Lunch & Learn: Wireless: Revolution and Evolution with H. Vincent Poor

Mobile communications graphic

Anyone, anytime, anyplace.

By virtue of its mobility, portability, and ease of connectivity, wireless connectivity provides users with unprecedented freedom, suggests H. Vincent Poor, Michael Henry Strater University Professor of Electrical Engineering and Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Wireless communications is among our most advanced, and rapidly advancing, technologies, he notes. New wireless applications and services emerge on an almost daily basis, and the number of users of these services is growing at an exponential rate. More than half of the world’s population uses cell phones, and this is only one of a dazzling array of wireless technologies that have emerged in recent times.

At the April 21 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, H. Vincent Poor, surveyed the technological landscape, some of its history and societal implications, emerging developments, and recent issues in wireless research.

Railroads reached near ubiquity in terms of the number of countries using the technology in 125 years. The telephone took nearly 100. Personal computers took 25 years. Remarkably, the mobile phone has taken just 15 years. More than just a personal communications device, it has become an engine of commerce in both the developed an developing world. Indeed, the technology has permitted countries in the third world to leapfrog the need for extensive land lines.

The results are extraordinary, says Poor. There are now more than 8 billion text messages a day, picture messaging has become standard, mobile gaming is growing, and video messaging has begun to emerge. We are approaching 5 billion cellular subscribers with explosive growth in wireless applications covering all key areas, from science and medicine, transportation and commerce, security and defense, through entertainment and social networking. And, as a result, it is a very lucrative business, accounting for more than $1 trillion a year.


The main challenge of wireless, notes Poor, is to provide the services familiar to wired systems, but with mobility. The challenges grow with higher capacity, and more simultaneous users in quickly moving vehicles. New 4G networks promise to provide reliable high speed connectivity for highly mobile users.

The one clear trend, says Poor, is the convergence of computing and communications. The cell phone, now an iPhone or an Android, is now both a computing platform and a communications device. In the years to come, he predicts, cars and homes will become nodes on the internet, inventories will be tracked automatically through built in wireless sensors, and we will habitually use a range of location-based and social networking services.

In his talk, Poor highlighted three areas of wireless research. In each, the application, or “pull” is matched by the “push,” interesting research at the physical layer, the theory and methodology of data transmission.

The first involves securing wireless transmission, a more complex undertaking in the absence of a physical infrastructure. It is possible to exploit the fundamental physics of the network, says Poor, to make them more secure. The idea takes advantage of the fact that individual network connections exhibit different physical properties due to the randomness of radio propagation. On-going research in this area involves coding theory, cryptography, game theory, and cross-layer network design.


The second research area involves sensor networks and distributed learning. Individual sensors within a wider grid measure a subset of large data sets, and each sensor can communicate with neighboring sensors to make optimal inferences about their physical surroundings.

The third research area involves the interaction of the wireless infrastructure with social networks, imposing a complex new structure. A famous problem in social psychology, the small world problem, suggests that any two people on the planet are separated by six degrees of separation. Small network analysis can model individuals and their local and long-range interactions. It turns out, says Poor, that if two people are separated by enough distance, you can conclude that they are separated by a fixed degree of separation and you can compute the figure based upon the size of the world and its population.

Speaker Bio: H. Vincent Poor is the Michael Henry Strater University Professor of Electrical Engineering at Princeton University, where he also Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. His research interests lie in the area of wireless networking and related fields. Among his publications in these areas is the book MIMO Wireless Communications (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Dr. Poor is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and is a Fellow of the IEEE, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the Royal Academy of Engineering of the United Kingdom. He received the 2005 IEEE Education Medal and the 2009 Edwin Howard Armstrong Achievement Award of the IEEE Communications Society.

The podcast and presentation are available.