Ofcom lays out wireless roadmap
Planes, trains and automobiles
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.
RFID is set to expand massively, according to Ofcom, which expects to see everyone working airside or near sea ports tagged and monitored in the interests of security.
But such systems won't be able to share a frequency in the way that RFID tags do, as they're always transmitting and few currently have the capability to share nicely, so the bands in which they operate (433MHz and 868MHz) could get increasingly crowded. Ofcom is very reluctant to hand over spectrum, though acknowledges RFID might need a little more over the next 15 years.
No such reservations apply to the automotive industry, for whom 50MHz of spectrum has been reserved around 5.9GHz. Ofcom isn't planning to hand over the whole swathe in one go. It'll initially allocate 30MHz (from 5.855 to 5.885GHz) with the next 20MHz being held back until it's started filling the first lot.
Not that car manufacturers will be required to pay for the spectrum. Unlike the trains there is no single body that can be charged and international harmonisation is needed (with the USA and Japan, for the moment), so frequencies will simply be allocated for vehicle manufacturers to use as they see fit.
Part of the band is reserved for "critical" systems, such as electronic brake lights that warn a whole line of cars when the one in front brakes. The rest is expected to be used for road condition warnings and other communication between vehicles.
Ofcom says communications with the road will take longer to develop as that involves working with government departments.
One development Ofcom is expecting to arrive quickly is eCall, part of the EU eSafety initiative. eCall puts a SIM and accompanying mobile phone into every car, which can than call the emergency services in the event of an accident - reporting on the state of the car and (possibly) the occupants.
Ofcom says eCall could reduce fatalities by 10 per cent by getting emergency services there 10 minutes earlier, but admits there's no business model for the poor network operator who has to keep track of millions of mobile phones that only make calls once they've hit each other. Appealing to their sense of decency would seem a lost cause, so some payment mechanism is going to be needed.
Driving is, of course, going to get a lot more expensive and there's a tacit acceptance of road pricing, though Ofcom carefully avoided the controversy that mentioning it explicitly would generate: "Travellers will have to accept that travelling at peak times on peak routes is expensive".
But when your mobile phone can tell you when the next bus is arriving and if will get to the station in time to catch the next train, who needs to drive anyway? ®