Cellular providers adjust networks for telematics

  • 04-Mar-2010 08:51 EST

Telenor Connexion will monitor its systems more closely to ensure that eCalls get through.

Cellular service providers are gearing up to meet the bandwidth and reliability requirements of telematics users. Ensuring connectivity for emergency calls is a key concern, while the potential demand for streaming media is a long-term issue.

The predicted explosion in telematics service requirements is among the many elements that are driving cellular providers to enhance their capabilities. The trend to stream data from smart phones, netbooks, and other devices is currently driving network upgrades.

However, the bandwidth consumed by cars will grow over time. It will be a few years before even the majority of new cars have telematics links, and it will take much longer for connected cars to dominate the highways. Similarly, bandwidth requirements will grow over time as drivers look to do more.

“In many instances, speed is not critical for things like safety, diagnostics, and security; you’re sending very small packets of data,” said John Horn, National Director of T-Mobile’s Machine to Machine Field. “But when you’re doing live mapping and real-time traffic, you want to eliminate time delays.”

Though vehicles will not consume a huge portion of the available wireless bandwidth for some time, telephony engineers are factoring vehicle connectivity into their plans. Safety is one of the primary attractions for consumers of telematics services, making connectivity a primary issue.

That is particularly true in Europe, where legislators have passed a bill mandating eCall connections in vehicles so they can call in when they are in a serious accident. Providers are focusing more on techniques that ensure that these emergency calls always go through.

“Communications to vehicles need to be more controlled and managed in the sense that the network is being surveyed,” said Robert Brunbäck, Head of Market Strategy Telenor Connexion AB. “This is critical, providers need to ensure that the service is always on.”

Though providers are all racing to add capacity, they are reluctant to break down the importance of different applications. All users want more bandwidth and better reliability, so improvements made for one benefit all.

“When we’re engineering our radio networks and core networks, we don’t separate considerations for different types of customers. We engineer for general-purpose communications,” said Eric Krauss, Director of Product Marketing Management for AT&T. “Everything is a contributor.”

Cellular providers are planning ahead for times when cars and people both stream more data. They are moving from 3G networks to 4G technologies that carry far more bits, using bigger pipes and more efficient protocols. “Not only do consumers get more bandwidth, it’s used more efficiently,” Horn said.

Another question for providers is how much capability they need to put in remote areas. Many cell towers now carry only minimal traffic, so there is little need to upgrade them.

“We have tons of towers that never send any data; they only transmit voice,” Horn said. “In those areas, there’s no need to expand. In other areas around North America, we’re adding thousands of towers.”

That does not bode well for agricultural, mining, and construction fleets that are using telematics to monitor vehicle usage and health. When their vehicles are the only users in an area, fleet owners may have to use satellite links.

Some providers are doing a lot of work in dual-mode technology, with satellites and cell phone connectivity. “Some fields like construction and mining are in remote areas. We’re coming to market with cellular/satellite handsets,” Krauss said.

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