Its been some time since I delved into the world of mobile working. So it was interesting to attend the Mobile Data Association event looking at WiMax last week. I used the event to update myself on developments since first architecting 'Westminster Wireless' several years ago now.
I drew 2 main conclusions from the event. First, that things have not moved as fast as I would have expected. Surprise, surprise that a lack Government strategic planning appears to be holding us back. More on that later. Significantly, WiMax has developed to a point where it is now a viable technical product for mobile computing - albeit the lack spectrum is preventing its development in the UK.
Mobile computing in Local Government seems to have gone off the boil since the days of Project Nomad. Maybe we should not be surprised at that. ICT developments tend to go in and out of fashion. Everyone wants to be involved in the next 'big idea' so is it just a case of last years fashion?
If this is so then I believe that in Local Government we are missing something. Wireless may not be as sexy as it was before it became common place in our homes, but the business case is based on 60% of our employees being mobile street based. Traditional fixed networks don't support mobile working and frequently lack secure remote access to enable home working. Can we afford to ignore technology that can significantly improve performance for 60% of staff with rapid payback?
So how does WiMax move us forward? In the days when we were first installing WiFi base stations and wireless cameras on lamp columns primarily for parking purposes, there was quite a debate between use of WiFi and WiMax technology. I strongly held the belief that its was not a choice as both were complimentary. Clearly there would be WiFi hot spots where access would be ubiquitous - stations, shopping malls, hotels etc. But large parts of the Local Authority would never be covered by WiFi - often the points where the most vulnerable and needy lived and hence where mobile local authority staff needed access.
The resounding message from the WiMax event for me was that 3G networks did not and could never cut it. Frustration at the lack of speed and connectivity meant I abandoned its use very early on. Obviously availability has improved but within the last week I watched the frustration of a dongle user as his file transfer failed due to contention issues. Such technologies are primarily voice based with spare capacity being made available for data use. Typical speeds are around 700k - hardly mobile broadband. Their main use is therefore to stay in touch, not a serious alternative to broadband links.
WiFi offers amazing benefits but lacks the power to extend beyond hot spots or the home. For example I connected my Wii via WiFi to the new BBC iPlayer service released this week and was very impressed at the quality of the picture on a large screen TV. At least I was until I started to hammer the network at the same time! This demonstrates its weakness - good for small concentrations but contention will always be an issue.
What we need is a true mobile solution offering broadband speeds of at least 10Mbs and Quality of Service at an affordable price. Surprisingly this is exactly what WiMax offers. Graham Currier (Freedom 4) spoke of being able to demonstrate a broadband connection whilst driving a car at speed (not just stationary beneath a base station) using WiMax.
So why has WiMax not taken off in the UK compared to technology oriented countries across the world - China, Malaysia, South Korea, Estonia etc.? The answer is the lack of spectrum to provide a WiMax service. Devices are available and Intel makes silicon for laptops with both WiFi and WiMax enabled (see Amazon.com) at comparable cost. The problem is the spectrum needed to deliver WiMax (principally the 2.6GHz spectrum) not being released for auction. If you thought the Digital Britain strategy would address this then think again.
Having spent the last 3 years developing and implementing Government Connect and driving higher standards of Information Assurance for Local Authorities, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that 802.16m incorporates FIPS140 encryption. Before anyone from CESG goes apoplectic then I know this is not a total solution but not a bad starting point. GCSX and GSI will be replaced by the PSN but mobile and wireless working are currently out of scope. In my opinion this is a major weakness as future requirements will increasingly be for flexibility and better mobile and remote working solutions than at present.
On Monday, I attended the SOCITM Futures Group which this month took the form of a workshop session envisioning, shaping and championing 'Tomorrow's (local) Public Services'. In hindsight, I believe we did not go far enough in grasping the mettle of of change that is already starting. Not small incremental changes - but a world where the physical Town Hall no longer exists. The growth of mobile and flexible working will push us down this path but present networking solutions are about 'more of the same' rather than the step change required.
There is one place in Britain where you can receive WiMax services - Milton Keynes. Ironically not because MK is at the forefront of technology. When MK was built they used aluminium not copper and so today it is not possible to deliver traditional broadband services. Estate Agents report homes blighted because broadband is now an essential utility service. Connect MK exploits WiMax to deliver Broadband services to over 400+ premises. This DC10 project offers hope to the areas currently in black spots. My hope is that Britain does not become the Milton Keynes of the future.