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O2 looks to the stars to fuel CAV connectivity

O2 has launched a new project with the European Space Agency to address the notable strain which will be placed on networks with the introduction of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

While there has been a nod to the potential pitfalls of providing connectivity for CAVs, it hasn’t received a significant amount of attention to date. O2 claims it has done research on the segment, and wide-scale adoption of CAVs could generate up to 4 TB of data an hour. This would certainly place a strain on urban networks, but the usecases don’t end at the city limits; the strain placed on rural networks might be too much of a burden.

Code-named ‘Project Darwin’, O2 and the European Space Agency will work with Spanish satellite operator Hispasat, as well as various universities and vertical start-ups, to create connectivity solutions combining 5G and satellite communications.

“Project Darwin is an important piece of the connected and autonomous vehicle puzzle,” said Derek McManus of O2. “The research taking place at Harwell during the next four years will be vital in the creation of new transport ecosystems for the UK public and the companies that will offer these services.”

“Autonomous vehicles need robust, high-speed mobile data connections to operate effectively,” said Catherine Mealing-Jones, Director of Growth at the UK Space Agency. “Building the technology to link them to telecoms satellites will allow you to take your car wherever you want to go, and not just to areas with a strong mobile signal.”

This is one of the questions which the telco seems very keen to avoid at the moment; what is being done to ensure 5G is not an ecosystem for the privileged? Or at least not for a longer period of time than is necessary.

Having just driven back to London from the South-west, your correspondent can confirm the patchy nature of 4G. Telcos and government will tell you this is an area which is constantly improving, but it isn’t although we were taking countryside backroads. The M4 is one of the most important and busiest arteries of the UK. Maybe we are expecting too much, but the number of times devices dropped off 4G coverage is not encouraging for these future usecases which depend on constant and reliable connectivity.

These are questions which are perhaps being addressed elsewhere but not directly in the UK. How quickly is the network growing? Are network densification strategies advancing as quickly as other nations who are driving towards the 5G promise?

Business Secretary Greg Clark has stated the UK has ambitions to lead in the CAVs segment, but to do this the right connectivity conditions need to be in place. It does not appear the network has been rolled out far or densified enough to meet the demands of this emerging segment, whenever it appears.

Satellite is often seen as the ugly duckling in the connectivity mix. It is often considered as an option for the developing nations, and largely overlooked for those who can afford to build connectivity closer to the ground. However, digital divides exist all around the world, albeit nowhere near as extreme or consequential as regions such as Africa. If there are ‘not spot’s, or even areas of weak/patchy signal, some 5G usecases are undermined. CAVs is one of them.

Attitudes towards satellite connectivity have been shifting over the last 12 months, and it does appear to be increasingly becoming an important ingredient in the connectivity recipe. The UK network is evolving and improving, but it is far from perfect; satellites look an asset which are becoming more of a necessity than back-up.

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