Wireless Waffle - A whole spectrum of radio related rubbish
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Tuesday 1 December, 2009, 01:21 - Spectrum Management
Posted by Administrator
Some of the biggest brains in Europe, as well as hundreds of millions of Euros of public money are being poured into a concept which has the catchy name of the 'Internet of Things'. The concept in itself is a fairly straightforward one - that as well as people being connected together via the Internet, machines and sensors and all sorts of other electrical and mechanical devices will be connected together as well. So it would be possible for your fridge to talk to your lawnmower, and your kettle to have a chat with your central heating system.

Actually, this is nowhere near as silly as it sounds. From the perspective of saving energy and hence carbon, one of the main problems facing electricity generators is dealing with the peak load. In the USA this occurs on the hottest day of the year when air conditioning units are working overtime, and in the UK typically occurs mid-winter when heating units and lots of TVs are turned on, especially during commercial breaks when everyone gets up to make a cup of tea and turns their kettle on. So at these moments, if the kettle could chat with your freezer, for example, and tell it to stop freezing for a few minutes whilst it boils, no-one would be any the wiser and the net result would be a reduction in peak electricity consumption.

This is all fine and dandy and there are plans for 'smart cities' where lots of devices communicate with each other to the benefit of energy consumption, safety and for lots of other good reasons. But there is a limit to how effective such communication can be. Imagine the following discussion:

Kettle to Fridge Please stop freezing for a bit as I need to boil the water to make a cup of tea.
Fridge to Kettle Sorry, no can do. I've already put freezing on hold for a bit to help the tumble dryer out. Perhaps you could speak with it.
Kettle to Tumble Dryer Please could you stop drying for a bit as I need to boil the water to make a cup of tea?
Tumble Dryer to Kettle You must be joking! I've already had to stop 4 times to let the floodlights come on outside and if I don't get these clothes dry soon, there'll be trouble.
Kettle to TV Hey, TV. Any chance you could turn yourself off for a few minutes whilst I boil some water to make a cup of tea?
TV to Fridge Can you believe it? The Kettle has asked ME, ME the TV to turn off so that it can boil some water, who does it think it is?
Fridge to TV I know. Always trying to steal all the power. Nearly as bad as the iron which is on and off like a faulty switch.
chatty fridgeTV to Fridge You are so right. I just pretend Eastenders is on when the iron asks me to turn of, it knows that I couldn't possibly interrupt that programme.
Microwave oven to Fridge and TV Can you two pipe down a bit, I'm waiting for an important message from the vacuum cleaner about who is sharing the power tomorrow morning.

And so on...

So there you have it. Several billion Euros of investment brought down by a neurotic TV and an overly chatty fridge. Not to mention the fruit bowl and the salt pot who block the airwaves with their inane chatter about whether sweet or savoury is best. And therein lies the problem: all this communication needs bandwidth, and given the nature of the devices, they will need wireless bandwidth. A European Commission white-paper on the subject addresses the issue several times in statements such as:
[the internet of things] requires truly ubiquitous wireless capacity that can handle several magnitudes more data.
Communication infrastructure should provide ubiquitous connectivity in the presence of significantly increased traffic load and should be very efficient so as to reduce the cost per bit... Many of the local connections are naturally wireless.
It goes on to state
Spectrum must be valued: Radio spectrum is one of the most valuable resources of the digital age. As more and more devices and objects become wireless enabled ... spectrum is becoming a key bottleneck. We have to find ways to manage the spectrum more efficiently so as to maximise data throughput and minimise interference.

The report suggests that one possible solution would be to develop a real-time local market in radio spectrum. What does this mean? It means that when you go to make a call from your mobile (or you fridge wants to open a discussion with the vacuum cleaner) it first interrogates the 'spectrum stock market' and chooses the piece of spectrum which offers the right level of connectivity at the appropriate price. Of course the question remains as to how it does this without, in the process, also using a wireless connection.

What is certain, however, is that we have only started to see the beginning of the squeeze on the radio spectrum and that if it seems congested now, compared to the future it is still a wide open space of nothingness. And like oil as it begins to become rare, it is likely we shall see an increase in the value of spectrum too. We here at Wireless Waffle wonder whether there will eventually be unit trusts and other investment wagons on the stock market that invest in spectrum for a profitable return in the same way as they do in gold, silver, oil, crops and other limited resources. If there are, then as prices spiral, it might just shut the fridge up for a bit.
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