Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A fair tale of New York

The Home Office is preparing to go to tender for a replacement for the TETRA wireless network service that our emergency services use. While TETRA offers very high availability, mobile-to-mobile direct calling and a few other handy features, its data transmission capability is hopelessly small for today’s needs; let alone for the future’s.
The prospects are not terribly good.
The public GSM and UMTS mobile networks offer good data rates, but they fail to deliver those rates (or even basic connectivity) when there are massive localized service requests from their users, which is often what happens at exactly the times when the emergency services most need unimpeded communications. Yet to build another wireless network, with national coverage and the kind of data rates that the blue-light services need, would be outrageously wasteful both in capital and in spectrum; because for most of the time and in most places, the emergency services aren’t present, so a dedicated emergency services network would stand idle.
Something curiously similar is happening in the world of smart metering. Every home, at least, will need its own smart metering communications back to the energy supply markets. Smart meter vendors, and for that matter the Department for Energy and Climate Change, are taking the approach that this will have to be a dedicated data link, whether it be GSM, powerline, mesh radio or what-have-you. It’ll be a sorry waste, because the smart meters are very unlikely to keep a home’s data link very busy for most of the time. Yet most UK homes already have a broadband service, which while it may be busy for a few hours every day, will be standing idle for most of the time.
In the smart metering world, the crazy duplication of networks is caused by mistrust and selfishness: the householder won’t want any meters messing up his broadband link, and the energy businesses don’t want their communications to be held up by the householder’s video streaming or by his deliberate interference. Yet with the right sort of quality-of-service management technology, and the right sort of social rearrangements, both parties could easily use the same link, and both would save money.
The same issues of scarcity and plenty, trust, sharing and quality-of-service management apply in the emergency services network world; and there, New York City showed how it can be done in a civilized society. In the aftermath of 9/11, it was said that the NYPD hadn’t communicated well enough with the city fire department. NYC recognized a pressing need for first-rate emergency services communications, to enable first-rate cooperation between its departments. Their sensible approach was to procure a city-wide mobile broadband network serving both the emergency services and the other City departments. The broad user base spreads the cost, and quality-of-service management means that the emergency services get the channel capacity when they need it. Of course, the technology only works because NYC has ensured an exemplary degree of cooperation between its departments.
But as network capacity and even spectrum become scarcer, we may have to reorganize ourselves and create the sort of social structures that will enable that sort of very reasonable resource-sharing at a national level. Major rearrangements of that kind are not a new thing. I remember when all the communications equipment in my office belonged outright to Post Office Telecommunications. Some kind of renationalization of network capacity may be in order here, and to all of our benefit.

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