An 'engineered communications future' could build new infrastructures

The IET Communications Policy Panel (CPP) concluded one of its busiest years with the publication of its ‘Engineering the future of communications 2011 – Smart, Fast, and Mobile’ manifesto for change at a special Year End Event held on 30 November at the House of Lords.

IET members and stakeholders representing the growing gamut of the communications industry convened to debate the key issues affecting the sector from a variety of perspectives. With the rise of market phenomena like smartphones, mobile commerce, superfast broadband, and location-based services, the communications industry is enfranchising an even greater stake in the UK economy, as well as becoming an event more important part of the critical national infrastructure. As Naomi Climer FIET pointed out, superfast broadband should now “be considered as part of the UK infrastructure as a critical contributor to UK productivity”.

The CPP meeting provided a rare opportunity for to hear leading experts in the engineering profession share their views about recent and likely future developments in communications technology. Welcoming the assembly, host Lord Broers FIET highlighted some of the primary challenges facing the industry over the next decade. “The reductions in the cost of wireless communications and GPS systems have made it possible to monitor almost everything remotely, and at the same time,” he said. “The switch-over to digital communications will place strain on our already heavily-loaded data channels.”

However, the situation is not without its remedial options, some of which have in some form already been engineered into the communications infrastructure; and neither is the industry confined to adopting just one solution over others. The converged nature of the communications infrastructure means that digital traffic load can be allocated across multiple channels and transmission routes in a way that would have been unfeasible, financially and regulatorily – if not technically – for the UK up to relatively recently.

Particular reference was made to the societal impact that these technologies will have – “The way we travel, for instance, is changing because real-time data is now available to match peoples’ needs and intentions with what is available. This was a theme picked up by Professor William Webb FREng, FIET, as he explored the relationship between the emerging machine-to-machine – M2M – concept and the emergence of the so-called ‘smart cities’ ideal. While acknowledging that the concept of smart cities is as yet ill-defined, broadly it means the use of multiple sensors to gather information on a wide range of parameters within a city area with the intention of changing behaviours – of either the inhabitants or workers.

Webb insisted that while there remain unresolved issues preventing widespread smart city deployments for the foreseeable future, for the smart cities ideal to achieve its full potential a new sense of collaboration and co-operation between relevant bodies and stakeholders is essential.  The IET CPP recommended that a ‘standard’ needs to be developed to cover smart city deployment – and that the IET should take a leading role in devising this standard by leveraging its relationships with interested parties, including those with Government.

What impact will the exponential growth in personal data communications have on the existing infrastructure? The answer is simple: it places many more demands on its ability to support growing data and applications. Panel member David Cleevely FREng, FIET made this issue the focus of his summary when he examined potential ways of boosting the number of wireless access points that could be used to offload traffic from the standard wireless mobile phone channels.

“The regulation of mobile services has been based on shortage of spectrum and a limited number of operators,” Cleevely commented, “which has resulted in competition for licences, centrally-planned networks, and intervention to ensure that retail and wholesale tariffs are reasonable, and the imposition of complex rules to protect consumers and service providers.”

Cleevely also argued that the impending auction of UK radio spectrum could now be used to “enable the mobile networks of the future “to be “built from the inside-out”, but utilising femtocell network capacity to augment available primary bandwidth as and where required.

As the IET CCP spokesperson on this issue, Cleevely proposed that femtocells be liberalised by allocating 2x20MHz of the 190MHz of new spectrum for use by unlicensed femtocells (which conform to maximum power limits) for no licence fee, just as Wi-Fi uses the ISM spectrum. A further proposal is that all of the new spectrum is auctioned as planned, but that bidders understand that a small proportion will be used by unlicensed low-power femtocells.  Finally, the CCP is calling for already implemented principle and regulations be applied so as to allow the provision of mobile services to and from such femtocells by any operator, and “require all fixed and mobile operators to interconnect with such femtocells on fair and reasonable terms”.

Said Cleevely: “In effect this would be treating femtocells like Wi-Fi access points. In that way service providers – could provide the calls and data connections to other networks.” The potential to legislate bandwidth deployment in the innovative ways outlined by the CCP at the event constituted a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the UK”. 

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