Exclusives : Communications Everywhere: The Ambulance, the Technical, the Technology and the Business Model

Communications Everywhere: The Ambulance, the Technical, the Technology and the Business Model

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there has been an analyst on YouTube called Perun looking at different elements of defence logistics; a dry topic which he somehow makes entertaining. Recently he addressed the topic of ad-hoc vehicle modifications to create or improve weapons of war. The past few years have highlighted the impact that relatively inexpensive pieces of technology such as drones can have, but also the use of pick-up trucks equipped with weapons such as anti-aircraft weaponry or rockets. Such ad-hoc vehicles even have a military term, the ‘technical.’ While technicals are only suited for particular roles or are less well-suited than a tank or other specialist vehicle, they have the advantages of being inexpensive, rapidly deployed, adaptable and doing a better job than no vehicle at all.

“Rather than specifying a multi-billion-dollar chassis to house a new weapons system, we could reasonably see procurement teams starting to ask, “Can we just strap it to a truck?”” Perun noted.

For the telecoms world, building out specifications and working them through the standards process is the equivalent of designing that custom-built military hardware. It’s expensive and time-consuming and there is no guarantee that what comes out is going to be well-suited for the environment it finds itself in, despite the best guesses of the people involved at the start; only around 10% of 5G specifications have made it into commercial networks, for example.

So is it time to be looking speculatively at alternatives to the tried-and-tested standards process? Things that can be done in parallel with, or as alternatives to, systems and services that have gone through that rigorous procedure?

This is already happening, to some extent. Certification through the O-RAN community, for example, complements standards processes.

However, there are also companies doing independently today what is spoken about as a possible pervasive 6G future.


Tristan Wood is CEO at Livewire Digital, a company that grew out of the critical communications sector. While this field has demanded much more robustly reliable service than consumer communications, increasingly he is seeing the overlap.

“You need seamless comms for more and more applications, and certainly future applications in connected cars, autonomous vehicles,” he observed. “We’ve been working in telecoms since 1991, developing special protocols to help.”

Originally this tended to be custom-designed solutions to very specific problems involving hugely heavy equipment and a generator to enable connections including both cellular and satellite services. However, both the technology and the market today are very different.

“We’re actually seeing quite a lot of nervousness among the satellite operators. There’s a lot of consolidation in those markets because they’ve got Mr Musk coming along with his StarLink services, Amazon with theirs. You’ve got lots of different competing technologies which are getting up and running in times which are unheard of – in five years they’ve suddenly got constellations that span the world,” Wood observed.

Not only that, though.

“I think even the cellular operators are going to be challenged by this new technology,” Wood commented. “They are looking at ways that they can maintain their customer base, offer them a better service, and that’s where we hope our technology comes in.”


The Name’s Bond…

The requirement, then, is to be able to get a service through whatever access medium you happen to have around you.

“If it’s an ambulance and it’s travelling around the backwaters of Scotland it probably hasn’t got any cellular coverage, so it needs to have satellite. If it’s operating in London, for example, there’s plenty of cellular coverage but you probably can’t see the satellites because of all the buildings and all the line-of-sight issues.”

There are solutions to this in the market currently, with roaming and failover systems fairly commonplace for consumers. However, this doesn’t fit with an intuitive sense of what resilience or service continuity might mean.

“The way it’s tended to be done is that we’ve got, say, two or three services available to the customer, but only when one fails does it transition over. And so it breaks the connection, it re-establishes the connection, all your applications have to restart their connections back onto the cloud or to their corporate headquarters… It’s very hard for it to be able to transition in a way that migrates traffic so that as a service degrades, it moves it onto another one,” Wood explained.

Picture people can be cursing their horrible connection while standing next to someone enjoying fast services on another network.

However, traffic migration is something which customers definitely want and which they are engaging with in the B2B world. Many ships, for example, will attach to Wi-Fi in port, connect to cellular systems as long as they can, and only when there is no other option do they connect to the relatively expensive satellite connections.

So what is the alternative? Again, load balancing between networks is possible these days. Better, but still not always ideal, Wood commented.

“With a load balancing device your traffic is split over multiple networks. You may use one network for file transfer and one for streaming video. You can use different networks for different tasks, but each task can only use one network at a time. For example, your file transfer speed is limited to the speed of the one network it’s using. If a network goes down, whichever application is using it will fail.”

While this might be fine for many consumer services, bear in mind that in a critical communications scenario this is unlikely to win any applause. Within an enterprise scenario, too, it would be hard for technology leaders to be relaxed about this performance compared to the reliability of OT systems.

“The third option is a bonding solution,” Wood noted.

“In order to use a bonding solution, you need a server at the receiving end. This can be a physical computer or a cloud service. Unlike the switching or load balancing devices, a bonding solution allows you to combine the bandwidth of all your networks, so any application can use all the available combined bandwidth for maximum speed. If the network goes down, the computer will remain connected and nothing will fail.”

The outcome here is to essentially combine the performance of available networks wherever you happen to be. This is actually something which the UK is running a research project on, called REASON, and which 6GWorld wrote about a few months ago.

The project demonstrated how to combine the uplink capacity of Wi-Fi, 5G and Li-Fi to support live streaming of three-dimensional images for AR. In this case, the technology appeared to be working well but the researchers had to admit that it bumped up against pushback from operators for commercial reasons; where the 5G belonged to one operator and the Wi-Fi to another, for example, data management and privacy were flagged up as potential stumbling-blocks.


From Technical to Commercial

However, there would also be, fundamentally, a very different relationship between the network operators and ‘their’ customers in an environment where the customer is able to access networks beyond the operator’s possession. A change of perspective is under way, though. This time it’s being driven by satellite providers.

“StarLink has just shaken them up somewhat, because suddenly it’s costing very little for a good service,” Wood commented.

This is driven not only by the different cost basis of the new small-satellite constellations but the fact that they can deliver services direct to device. In this environment the older companies need to compete differently.

“Being able to agnostically bring in services is not just a benefit to the customers, but… it means that the service provider can maintain their customer,” Wood explained.

“If they can say “Yes, we can provide you with LEO service as well as GEO and we can add the cellular service – how many cellular services would you like? We have operator A, B, C, and D that we can readily integrate into the network.” That’s quite a strong proposition to give to the customer.”

However, retention is only part of the story. Offering a service that can operate across multiple physical networks has opened up some new business models too. For example, satellite companies have been accustomed to offering a guaranteed performance to their customers based on the capabilities of their satellite network.

Wood suggested that “Let’s say that you can guarantee one megabit per second [Mbps] for 99% of the time; that’s now your baseline guarantee to the customer. Your upsell is the fact that you can now offer them 20 megabits, 30 megabits, 100 megabits, depending upon what else is available. Suddenly you’ve got different propositions for the customer, but it’s a mindset change.”


A Healthy Customer Dynamic

This is a type of proposition which is currently being tested through a project with the European Space Agency.

“It’s called Hybrid Connex,” Wood explained.

“We equipped a set of ambulances in the east of England. The services are tied to O2 and there are lots of places where they’ve got no connectivity. When you look at what the implications are on the care pathways and the workflows for the crew, and the fact that they can’t even place a telephone call in certain places, you start to understand that the ability to agnostically use other networks is just a no-brainer, really.”

The ambulances were equipped with modems to access 4G and 5G services across the different national MNOs as well as LEO satellite services, cooperating as a bonded service.

“These connections are capable of hundreds of Mbps where the coverage is good, but we’ve set a baseline to see if we can provide 30Mbps anywhere,” Wood said.

“Then this provides them with the capabilities not only to use their existing workflows, which are currently restricted by virtue of the services that they currently got deployed, and it suddenly opens up telemedicine and everything else.”

5G-enabled ambulances have been much talked-about in the press since 2020. While these sound like an attractive possibility in cities, being able to deliver effective and continual broadband coverage in more rural areas where the journey to a hospital may be significantly longer is, if anything, liable to be more useful for performing triage and initial care en route. While this is a useful example of something obviously impactful a similar story might be told for other sectors. Wood agrees, unsurprisingly.

“The technology is a practical way of solving some really large problems. Again, it’s just getting an operator such as O2 to acknowledge the fact that they cannot, with their own single network, provide a suitable service for ambulances, or for the police, or for drones, or for the military. One operator is never going to be able to provide a service which is global, 100% reliable, et cetera.”

With that in mind, finding new business models to leverage existing, collective capabilities and build in new ones makes sense. It lets the industry do much more with what infrastructure and capabilities already exist. Up to now, operators with bigger network reach might be able to snag a competitive advantage. In future they may be able to secure more revenues from other service providers leveraging their networks, while competition is based more on customer propositions and experience.

These approaches are very different from what we’re used to, though. While developing a new set of standardised network technologies to deliver robust and universal coverage sounds great, it is the equivalent in time and money of specifying and purchasing a new type of tank. Perhaps, at least for now, we just need to get on with the equivalent of strapping weapons to the back of trucks… a different type of ‘technical’ solution.

“The telcos also need to realise that the world has changed,” Wood noted.

“It takes so many years to roll out those new network technologies and all these applications aren’t going to wait, are they? You’re not going have Amazon saying “Well, I’m going to hang on. I’m not going to get my drones working because I haven’t got a 6G service yet.” They’re going to find a solution.”

Image by Artur Pawlak from Pixabay




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