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Panel calls for focus on network resilience

Communications companies should rethink their investments to reflect our increasing reliance on their networks.

"Communications is of amazing importance, and one area of our lives that has changed more rapidly than anything else," said the Professor the Lord Broers, who hosted the event.

Prof William Webb, a member of the communications policy panel, drew an analogy between attitudes to the loss of mains power caused by bad weather and the loss of communications services caused by under-investment.

"Would we be happy to lose communications networks for some period of time because it isn't worth spending the money to ensure they are up all the time?" he asked, pointing out that we are increasingly reliant on inter-dependent systems connected by communications technology: "This increasing inter-relationship is making failure more problematic and more important. A small problem in one area can cause problems elsewhere and the whole thing rapidly escalates."

Webb added that the problem of protecting networks was twofold: knowing what the assets are, and knowing what we are protecting them from: "If we know what we are protecting, do we know what we are protecting against?"

Potential problems could include mechanical issues, such as someone digging through a cable, software bugs or malicious code, congestion, and so: "We could help by over-dimensioning networks, but if we know what we want to protect, how do we do it given that the networks are mainly commercially owned?"

He added: "A network build takes about a decade. Are we sure that a decade from now, a 'snow day' on our telecommunications infrastructure is going to be OK, and if we aren't, shouldn't we be thinking about it now?"

Asked whether our systemic vulnerabilities were such that people should consider stockpiling simple communications technology to mitigate a potential breakdown in communications systems, Webb pointed out that the problem was subtly different from that of, for example, providing back-up electrical power: "You can't back up the Internet."

He called for a debate on network providers' priorities, asking whether there was a point at which some kind of intervention or regulation is needed to ensure the delivery of some sort of social benefit, such as resilience: "You have to look very carefully at what communications means to us today and think whether that should change the shape of our investments."

Chris Chambers, head of the media network integration laboratory at BBC R&D, pointed out that demands for bandwidth are likely to rise very rapidly. The BBC has already done experiments with Japanese broadcaster NHK on Super Hi-Vision TV, with 16 times the resolution of current HDTV.

"Even if we can't afford to deliver that today, surely we have to think about how we scale from what we have today to that?" he asked.

Prof Will Stewart, chair of the communications policy panel, said he was concerned about network scalability and diversity of supply: "One of the clear impacts of convergence is that it may produce a more vulnerable system. Somewhere down the road we have to decide whether we are going to buy the snow tyres."

Prof Sir John O'Reilly, vice chancellor of the University of Cranfield, reminded the meeting that communications networks were only a means to an end: "I don't have a need for network resilience, I have a need for service resilience."

Network resilience will become increasingly important as energy companies introduce smart meters in a bid to increase our energy efficiency and so avoid the large capital investments involved in increasing generation and distribution capacity.

Dr Martyn Thomas, chair of the IET's IT policy panel, told the meeting that up to 47 million domestic gas and electricity meters will be replaced with smart meters by 2020, or even by 2018 if plans for an accelerated schedule come to fruit. Smart metering will allow remote reading (perhaps even in real time), remote switching and disconnection, and in-house displays. 

The smart metering infrastructure could also enable remote switching of heavy loads, such as storage heaters, tumble driers and freezers, in order to smooth out demand and so reduce peak loads.

Smart metering could also support feed-in tariffs, to encourage local generation, and even pricing on the basis of the cost of generation at the time of consumption.

"These services depend critically on telecommunications to get the data in and back out again to the point where it is needed," said Thomas. But he questioned the wisdom of building another network to communicate with smart meters: "It doesn't make a lot of sense to put up another communications network to enable this approach."

Dr David Cleevely of the communications policy panel questioned the approach to implementing smart metering: "I don't think we would ever have got the Internet or the World Wide Web if we approached it as we are approaching smart metering."

He argued that both the Internet and the Web had taken off because they were based on well-defined architectures and interfaces that were then used in an ad hoc way to create the networks and services that people needed. He warned that this distributed  approach would have its drawbacks: "If we have a distributed architecture, which is what I hope we have, it has huge vulnerabilities.

"If I was a foreign power and wanted to exert some influence then the first thing I would do is get hold of the smart grid."

Thomas pointed out how difficult it is going to be to get the best from the smart metering initiative: "To achieve the behaviour changes we are looking for will take a systems level view of the entire process."

This will mean bringing together the ICT and energy industries: "The best of all of them will be needed if we are to make the best of this."

Duncan Botting of the IET's energy policy panel pointed out that there was a huge gap between the communications sector's concerns and the reality of communications in the energy sector, where some transmission nodes are still controlled over 300 baud lines: "Us nerds have been siloed for too long. The solution is a holistic one. Smart metering will give a huge benefit but only when all the elements fit together to deliver the benefits throughout the chain.

"How are you communications people going to interface with an industry that is so far out of touch with regards to the language you are using?" he asked.

Brian Levy, also of the communications policy panel, pointed out that the rise of the Internet was completely reshaping the broadcasting industry: "Broadcasters' service geography have changed from a country to a demographic."

With one billion PCs and 1.5 billion Internet users in the world, and with mobile Internet usage predicted to exceed fixed within two years, Levy said we would see the rise of global TV channels, with people all over the world being able to access thousands of TV channels over the Internet: "The Internet challenges the very definition of broadcast."

Levy added that mobile networks were alienating users with the high costs of mobile Internet especially when abroad, "where the cost is untenable to end customers", and suggested that the incumbent mobile network could be bypassed by people installing femtocells in their homes to create an ad hoc distributed cellular network.

"Some clever entrepreneur will come along to curate the ability to connect to those," he said.

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