust score.

Incentives are a critical component of the scheme, he said, because if the system has a good incentive policy there will be enough users encouraged to forward data. In theory, “the more crowded a city is, the better mobile service it will have.”

But the model isn’t perfect, yet. Crowdforwarding uses a lot of data and battery life, at a potential cost.

Information security is also a challenge. “The next part of our work is to figure out how to keep the network away from attackers and viruses,” he said.