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Future of Wireless 2016 Conference Report

FWIC logo 2016This UK annual event attracts a wide range of participants who ponder the future direction and wider issues affecting our industry. Perhaps it needs renaming because its much more about applications and use rather than wireless technology discussion, but it helps avoids the myopia which can overwhelm those who only mix with their peers.

 

 

The venue this year was the newly refurbished IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) building in central London, in sight of Westminster and the London Eye. The facilities were excellent and there was plenty of space for exhibitors, different meeting streams in addition to the main lecture theatre.

IET London Savoy Place

Platform Economy

A key theme emphasised during the opening session and especially by Arabel Bailey of Accenture was the rise of the “Platform Economy”, with Uber as the poster child. Three reasons for Uber’s success have been:

  1. Easy payment, knowing the cost in advance and avoiding the need for cash or complex check-out process per transaction
  2. Identity, leading to accountability and thus better behaviour because both rider and driver rate each other
  3. Location, and transparency of where you are and what’s happening

Uber’s stated ambition is nothing less than to fundamentally change car ownership, seamlessly scheduling a journey which might include steps in public transport with self-driving autonomous vehicles at each end. They are already present in 66 countries after just 7 years.

Accenture believe that the next wave of the platform economy will be more fundamental and core, including even crisis event management. Health, legal and education services are all ripe for disruption through platforms.

Ocado, a British wholesale grocery delivery service, explained their technology currently used by two major supermarket chains and the goal to gain more.

T-Mobile gave a vision where they provide a comprehensive platform of services for customers, not just connectivity but entertainment and smart homes. IoT (Internet of Things) will be integrated into their home routers, connecting to everything from cameras to heating controls. We can expect their current Magenta One (Fixed/Mobile/Entertainment) to expand in due course.

The term GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) is being used more often to distinguish them from the many smaller niche applications and platforms.

We have the technology…

It’s said that we already have much of the technology we need to achieve our goals, it’s just being used by different industries or for different applications.

The IET President emphasised their major initiative to share such knowledge, termed horizontal innovation. An example given is the case of the Formula One racing industry, where McLaren explained how they continuously measure, innovate, model and test upgrades.

Paul Stein, the after dinner speaker from Rolls Royce, was both entertaining and challenging. Noting the enormous power used by aircraft engines (typically about 8.5MWatts at take-off), putting wireless IoT sensors in the turbine blades isn’t yet feasible. But he’d quite like a very small wireless sensor embedded in many of the parts which could monitor and alert any abnormalities. It seems the aircraft industry is very far ahead in actively monitoring equipment status in live operation.

Some excellent presentations on autonomous cars. The SMMT points out the complexity involved: some 25 million lines of code in an airliner, some 100 million in today’s cars, perhaps 300 million in a fully autonomous vehicle. The table below shows the levels of automation, suggesting we are somewhere between Level 2 and 3 today. It may take until 2030 to reach Level 5.

It made me wonder whether a similar automation level might apply to many other devices and gadgets - everything from dishwashers (Level 5 today) to vacuum cleaners (perhaps some at Level 4 already).

Autonomous Car Automation Levels

One can see how these industries have moved from simply shipping products to selling the service – in the case of airline engines, it’s airtime – and continuing to support live operation to determine the next service interval.

The question is whether such vehicles will need to operate outside cellular coverage. A notable point was the lack of coverage on public roads nationwide, of which 2% (some 4,600 miles) isn’t served by any of the four networks even for 2G/GSM and 12% (28,975 miles) served by some but not all four networks. 3G and LTE coverage is considerably worse with full network coverage at 48% and 18% respectively. Plenty of room for improvement here, and that’s seen by some as being far more important and urgent than a patchy 5G Gigabit streaming service.

(Figures valid end 2015, published by RAC Foundation using Ofcom data.)

Privacy and Security

A workshop stream focussed more on data privacy than secure communication links. We seem to be getting more comfortable about sharing enormous amounts of personal data through Facebook etc., and some speakers thought that it would be down to regulators in the end to determine what’s reasonable. It was said that data privacy is seen as less concerning to younger people. A German speaker commented that data privacy is seen to be much more important by citizens there.

GAFA (Google Apple, Facebook Amazon) already access enormous amounts of detail about our private lives. But did you realise that when signing up to Uber, you are giving the App full access to your contact/address book, media and local data files?

There was surprisingly little said about the state of secure communication links, with the venue Wi-Fi being open and unencrypted.

Smart Cities

An excellent presentation about Singapore’s Smart City program, which aims to connect everything, everywhere, all the time (note this includes IoT devices, not just people). It’s not about tracking individuals but enabling ubiquitous services – returning to the earlier theme of enabling a platform for innovation.

More widely, I still feel that the Smart City concept is still many years away from delivering real benefits on a large scale. There remain too many political divisions, departments operating on different timescales and with different agendas to make rapid progress. There will be a few sparkling successes, such as Singapore, but I’m not expecting great strides in a short timeframe.

Energy and Power

The UK lacks a coherent energy strategy and is said to be developing one. We’ve shut down most of our coal fired power stations, and now rely on importing electricity from France via 1GWatt interconnect links. A lot of solar panels have been installed which of course only generate during daylight hours.

Moixa plan to smooth the load by installing a battery in every home with up to 3kWh of capacity and use a cloud-based control system to allocate and control distribution and sharing. The payback period is about 10 years today but may improve in the future as costs reduce and mass deployment grows.

Open Energi provide energy demand management by switching on or off industrial use to help balance the national grid. Their customers include large water utilities who can choose when to use their pumps. Still relatively new, their 40 customers handle 20MW of flexible power consumption, but the total market size could be as much as 6GW (ie about 10% of the national peak demand).

Small Cell Outdoor Enclosures made to measure

There was relatively little specific to small cells or even wireless technology at this wide ranging event. But I did speak with one vendor that was on topic.

GTT exhibited their small outdoor enclosures which would be ideal for urban small cells or Wi-Fi access points. These are weatherproof and environmentally certified to IP67, including a breathable Gore plug to avoid moisture inside and multiple egress points for cabling and antenna. They specialise in short turnaround prototypes but can manufacture in volume on demand.

Some analogies with wireless use

I saw some clear parallels with activity in the cellular industry. There is a need for some wholesale platforms to enable sharing and distribution of wireless capacity. Today we narrowly think of these as Neutral Hosts who might connect a single small cell installation to multiple network operators.

Demand generation and control of wireless data is an area with little attention today. Smartphones are either connected to Wi-Fi or cellular and many Apps behave differently depending on which. But I’ve not yet seen anything smarter which could defer upload/download (e.g. until you are at home rather than on a congested Wi-Fi public area). The benefit of smoothing capacity demand would impact the equipment costs for operators and there should be some incentive to opt in to that behaviour model.

Privacy and security are still extremely important areas, and will become even more so as we rely on ubiquitous connectivity for so many more devices. I’d like to see a security rating for each connection – similar to an energy rating on a domestic appliance – highlighting that open access Wi-Fi (as we had at the venue) is potentially quite high risk and really needs a VPN to compensate.

Summary

Overall, perhaps one of the more unusual and eclectic events but with several knowledge speakers and presenters. I’d also like to see Cambridge Wireless run an event that does focus on the wireless technology, but perhaps some would say this is already covered by their many SIGs (Special Interest Groups). It helped that it isn’t as overtly commercial as some exhibitions and was held in London rather than Cambridge.

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