To the wider world, Ofcom is perhaps best known as the industry regulator that slaps the wrists of unruly broadcasters: think the recent Ant and Dec award debacle, or last summer’s Blue Peter phone-in scandal.
But beyond playing the role of mediator in tabloid-friendly brouhahas, the regulator has a far more significant responsibility. As manager of the UK’s radio spectrum — the backbone of today’s increasingly wireless world — few other regulatory bodies have such an influence on technology development.
The person charged with making sense of the latest communications technologies, examining their impact, and deciding whether to give them the green light is the head of Ofcom’s research and development department, Prof William Webb.
A trained electronics engineer, self-confessed amateur futurologist and veteran of the communications industry, Webb’s role is to carry out an impartial review of emerging technologies. ‘We are not a products company — what we are doing is researching technologies that have been invented elsewhere in order to understand whether they have any regulatory implications,’ he said.
It is primarily a case of potential interference. A good example is ultra wide band (UWB) technology. Suitable for low-energy, extremely high-bandwidth communications, the technology has a range of extremely useful applications. But because it uses a large portion of the radio spectrum that is already used by many others, it has the potential to create a certain amount of interference.
‘UWB clearly had a regulatory implication,’ said Webb. ‘It was actually illegal when it was first invented and the question was: “should we change the regulations to allow it?”. We did a lot of research on UWB systems and deduced it would cause a problem to 3G operators, but not to many other people, so we sharpened the regulations to ensure it didn’t cause interference on the 3G band.
A range of other technologies have also come under Ofcom’s microscope, including cognitive radio devices that can opportunistically access spectrum not used by others, smart antennas that can focus beams, and new types of radar systems.
After the regulator’s formation in 2002, there was a frenzy of activity as it worked its way through an in-box of unregulated technologies, but the emergence of truly new systems has now slowed to a trickle. Webb believes the most exciting developments will spring from new applications of existing technologies.
‘When we got to the end of 2007, we concluded that we had studied most of the new hot technologies that we knew about, and that very few of these had any likelihood of significantly changing the world of wireless communications,’ he said.
‘For the last year or so, we have turned to look more at applications.’
This is the overriding message of Ofcom’s latest report, Tomorrow’s Wireless World, a detailed piece of crystal ball-gazing that looks 10 to 20 years into the future at a world where the ubiquity of wireless sensors has transformed the healthcare and transport industries.
In healthcare, the report envisages networks of wearable or implantable body sensors that would monitor patients’ vital signs and wirelessly transmit data to a central computer. In the automotive sector, it foresees a world where wireless technologies and low-cost satnav devices converge to create systems that enable cars to communicate with each other, helping to avoid collisions by giving advance warning of sudden braking or traffic jams ahead.
Despite the futuristic nature of these applications, Webb insists that the technology to make them happen already exists.
For example, one application touched on in the report is the idea that wearable heart-rate monitors could be used to alert GPs to abnormal heart rhythms. ‘Heart-rate monitors are two a penny — that’s not a big deal,’ said Webb. ‘Getting a heart-rate monitor that communicates with your mobile phone would be very straightforward, and getting your mobile phone to send that information across the network is also very straightforward. Adding the software to analyse it is very simple. None of it requires any technology that is remotely novel — it’s all off-the-shelf stuff.’
But putting it all together and making it work is where the big challenge lies. ‘A lot of the applications in healthcare and transport look quite futuristic, but it’s more a case of developing the standards and the business cases that will be needed to bring the various pieces together that will make up these applications,’ said Webb.
Crucially, the report is not simply one person’s view of the future, but is based on the input of a huge variety of stakeholders from the industries in question. ‘I was very keen that these ideas were very widely bought into by everyone in the industry,’ said Webb.
‘We wanted to use this work as a definitive assessment of the radio spectrum requirements of the health and transport sectors. We consulted massively. In the transport sector, we had the Department for Transport, the RAC, the chief transport scientist for the EU — I could go on. In the healthcare sector, we talked to doctors, the Bluetooth medical devices working group, a number of academics, Intel, the Department for Health, O2, and again the list goes on.’
As manager of the spectrum, one of Ofcom’s main reasons for writing the report was to establish the requirements of future technologies. This is important, says Webb, because the spectrum, rather like the fossil fuels that underpin many other major industries, is effectively a finite resource. ‘While the radio spectrum does extend almost infinitely up the frequencies, where it becomes light and infrared and so on, pretty much all of the spectrum that’s useful is already allocated,’ he points out.
Despite this, Webb ruled out the possibility that we might run out of available spectrum to support new services. ‘If something new comes along that needs new spectrum, it tends to displace an existing use,’ he said. ‘It’s a constant process of reusing and refarming and changing the use of spectrum to more efficient uses.’
Some respite will also come next year in the form of the digital dividend review, an auction of radio spectrum made possible by the switch to digital television that should free up 112Mhz. ‘Digital TV broadcasting means you can compress the signal before transmitting it and that means you need less spectrum,’ said Webb.
In the meantime, he is excited to be working in an industry that becomes more diverse each day. ‘There’s always something happening — there’s such an enormous variety of things that use radio spectrum,’ he said. ‘People think of cellular phones and TVs, but there are all sorts of radar used for air traffic control and military uses, wi-fi systems, police radio — the list goes on and on. There is always something more to learn about.’