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Ofcom lays out wireless roadmap

Planes, trains and automobiles

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Ofcom's annual research report, this year entitled The Wireless World of Tomorrow, focuses on how wireless technologies might change the transport and healthcare landscapes over the next 20 years.

Public transport, in particular, is expected to benefit from wireless technologies - though much of the innovation Ofcom expects to see is outside its immediate remit.

Inter-modality is considered key, with wireless tickets working on buses, trains and underground in the way that London's Oyster card already does. However, integration will extend to timetables and vehicle locations.

Ofcom predicts that within 20 years you'll board a bus which knows what train you're planning to catch and can alert your mobile that you're not going to make it. Fun stuff, but very little to do with spectrum management, which is Ofcom's remit.

Trains will need more spectrum, though their immediate needs will be met by GSM-R, the variant of GSM suited to railway use, which is to complete deployment by 2012. Initially, GSM-R will provide driver and track-side communications, but it's also designed to take care of signalling and points control.

But what train lines really want is Moving Block Operation, as proposed by the European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS), where the position of every train is known at all times and trains just avoid each other rather than having exclusive use of a specific section of track. Ofcom thinks that's going to need more spectrum, ideally something below 1GHz so it has enough range to be easily deployed.

Once National Rail finds some spectrum to buy on the open market, it's expected to use it for everything from reporting back train locations to monitoring the condition of the track.

The open market is also where rail companies are going to have to find higher frequencies to offer Wi-Fi and the like to passengers. Some lines already use WiMAX as a back-haul, connecting on-train hotspots to track-side relays, and Ofcom expects to see a lot more of that - but isn't going to hand over any spectrum to facilitate it.

Aircraft might get some spectrum allocated to them, though not for a while as satellite connections are expected to be good enough until around 2024 when the military should have gotten round to giving up some spectrum in the 9-10GHz region.

Before then, narrower VHF bands will provide more efficient usage, and video connections are expected to allow air-traffic controllers to watch terrorists taking control of planes as it happens.

For non-terrorists, travelling by air will be much easier thanks to e-tickets and millimetre-wave scanners, and cock ups like Terminal 5 will (apparently) be completely avoided by embedding RFID tags in all new suitcases.

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