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Similar to how some sci-fi fashions excuses for going back to swords instead of lasers, I'm looking for something that fosters are more cable-bound society – disrupting wireless communication on the more personal, local scale. So no global comm blackout or anything in that magnitude, just more wired headphones, ethernet-like networks, landlines etc.

EMP, solar flares or similar events seem like a rather temporary solution where replacing equipment or switching to different frequencies would resolve this within a decent enough time frame.

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    $\begingroup$ "getting back"? wired has many benefits over wireless. much higher bandwith, lower latency, lower cost (purchase and operation), less vulnerable to interference, no random disconnects because some cheap manufacturer couldn't be bothered to implement the protocols correctly, ....... the only device i have that's not running almost exlusively on wire is my phone. $\endgroup$ Feb 2 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ Extremely paranoid societies $\endgroup$
    – n00dles
    Feb 2 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ @eps: Still takes (sometimes a lot) more effort than with wireless. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Feb 3 at 2:44
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    $\begingroup$ @eps while wired cables aren't absolutely secure (as is nothing except quantum cryptography), it is orders of magnitudes more secure than wireless. especially with fiberoptics, since it's very difficult to tap it without breaking the signal, making both sides immediately aware of someone trying to tap in. $\endgroup$ Feb 3 at 10:31
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO We even went to the bottom of the ocean to intercept soviet signals which could also mean "we had to go to the BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN just to be able to intercept soviet signals" $\endgroup$
    – Josh Part
    Feb 3 at 15:44

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Wireless communication can be intercepted or tampered with in any place, as long as the wireless signal is present.

Cable communication, on the other hand, can only be intercepted or tampered with by getting physical access to the cable. In a world where jamming and intercepting devices are given away as freebies with the basic meal at every fast food joint, shielded cables become the only way to communicate from point to point.

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    $\begingroup$ I thought about "drive-by jammers", too, which also would create the situation that some gated communities would have a much more "modern" feel. $\endgroup$
    – mhd
    Feb 2 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ A fun example of this is Battlestar Gallactica (the 2004 reboot series). The creators wanted to include some 1970s through backs; so, they made the Cylons so good at hacking, that human Cylon War era warships were designed completely around unintegrated, and wire based systems. So you had fun seemingly anachronistic things like a space ship with a lan-line phone on the bridge. So that communications inside the ship could not be tampered with or used to propagate a hack. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 2 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I think it was more that all the fancy newfangled wireless-controlled ships were easily hacked and destroyed in the initial attack, while the Gallactica was spared because it was old and outdated and had everything hard wired. The first episode was about the ship being brought in to be decommissioned and retired just before the attack. It's like if they hacked the world's navies and disabled every ship in every fleet except for the USS Constitution - that old wooden sailing ship currently serving as basically a museum - and that ship now held the entire future of humanity... $\endgroup$ Feb 2 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman Yes and no, the Gallactica was an old ship left over from the 1st Cylon War ~50 years before. They explained that ships from that era were intentionally designed that way because the Cylons were such good hackers. When the 1st Cylon war ended, newer ships were designed with integrated systems again because they were made to fight other humans, not a second Cylon invasion. It would be more like a modern army getting wiped out by a biochemical attack and only the guys with old WWI style MOP gear being prepared because biochemical weapons are so rarely deployed now. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 2 at 21:38
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    $\begingroup$ I also recall a that Gallactica additionally had is computers compartmentalized, if one system was comprised the other systems were safe. There was a early episode about the nav computer being joined to another system to increase throughput but also the inherent risk. Also why I think it is dumb that the computers that run the critical systems of our cars are allowed to have internet access. Only if manufactures /wanted/ to spend money on security and not something dumb, like a dedicated TikTok UI button. $\endgroup$
    – RomaH
    Feb 3 at 0:28
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Everyone is watching super mega deluxe high definition 3D holographic cat videos

Basically the bandwidth needed for each person to watch media has outstripped the capacity of wireless communications. Add in a situation where you have a high population density (everyone is now in mega towers) so there is a lot of (non-intentional) interference and competition for wireless bandwidth. Then the only way to reliably get the data will be with a cable, otherwise you'd have to be some sort of poor person who is only able to watch cat videos in mega deluxe format instead of super mega deluxe.

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    $\begingroup$ Of note: getting more bandwidth out of wireless communications means increasing the frequency which makes wireless unable to pernitrate walls as well. If wireless tries to keep up, eventually it will become something you can only use in direct line-of-sight with your WAP... at which point you might as well be plugging in. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 2 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @n00dles It might, if the Bluetooth bandwidth is also saturated due to the number of users in a given area. (Also, Bluetooth shares frequencies with the 2.4GHz band of WiFi. So do many non-standard interfaces such as Logitec's keyboards and mice.) $\endgroup$
    – Brianorca
    Feb 2 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Brianorca And almost everything else because licensing is trivial for the band, though it’s increasingly common that higher quality stuff is actually just using IEEE 802.11n in p2p mode in that frequency band with a proprietary protocol on top instead of going full custom (Logitech's ‘Lightspeed’ stuff, as well as the old Nintendo Wii U controller, work like this). $\endgroup$ Feb 3 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ @n00dles Wireless mice and keyboards are some of the worst offenders for random interruptions and dropouts, I've never had one wireless input device that was genuinely 100% reliable and I've since stopped using them completely. $\endgroup$
    – Rastilin
    Feb 4 at 6:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Well, I, for one, welcome our future high-bandwidth xray communication towers... $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Feb 4 at 16:27
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Those are power cables

In the 23rd century, you can fit a supercomputer onto a microchip. Any good household electronic has a superchip. You need them to run SpaceApple's client-side services, encrypt and decrypt communications in 4,194,304-bit, put the software logs on a blockchain...

But the electricity still needs to come from somewhere. Chemical batteries can't be made small enough to power these chips. Sure, some of the old tech still runs on battery power, but it's like using a flip phone in 2022. Anything modern needs to be plugged into the power grid.

or they remove heat.

Maybe battery technology is good enough in your world. These devices are still throwing a lot of heat. Everything from headphones to smartwatches would get dangerously hot at full capacity, if it weren't for the coolant lines carrying away all that waste heat. You can either use all your electronics in low-power mode like a caveman, or keep the coolant lines plugged in like a normal person.

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    $\begingroup$ AND when you are connected through a power/heat cable anyway, you might as well run data across it too. $\endgroup$ Feb 3 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ Instead of coolant lines you could just make electric heat removal systems compact (fans, heat pipes, air conditioners, thermoelectric, whatever) but they consume lots of power that batteries cannot provide. The computer might be energy efficient since it ideally just has to manipulate non-physical information, but the cooling system still need to obey age old mechanics. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 4 at 5:38
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A society where most people work/school from home

Overall, cables are generally far superior to wireless in almost every way - more energy efficient, more reliable, more secure - with the one exception being, naturally, that you can move around with a wireless connection.

In this future, people rarely travel outside of their homes for work. There's less need for a cell phone when you have a perfectly functional desktop to jack into cyberspace. You don't need a phone to call your family because everyone's in the house already. You don't need a phone to call your friends because they are also at home and can plug in at any time.

Houses can be outfitted with an alert system so anyone in the house can know when they've got a message, even if they aren't sitting by their computer at the time.

The only time people will leave their homes will be for exercise or physical recreation - but increased prevalence of home VR systems that include physical activity can reduce the need for this as well.

Cell phones might still be used by some people, but they will become less ubiquitous, and service might only be found in areas people go for outdoor recreation.

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  • $\begingroup$ This also fits in with another sci-fi trope: Screens everywhere in the house. And using face-recognition "your" screen follows you everywhere, whether you're in the office (a room in your flat), cooking or chilling on the couch $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Feb 4 at 11:25
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Prolonged and Significant Lithium Shortage

On reason we've been able to increasingly make a large number of items be wireless does sort of rely on our current level of battery technology - this is partially inspired by @tjlaboss's answer about how the reason things are wired is that they're power cables, and working to figure out what would require battery tech to not be able to withstand the output of our devices.

There are a few different types of batteries, but when focusing on rechargeable batteries, there's an easy way to note why Lithium-ion based batteries are significantly used today:

1.) They have a higher capacity than Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) and Nickel-Cadmium (NiCad), or even Nickel-Zinc (NiZn).

2.) They discharge at even 3% less per month than the next best option, NiZn batteries.

3.) They have high voltage outputs, so you don't need to chain 4 or more* batteries in series just to power a device at a time.

1.) helps deal with the discharge in 2.), and both of them are affected by 3.).

So getting rid of lithium batteries would put a strain on the use of wireless devices. If lithium batteries are removed and the next best options are used - it's likely smartphones/cellphones and wireless headphones would be strongly incentivized back to wired connections to save on the need to actually have and replace AA or AAA batteries every so often*. And the easiest component to put a stranglehold on is lithium itself - while it can be used in semiconductors as well, although those have alternatives as well that work, such as silicon, germanium, and gallium arsenide.

How you get there could be a matter of labor shortages in the mining process, or a reduction in available lithium in the world, or large amounts of fiery accidents that cause us to go through it quicker without being used in wireless products properly, thus reducing the output of lithium batteries.

That said, it'll need to be a significant amount of a lithium shortage to really make this change a permanent effect in the future - we apparently had a 9-12% supply deficit in 2021-2022, and people are still able to get access to lithium batteries for manufacturing purposes.

*Based on the math some people made here, it varies how many batteries you may need to charge a phone with AA batteries - anywhere from 3 to 13 batteries, depending on how much you need to charge a phone. With a rough estimate here indicating that you would need to have 2 batteries being charged 1000 times to keep the phone charged for a year. That amount of work to keep a wireless device wireless will likely lead to people increasingly going for wired AC power powered devices where possible.

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    $\begingroup$ keep in mind that there's lots of future battery technologies on the horizon... sodium-based batteries may replace lithium in a few years, and that's available en masse $\endgroup$ Feb 3 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ Key word being "may" - a brief look at Wikipedia indicates that the main issues with sodium-ion batteries is its energy density, though I hadn't looked too much in to that; as I understand, that would be more useful in larger devices that could offset the weight and size of a sodium battery? $\endgroup$ Feb 3 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ @FranzGleichmann I dunno...I've been hearing that for the past 20 years and the only real changes that have happened are that NiMH have mostly replaced NiCds and not really for performance reasons. And LiPos but those were around back then too. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 4 at 0:13
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexanderThe1st also, wearables wouldn't disappear, they'd just get clunkier and with slightly shorter use-time. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Feb 4 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok: That is a fair point - wearables would mainly get clunkier, but with shorter use-time, the easiest way to regain on that is usually to disable wireless features (i.e. how phones can have their battery time extended in Power Saving Mode by disabling Wifi and 2-5G antenna bands), which I feel would lead to more wired devices regardless Possibly landline re-routing for wireless phones, for example, to avoid using wireless power requirements of a smartphone like device. $\endgroup$ Feb 4 at 23:27
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Biological sensitivity to electromagnetic fields.

Wireless devices work by generating EMF--electromagnetic fields. The brain relies on electric signals. While there hasn't been an overabundance of study on the exact mechanisms (though there are some interesting theories), there does seem to be some interaction between the two. Some individuals are sensitive to EMF and experience a range of symptoms (headache, dizziness, tingling, insomnia, lack of focus) when exposed to things like wifi, cell signals, and bluetooth. As the WHO's article notes, there are other theories about what could be causing these symptoms. But setting aside some of the wilder conspiracy theories about 5G, it makes sense that there would be at least some interaction between manmade electromagnetic fields and the natural electrical currents in the human body.

One way that individuals who associate physical discomfort with EMF deal with their sensitivity is by avoiding wireless signals and sticking to cables. (My husband is one such individual, and we use ethernet and a land line most of the time.) Cables still generate some EMF, but nowhere near as strong as wireless devices.

Your society could be a few steps beyond ours in figuring out some unforeseen side effects wireless devices have on the body and be taking precautions. You're not limited to EMF sensitivity as we know it; maybe they've learned there's some more dangerous health effect. "Cancer" is quite a buzzword (one that has been thrown out there already), but your imagination is the limit.

If you're dealing with a society of non-humans or augmented humans, you could also argue that something about their neurology makes them more vulnerable to strong EMF. Not that telepaths would need landlines, but people with sensitive brain implants or delicate neural chemistry might. If you go this route, just don't make your folks too sensitive, or their planet's magnetic field will also become a problem.

These solutions wouldn't make wireless technology unfeasible, just undesirable. But depending on what you're going for, biological limits might be as effective a motive as--or even more effective than--technological limits.

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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of studies that already tie RF exposure to increased rates of cancer... yet the conclusions of these studies are often "but it's non-ionizing radiation; so, it should not matter. Further research is need." or "but this has not been tested on humans, so further research is need." Researchers were VERY resistant to make hard stands about thier findings about smoking for decades before they really started saying smoking is bad for you, and people are a lot more addicted to wi-fi than we ever were to nicotine. Once the denial wares off, I would expect this to be our future. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 2 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ Good point. There are also concerns with the magnetic fields generated by power lines. But I doubt there will be much funding for research unless something catastrophic happens; there's already so much infrastructure in place, and it'd be a major financial and practical hassle to redo something that well established. If mhd is dealing with a future earth, there'd have to be a lot of convincing taking place before society would change direction. $\endgroup$
    – RLoopy
    Feb 2 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ This is the only good answer here. Security and bandwidth are not an issue for us today, and won't be in the future, especially for such applications as transmitting voice (land lines/head phones). $\endgroup$
    – ciamej
    Feb 3 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ Another point might be that in the future people become more sensitive to EMF, because of pollution, genetic changes, lifestyle, or some other factor, much like autism seems to become more common nowadays. $\endgroup$
    – ciamej
    Feb 3 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ The mind boggles when I think of the increase of ambient RF in the last 28 years, when cellular telephony first became available in my country, then extrapolating that to some future date. $\endgroup$
    – frIT
    Feb 4 at 7:54
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Security seems the obvious one. For example, some people have quantum computers so can hack existing security schemes. Most people do not have the processing capacity for quantum safe encryption. Therefore you cannot secure wireless networks against intrusion. The solution is wired communication. It does not solve all your problems, but it does protect against some of the easiest methods of breaking your security.

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    $\begingroup$ Quantum computers aren't a magic bullet. There already exist key-exchange systems that don't require asymmetric keys, and quantum algorithms only give you a speedup when cracking symmetric cryptography which can be resolved by increasing key length. Both techniques are decades old. The key exchange systems aren't as handy as public-key ones, but they work OK. Post-quantum cryptography won't require silly processing power either, given how astonishingly powerful modern computers are. $\endgroup$ Feb 2 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, besides the effect that ubiquitous quantum computing would have on any setting (or at least on me having to research that) is that this seems like a temporary solution, too, where you "just" need to replace the crypto schemes. $\endgroup$
    – mhd
    Feb 2 at 11:31
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    $\begingroup$ It doesn't require any new technology like quantum computing; just a mathematical breakthrough. Almost all of our encryption is based on the prime factoring problem, a mathematical problem that's believed to be intractable. A lot of the rest is based on another seemingly impossible math problem. Some genius mathematician may come up with a solution; it could happen tomorrow or a thousand years from now. And then all our encrypted data is wide open to anyone who wants to read it. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Feb 2 at 19:19
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Two advantages of cables are data security and avoidance of interference.

People want to do more and more things with data, but there is a limited amount of wireless spectrum that everyone has to share. If you're using wireless technology you're already using cables: there are cables carrying data to/from the cellular towers, and cables going to/from your wifi router. This trend will continue: wireless base stations will be shorter range, higher bandwidth, and closer to you, but still you won't be happy with the bandwidth limitations. Plugging into a direct line will be more and more appealing as a way to get a bandwidth boost for gaming or video. Houses will probably start to have ethernet sockets in every room just like they have power outlets today. Teenagers will develop fashionable ways to wrap cables around their bodies and incorporate them into their outfits. Wi-fi will come to be seen as an old fuddy-duddy's technology (like those cell phones with giant buttons) and the young won't want anything to do with it.

The security angle will be pushed by businesses. Corporations and insurance companies will insist on cables. (Even a bluetooth mouse or keyboard can be a vector for hacking, after all!) These two reasons will work together to make cables more and more appealing.

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So, we've thoroughly covered security, stability, bandwidth and interference already. Let's see what else we can come up with.

Idea #1: forbidden by policy

The Great Terrorist Attack of 2049 was so wildly successful (for the terrorists) because they had wireless communication and could easily organise themselves and dodge every counterstroke. In the aftermath The Government cracked down on all wireless communications. They are now the exclusive privilege of the law enforcement. Sure, you can set up your home wifi or have a wireless landline phone installed - but nothing that can send a signal beyond 50m is allowed. Punishments are swift and harsh.

Idea #2: crowded airwaves

Any particular frequency only has so much bandwidth and there are only so many usable frequencies. When it's all used up, well... it's used up. And currently wireless all communication is used up by... rolls dice... Pick one or more:

  • The shipping industry. Everyone loves drone delivery, especially in the age of Covid-58, but that swarm needs CONSTANT communication to function efficiently, and gradually we, as a society, gave up the airwaves to them. We're all staying at home anyway.
  • Transportation. Self-driving cars/boats/airplanes/helicopters/etc. are norm, but to function safely and efficiently they need to be in constant touch with each other. And since there now are so many people, and most have their own personal vehicle, well...
  • The rich people. It's not that wireless communication doesn't exist, it's just expensive as hell, because the airwaves are so crowded by the people who can afford them. And they are used to their luxuries of 10GBit wireless connections and live-3D holo-calls.

Idea #3: it just never caught on

Early wireless experiments were disappointing, using tons of power and having very limited communication ability. In addition, it could be overheard by anyone. Since wired communication had already advanced a fair bit at that point, and robust wired networks were in place in most population centres, the idea of wireless communication just didn't have that much appeal. It seemed to be vastly inferior to wired communication and without any chance to catch up. So nobody simply bothered to invest any time and money in it. To this day it remains a novelty. (For an extra plot device, there's a secretive group that has cracked this secret and are using it for their own heroic/nefarious purposes)

Idea #4: it wreaks havoc with the environment and/or population

A lot of bugs and not a few animals (perhaps even people!) have evolved a very sensitive magnetoreception and setting up any transmitters at any reasonably useful frequencies and output powers just drives them crazy and disorients them. Not good.

Idea #5: forbidden by religion

Your people are very religious and there's something in their religion that they interpret as forbidding wireless communication. Not sure what it could be but I'm sure it's possible to find something even in real world religions that could be interpreted like that. If anyone has any ideas, please add a comment and I'll update the answer.

Idea #6: sabotaged by aliens

The aliens have observed us for some time and determined that we are just a bit too wild to be let loose in the cosmos. They don't want to wipe us out, but they do want to confine us to our planet. But how can you disable spaceflight? Well, you can't, but you can disrupt communication, making spaceflight much, much harder, if not outright impossible. At least in the early days. So they've set up these giant white-noise generators in orbit that block out any wireless communication. They're evenly spaced and carefully cloaked so that it seems that the white noise is just coming from outer space. People on the surface are aware of the huge amount of noise coming in which makes wireless communication impossible, but they think it's just how the universe works. As a bonus, radio astronomy also never takes off, making doubly sure that we don't find out about our galactic neighbours.

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    $\begingroup$ You can just use the Amish reasoning for where they draw the line: Wireless is unnecessary luxury and just allows you to be lazy everywhere. Or something like that. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Feb 4 at 4:09
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe there was a bad guy in their religion who was a telepath - "He spoketh without speakingeth and his thoughts sped through the air like light from a beacon and all who perceived him were driven to madness". And, you know, that's kinda close enough. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Feb 7 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe there was a bad guy in their religion who was a telepath - "He spoketh without speakingeth and his thoughts sped through the air like light from a beacon and all who perceived him were driven to madness". And, you know, that's kinda close enough. $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Feb 7 at 0:53
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Radio-loud astronomical sources nearby

You exist in a radio-loud environment. The Crab Nebula is so radio-loud that when observing it with any radio telescope, the dominating source of noise is the Nebula (as opposed to terrestrial sources of radio interference).

If you live too close to such a nebula, then it would be take significantly more power to transmit usable signals - at which point, it might just be cheaper to use wires.

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Cables are quite a bit faster in certain environments

An electromagnetic signal moves at the speed of light through a vacuum ($c$), but moves at different speeds through different materials. A quality copper cable conducts signals at about 90% of $c$ (as suggested here). The speed of light through other media can be quite a bit slower, falling to 75% of $c$ in dense media with high indices of refraction like water. Applications that require low latency in such environments would use cables rather than wireless transmissions, since the signal will arrive faster. An undersea society of high-frequency stock traders, for example, would likely want to use cables rather than wireless signals in order to minimize the transmission time. Of course, the difference in latency won't be meaningful for many day-to-day tasks, so this would explain why specialized applications use cables, but perhaps not society at large.

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Blocks unwanted Viral AI Ads

Late in the 23rd century some smartass made Smart-AdsTM using wireless quantum computing. These AI driven ads became basically self-aware, and so effective at getting around blocking that the only way to avoid them is to literally be hard-wired to another device, otherwise you get so many pop-in adverts that whatever task you were trying to do is literally unachievable.

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Our inactive galactic nucleus becomes active. It's not clear what, exactly, causes the black hole in the center of a galaxy to transition from low, quiet accretion to high, radio loud accretion. But an active galactic nucleus in our galaxy would drastically increase radio noise, making radio impractical.

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Trust issues with wireless

Your society may have fallen victim to some sort of wireless hacks and become so scared of it. People are just very, very paranoid, and this fear and distrust has already been ingrained in their collective minds. Convincing them to "go wireless" again is not easy.

Sure, over some time wireless communication can be more secure and may not be as susceptible to hacks as it used to be. But in the minds of the common folks, those safety mechanisms (along with the supposed "connection" between devices) are just theories and math and EM waves, all floating in the ether. In the deepest of their hearts, they can't intrinsically trust wireless ever again.

Now on the other hand, cable is a physical object. It is tangible, simpler, and thus easier to trust. Common folks will find cable to be less sophisticated to use and to protect. "As long as I have control over it and can prevent it from being tampered, I am relatively safe."

It's not about whether wireless is actually safe. It's about whether it feels safe.

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The rich hogged all the RF spectrum

It went to the highest bidder, and the wealthy, corporations, government and military all out-bid everyone else. They have high-bandwidth applications which need it all, and make them a lot of money.

Also, there's some sort of "bandwidth neutrality" law that says providers can't limit a user's bandwidth, so there are no "throttled" plans. Anyone buying wireless data service must pay for the full-monty "watching videos 8 hours a day" plan same as Mr. Rockefeller.

(for the unaware, videos take biblically more bandwidth than audio, like 100 times more. This has been the killer app driving the rush from G3 to G4 to G5. Even at G3, voice/txt was such a trivial fraction of total bandwidth that cell phone plans didn't bother limiting voice or TXT, they were all about data limits.)

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Interference from home-made devices

Your society has a lower class that cannot afford to buy electronic devices due to the high prices. So, their solution is to build what they need (or repair them) using whatever scrap electronics they can scavenge from broken devices/landfills/etc...

Because these device are build using random parts, they are totally not compliant with EM emission standards and they irradiate a lot of spurious EM, which interferes and disrupts the wireless communications.

Since offices/shops/residents want to have reliable internet/communications (and there are a lot of illegal devices around), they switched to cables, as wireless was getting more and more unreliable.

(btw, this is actually a problem also in real life, a device which is not EMI/EMC compliant can totally disrupt a wireless link)

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Uneducated societal refusal

Or in other words the Anti-5G crowd won.

In this scenario the uneducated conspiracy followers managed to get majority support and banned the technology. It doesn't have to be 5G if that doesn't fit in your universe but they were against one kind of wireless technology for no sound reason (all conspiracies, pseudoscience and straight ignorance) and managed to gather enough support from the general population (either full on support like more than half the people going bananas over the technology or the kind of "I don't care either way, but they seem passionate about it so I support their cause. Especially if that means I don't have to deal with that topic again" support) to force the government into banning it. And from that point onwards it has become a slippery slope banning one wireless technology after the other.
This would also be a good deterrent to work on new wireless technologies as it would most likely get banned immediately. This also gives you the possibility to conveniently keep some wireless technology, because either the people haven't picked up on it yet or banning it would be too inconvenient even for the anti wireless crowd (like say WiFi because then they can't use their phones, etc).

And hey you also get a free comment on our own society anchored firmly in your world.

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We're already moving there, somewhat.

All the wireless access points out there are wired together, so they can provide service. Newer protocols go for higher bandwidth over shorter distances with less power, so access points are getting more dense. For 802.11ad WiFi, which uses 2 GHz of spectrum between 58-60 GHz, communication is strictly line-of-sight with a range of a few meters, so cables will be run to the middle of every room anyway.

From there it's only a small step to also offering pluggable connections at the access points, because it is just so much more convenient -- no configuration needed to select an access point, just connect and you're online.

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You've run out of usable spectrum. This is a real-world problem, but your world can simply take it to an extreme.

The electromagnetic spectrum is subdivided into many different frequency bands. Regulatory authorities assign "blocks" of spectrum to specific uses. For example, the block from 1626.5-1660 MHz is reserved for Earth-to-space radio signals. You can use a signal in this range to talk to a satellite, but not for anything else. These restrictions are important because without them, wireless signals would all be broadcast on top of each other. Many types of wireless signals are necessarily weak (such as one coming from a space probe near Jupiter) and their signal would be impossible to hear if there were any other signals competing with them. Regulatory bodies also sell special licenses to people who want exclusive access to a block of the spectrum. The sections marked for television broadcasting are subdivided into small slices commonly called "channels". A broadcaster secures a license for a certain channel in a certain geographical area, and can then broadcast their TV feed without interference from competitors.

This system works fairly well, but there's a finite amount of radio spectrum available. Many uses of radio require specific frequency ranges and can't be adjusted. Radio astronomy needs to be able to listen to the frequencies that distant objects naturally generate. The radio navigation beacons used by aircraft need to use frequencies that easily penetrate through cloud cover. Long-distance communication benefits from frequencies that bounce off the ionosphere. Once you take care of these inflexible cases, what's left is scattered and scarce. It doesn't take long before TV, radio, mobile phones, GPS, and the zillion other forms of wireless communication have used all the good parts of the radio spectrum. All that's left are narrow little slivers (the width of a block is called the "bandwidth" and determines how much information can be packed into that signal) that are at frequencies that don't penetrate well through common building materials like wood or stone.

Making this worse is that the spectrum is allocated by government agencies. Every government in the world can allocate spectrum differently. Countries have generally agreed to use similar mappings for important parts of the spectrum (navigation, ship/aircraft communication, etc). There are still lots of cases where this isn't true, though. Wi-Fi can operate on 14 different channels, but using channel 14 is illegal in the U.S., and channels 12 and 13 can only be used in a low-power mode to avoid interfering with an adjacent block that doesn't exist in some other countries.

In your world, the wireless spectrum is both more crowded than ours and has been laid out slightly differently. Bands that are useful for mobile phones (those that penetrate walls) could be reserved for military or other official uses. Countries could be less coordinated than in our world, and the amount of available spectrum that's available internationally could be very small (manufacturing costs and regulatory hurdles can make products impractical to build if they need different frequency bands in every country). As a result, wired devices are far more common in your world, and wireless is generally reserved for those use cases where wired just isn't an option (satellite phones, implantable medical devices, etc).

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Security and Integrity

Quantum computing advances render any encryption moot. The result is lots of common-place internet activities become unsafe: banking, shopping, even email (since email is tied to your identity). If someone can intercept the data stream, they can trivially see the plain-text, including things like passwords and credit cards.

Part of the solution is a return to cabled connections. Sure, someone can still splice a cable. But that's another level up from sitting in a parking lot sniffing the wifi. If you can then trust the people inside your home/business, along with buried and better secured cabling (hardened conduits and other protective measures), we can still preserve the safety of most traffic.

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If there is new technology that can only be delivered by wire e.g. FTL information transfer using quantum entangled particles and to make that work you need special cables e.g. something based on carbon nano tubes. Over time as technology expands to use the advantages of these cables (speed, security, bandwidth) more and more things use them directly. e.g. you just plug your headphones into the publicly available socket and stream your data from wherever. Similar to how no-one would be surprised to find a power socket at a desk.

In that situation you would still have wireless tech but it would be legacy or even historical, so rarely seen.

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If we look back in time, then Nikola Tesla had ideas about transmitting power wirelessly. between 1899 and 1904. Wikipedia's info.

In our timeline it was never commercially workable. Some of the main issues included using the earth as a return line and electrodes at a height of 9,100 metres as the outbound line. More critically, such transmissions would have put massive amounts of electricity into the sky.

If you remember listening to AM radio or shortwave radio when there was a lightning storm, then the occasional >bzzzrrrt< could block out the transmission for a time. I believe FM is less susceptible, but not immune.

Now imagine that going constantly. Essentially we've swapped radio communication for power communication.

In your hypothetical world, power transmission is done wirelessly, which eliminates the need for long high-voltage distribution networks. Any rural home can have power, and electric cars and boats and aeroplanes never need fueling because they suck power transmitted wirelessly. Torches/flashlights never run out.
However all your communications must be wired, including broadcast radio/TV telephones, and cellphones simply don't exist. The Titanic sinks with all hands because they couldn't send a SOS via radio. Wireless ethernet is impossible and everyone uses wired.
The moon landing is not televised live, because radio transmissions from the moon were not received directly. Instead, they were received by a satellite which transmitted them to the ground via optical semaphore, until the crew returned with their film.

Possible gotchas that never were tested:

  • How far underground does the wireless signal reach? Can one power lights in a road tunnel, or a deep diamond mine?
  • Does the wireless signal reach under water at all? If not, submarines have to have a "receiver aerial" on a long tether.
  • How high does it go? Can we power satellites in LEO with wireless energy ?
  • How would CRT tubes work with high levels of energy in the air?
  • Would a magnetron work at all, resulting in RADAR being ineffective and affecting WW2.

UPSHOT choose one - wireless communication or wireless power - you can't have both. Our society got the former, what would the world have been like with the latter?

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Interference due to absolutely everything being smart or IoT connected. Anything produced communicates wirelessly for some reason or another. The plastic bottle bought has IoT in it to track it and ensure it is properly recycled, pair of socks track if there are holes and recommend advertising more, your chair tracks your weight. Etc. Etc.

All of this uses the shared extremely contested spectrum. Making wireless applications for real-time use spotty and painful to use for things like video or music or just general internet browsing. No problems when using wires however.

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I'm reminded of the D.C. Sniper from 2002 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D.C._sniper_attacks). What if someone was using wifi/electromagnetic emissions to target them? I'd bet whole states would be turning off their transmitters to avoid the random violence.

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Cable networking comes with advantages such as:

  • It is not easy to be intercepted in a closed place like an office. Wireless is broadcasted beyond the perimeter walls which exposes it to interception.

  • It is easier to manage devices that can connect to a cabled network hence your bandwidth will always be ok. On the other hand, a wireless network will be available for all who have your SSID and password.

  • Some operating systems require you to install drivers for the wireless network interfaces which waste a lot of time but almost all operating systems support wired networks interface from the box.

  • Wired network saves you the time to share and manage SSID names and passwords which we already have enough pile; on the other hand, a wired network doesn't require this.

  • The time spent to set up Wireless in networking devices, for instance, CISCO routers is more since it is in addition to the normal wired network.

  • You will require fewer and more inexpensive networking devices to set up a wired network. The additional support for wireless in routers comes at additional cost.

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Every wireless signal that is not intercepted by a receiver is wasted energy. Using wireless is kind of like running your air conditioner with the front door wide open.

I ran across this observation in the context of SETI. Somebody suggested that one possible reason SETI might fail to find signals from space is that a civilization that sets up advanced comms tech will probably transition in short order from an open, wireless model to a closed, wired model, to avoid wasting power. And so the fear is that if there is anyone out there, we may not have started looking for them until long after they voluntarily moved past their "noisy" phase. So with your fictional society.

Why does it matter?

  • energy you spend "splattering" your message across your locality is energy that can't be spent on anything else
  • energy production is inextricably linked with the environment from which that energy is extracted; a sane civilization that is serious about living sustainably will always be actively searching for ways to trim the fat in their energy budget, to avoid cooking their planet to death

There may always be some need for wireless because there are some situations in which wires are literally impossible, but I would expect that to be a tiny fraction of overall use.

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