Ofcom | 07|05|08 | News Release | Tomorrow’s Wireless WorldNew technology in cars to help avoid collisions; wireless devices to remind patients to take medication; wireless food content scanners to change the way we shop …these are just some of the new technologies that are highlighted in Ofcom’s 2008 technology research report published today.
Tomorrow’s Wireless World scans the horizon ten to twenty years in the future to discover potentially significant advances and new, innovative technologies which are being developed that could improve healthcare and transport provision.
Wireless devices are now an essential part of our everyday lives. As well as transport and healthcare, wireless communications are essential to defence, education, entertainment, culture and commerce. Wireless communications are so integral to our lives that today there are more mobile subscriptions, at 70 million, than the 60 million UK population.
Ofcom’s role is to ensure the most efficient use of the UK’s radio frequencies – or spectrum – that these services use. Spectrum is a finite resource; Ofcom’s technology research helps it to better understand how this precious resource might be used in the future and allows it to plan how we manage the spectrum to meet these demands.
New technology in the healthcare sector
The report highlights a number of innovative technologies in the healthcare sector which could be available for use within the next ten to twenty years:
Welcome to this, Ofcom’s third report on our Technology Research Programme. This report and our annual Technology Research Symposium are excellent opportunities for us to disseminate the key outcomes of our work to stakeholders. In previous years, our activities have been influenced by the requirement for us to undertake research under the Spectrum Efficiency Scheme. The work detailed in this report, however, marks a move towards diversifying the technology research conducted within Ofcom, to better reflect the breadth of our regulatory duties.
Wireless and spectrum-related research is, naturally, still a vital part of our programme. However, this year we have also undertaken a research project investigating capacity limits of the copper network used to deliver broadband to the majority of homes in the UK. We have also undertaken two large studies into telecommunications trends within two important sectors of society; healthcare and transportation. The research programme planned for the coming year also reflects this diversification.
Technology within the information and communication technologies sector continues to develop rapidly and continually open new opportunities. Breakthroughs leading to fundamental shifts in the underlying science are rare. Continuous development is more common and can be just as valuable in the evolution of services and applications.
Last year, we concluded that a breakthrough in communication technologies was unlikely within the next 10 years. Further horizon scanning, through our Technology Watch programme, leads us to make the same comment this year. This has great importance to a number of our policies, such as decisions as to whether to set spectrum aside for an “innovation reserve” – based on the conclusions here such an approach would be inappropriate. However, given a typical 10 year time lag from research to commercial deployment, continued monitoring of the technology horizon is prudent.
Breakthroughs aside, we note that the general pace of technology advancement, both within industry and academia, is very strong indeed. Wireless sensor networks are moving from the military to the civilian domain, attracting a significant amount of interest within the research community. However, their widespread deployment is still some way off and we conclude that no additional spectrum or regulation is necessary at this time. In the wired domain, the technologies underpinning copper telephone networks may progressively be enhanced to achieve higher data rates.
The sectoral studies into the health and transport sectors show that application of new and emerging technologies could have a major effect on the way we live our lives and the services that are delivered. Simply applying cellular communications, GPS positioning and short-range wireless to the car, for example, could revolutionise the way we conduct our journeys and safety levels on the roads. These studies make it clear that developing a new technology is generally simpler than introducing it into commercial use, especially where there are a number of inter-related parties or where Government plays a key role. Indeed, it is clear that delivering these services will require Government intervention and our studies have suggested that there may be a need within relevant Government departments for a team to identify and lead the delivery of these projects.
Overall, the research reported here suggests that no major changes to our regulatory policies are needed at this time. There may be a requirement to help identify incremental spectrum allocations, predominantly for licence-exempt usage, and copper networks may provide data rates that can compare with those currently being deployed in cabled systems. However, no dramatic changes requiring the review of regulation are presently foreseen.
Research into technologies
Ofcom has undertaken research into a number of new and emerging technologies in order to understand their potential, gauge whether regulatory change is needed and further their development where appropriate.
Dynamic spectrum access (DSA) describes a concept that enables a user (or, more likely, their handset) to receive up-to-date quality of service information relating to wireless communications networks. They can then use that information to communicate in the most effective (i.e. cheapest, fastest, highest quality etc.) way. We have previously reported on a candidate architecture to support DSA. We have now concluded that the DSA architecture is viable, as simulations have shown that there is a minimal increase in signalling overhead and that proposed dynamic pricing algorithms are stable. The prospects for the introduction of DSA rest mainly on the identification of a suitable business case.
In the UK, broadband penetration has increased dramatically over the last six years from 7% in 2002 to 57% in Q4 2007, driven in part by fierce competition amongst local loop unbundlers (LLUOs): almost 80% of these broadband connections are delivered across the copper local loop with the rest over cable. Consumers are benefiting from the choice that infrastructure competition is delivering and they appear relatively happy with the headline broadband speeds – if discontented when the reality does not meet the headline. Whilst there are no definitive indications of whether consumers will want significantly higher speeds, we are seeing evidence of increasing use of IPTV and other bandwidth hungry audio visual applications. This begs the question of when the current copper network would be unlikely to meet the expectations of the majority of UK consumers.
In practice, the answer to this question depends not only on the types of services consumers require but how technologies evolve: it is difficult to predict either accurately as there are many factors which effect both. To give some insight, we commissioned a study based on an idealised environment that does not reflect all the complexities of the current underlying network. This abstraction enabled us consider the theoretical capacity limits of copper networks and set an upper bound for broadband data rates that could be achievable across copper. Given the important relationship of distance to data rate, we based our model on information on cable lengths from a real network. We concluded that, in our idealised environment, capacities can further improve, compared to today’s deployments. We found that if the upstream modem is hosted in the exchange, households within 2km of the exchange (approximately 18% of the total number of households) could, in theory, receive data rates above 50Mbit/s. If the upstream modem is moved closer to the customer premises and into the street cabinet, then almost 100% of households are within 2km of the street cabinet and could, theoretically, expect a data rate of 50Mbit/s.
These results are theoretical and do not reflect what could be achieved in practise. Data rates experienced by end users depend not only on the distance between the customer premises and the exchange but also on home wiring and interference at the exchange, cabinet and in the home. In the real world there are different providers with different equipment sharing the exchange, and perhaps the cabinet, and therefore impacting performance. Nevertheless the real value of this study is to suggest an upper limit, given all technical progress possible, of 50Mbits, with fibre to the cabinet.
Wireless sensor networks are receiving an increasing amount of attention in the research community. Networks of sensors could be a fundamental technology to underpin some of the future applications discussed within the healthcare and transport sectors. They could be used, for example, to monitor the vital signs of a patient or construct a road safety system. We conducted a study to understand the key enablers of, and barriers to, the deployment of sensor systems and to estimate their likely spectrum requirements. We observed that the technologies are maturing and an increasing number of industry players are devoting their attentions to applications, rather than just on component sensor technologies. The benefits to the consumer or citizen will become increasingly clear as these applications are identified. However, we concluded that there is unlikely to be a major demand on spectrum, given predicted future deployments. We also concluded that there is no evident killer application at present.
Better management of the radio spectrum
One of Ofcom’s major responsibilities is the management of the radio spectrum. Better spectrum management leads to more efficient utilisation and an increase in value for all stakeholders. The consumer, increasingly dependent on wireless and mobile communications, also indirectly benefits from our work in this area. By improving our knowledge of how various parts of the spectrum are actually used we can take steps to ensure that the services to which they subscribe meet the standards of quality they expect – and have paid for. This year our work was divided into three areas – enhancing our understanding of propagation, examining whether certain applications can be moved to higher frequency bands and providing better information about spectrum usage.
Enhancing our understanding of propagation. There is an ongoing need to extend our expertise in understanding radio propagation, for example, to assist our new licensing approach of Spectrum Usage Rights (SURs) which relies on accurate underlying models for verification. We also need to understand better the effect of new network topographies, for which little propagation data exists:
- Despite the increasing use of wireless systems in and around buildings, there is no widely accepted model for radio propagation involving the passing into or out of buildings. We commissioned a study to produce a model suitable for regulatory purposes. Data generated by the model produced a wealth of useful information.
- Wind farms have been proposed as an ecologically sound method to generate electricity. However, concerns have been raised about the effects of wind farms on radio communications systems. We have commissioned a measurement study to better understand the effects of wind farms on fixed link and scanning telemetry systems. This report discusses the relevant interference effects and the approach of the measurement campaign. We will report on the outcomes of the measurement campaign in the next annual technology research report.
- Ofcom has previously commissioned a Generic Radio Modelling Tool (GRMT), which can undertake assessment of the potential for interference in a liberalised spectrum environment. During this year the GRMT has been further developed, including the ability to undertake a technical examination of whether a new or changed licence application should be approved.
- The increasing use of “micro-cells” in mobile radio systems and the possible extensive use of mesh networks highlighted a need for a general-purpose propagation model appropriate for making coverage and interference predictions where both terminals in a link are at low height. We have previously commissioned a measurement campaign to enable us to better understand this propagation environment. The results obtained in this reporting period highlighted the limitations of existing, accepted models that have not explicitly been developed for such environments.
Applications moving to higher frequency bands. Market mechanisms tend to move many applications to ever higher frequencies but may not always be effective in demonstrating what is possible. As a result, we conducted work on selected applications to understand the potential for their use of higher frequencies.
If greater use of fixed links in the bands above 60GHz could occur then this would provide a useful increase in the spectrum available for new services at lower frequencies. We commissioned research into the feasibility of combined millimetre wave and free space optical communications links for use in place of lower frequency fixed links. Our trial demonstrated the robustness of these combined links in the presence of various weather conditions, with over 99% availability.
Wireless television cameras are already used extensively for electronic news gathering and outside broadcast purposes and their usage is growing. Their usage is particularly applicable for sporting events, such as the Olympic Games. Existing cameras operate in highly desirable spectrum that might alternatively be used for mobile applications. We commissioned research to examine the feasibility of moving wireless cameras to a higher frequency of operation. We concluded that operation at 7.5GHz is feasible but the propagation characteristics of 60GHz spectrum means that this frequency is only suited for line of sight applications.
Providing better information about spectrum usage. In the same way that it is difficult to manage a company without management information, it is difficult to manage the spectrum well without information on its usage and quality. Ofcom has previously commissioned the development of the Autonomous Interference Monitoring System (AIMS), a multi-functional tool for monitoring the quality of spectrum. Since we last reported we have conducted an extensive field measurement campaign, including:
- A study of licence exempt band utilisation, and;
- Measurement of the characteristics of man-made noise, the outcomes of which have been submitted to ITU-R.
The coming year’s research
Over the past six months, we have consulted widely, both within Ofcom and externally, on suitable topics for the 2008/09 research programme. At the time of writing, eight projects have started:
Estimating the value of spectrum. An increasing amount of spectrum is allocated through market-driven approaches. However, this requires a good understanding of the real value of the offered spectrum. This project may assist trading markets by setting price expectations appropriately and help those who are interested in acquiring spectrum in understanding the likely amount that they might have to pay. We are proposing a study that will build a model that will enable us to estimate value across as much of the UK spectrum allocation as possible. The model will take a number of factors into account, such as the frequency and bandwidth, and will provide important information to drive the spectrum marketplace.
Capture of spectrum utilisation information using moving vehicles. The use of spectrum in different parts of the country and across different frequency bands can vary quite dramatically. It is important that we are aware of such variations to enable us, for example, to determine whether additional licence exempt spectrum is needed or to build up a better picture of local interference. We propose to investigate a system comprising a number of vehicle-mounted nodes. Measurements would be taken as the vehicle moved, with the data stored locally until such time that it could conveniently be uploaded to a central database. Over a period of time the database will grow, building a detailed picture of spectrum use in key frequency bands across much of the country.
Socio-economic study of the entertainment sector. Entertainment within and to the home is undoubtedly an enormous market. We anticipate that the manner in which video and audio is distributed, stored and subsequently consumed will have a major impact on the underlying communications infrastructure. We are proposing a study that will enable us to assess the changing entertainment sector in order to determine the impact on the regulatory environment. The study will develop scenarios describing a view of the future entertainment sector over periods of 10 and 20 years. These scenarios will then be examined to determine the technological developments required and the likely impact on spectrum and network demands.
Quality of service on the Internet and the implications for IPTV and other services. The entertainment study discussed above will address an entire sector of society and will therefore be broad in scope. We are also proposing to conduct a narrower study that specifically investigates the technological and economic barriers to providing high quality television services over the Internet (known as Internet Protocol Television, or IPTV). One of the major reasons for poor quality of service over the Internet is congestion, i.e. too much data being carried at the same time, leading to some data being lost or severely delayed. In this study, we will seek to understand the various reasons why congestion occurs, the impact it has and whether we can take any regulatory measures to improve the situation.
Estimating the use of key licence-exempt spectrum. Licence-exempt spectrum is important for delivering applications that generate significant consumer value, such as Bluetooth and WiFi. However, as the number of devices that support these technologies increases, so does the possibility of congestion, which can lead to degradation in quality or performance. Understanding the actual levels of congestion and the associated trends will assist us in making better-informed spectrum management decisions. Unfortunately, getting a good understanding of congestion is very difficult – congestion may only occur in a small area, such as in the centre of a shopping centre but not at the periphery, or it may only occur at certain peak periods of the day. We propose a study to seek out congested areas and measure levels of congestion.
Understanding the environmental impact of communications systems. Communications systems in general might have two different environmental effects. On the one hand, transmitters and receivers consume energy and building mast sites can involve substantial activity and affect the landscape. On the other hand, effective communications, such as video conferencing, might save journeys and hence have a positive environmental impact. We propose to conduct a study to assess the relative energy consumption and environmental impact of a range of different networks as well as understanding how the benefits might vary according to network type.
Predicting areas of spectrum shortage. There is a long-term view of spectrum use, in which networks are efficiently deployed in all places and at all times and there is sufficient spectrum available for a variety of demanding services. However, as we move towards that situation, the demand for spectrum may grow more quickly than the available supply. Hence, in the interim there may be areas of spectrum shortage, which may lead to poor coverage, dropped calls or low data rates. We propose a study that will enable us to model both spectrum demand and the ability of networks to respond to that demand. Potential areas of spectrum shortage can therefore be identified and, if necessary, regulatory action planned.
Wide-range propagation model. Propagation tools are vital to understand the physical environment in which wireless and mobile systems operate. However, it is becoming apparent that existing propagation methods and tools will require updating, as use of the radio spectrum becomes more innovative and liberalised. We propose a study to develop a new model that will predict coverage and interference between radio networks operating in a liberalised spectrum environment.