Fai Lam,Enterprise & Public Sector Product Director, IP Routing & Transport
A hot topic in recent years in the information and communications technology (ICT) world is the concept of the Internet of Things, or IoT, where virtually every device we interact with in our daily lives is connected to a communications network. This connection provides ways to manage those devices remotely and allows them to share and exchange information, interact with other devices and applications and perform certain tasks autonomously.
This idea has taken hold in the consumer world, exemplified by the development of a connected refrigerator capable of sending text messages to remind you that you are low on milk, or a home thermostat that can be instructed to switch on the heater when you head home from the office.
These kinds of services are already becoming mainstream using connections typically established over broadband networks – fixed or wireless – supported by commercial service providers. And for such low impact services, this approach makes perfect sense. The consequence of someone failing to receive a text to pick up milk is not earth-shattering, after all.
However, in many facets of our lives, these kinds of commercial connections will not be sufficient to meet the demanding requirements of smarter, more mission-critical services. Think of all the fundamental services national, state and local authorities and public service organizations rely on to keep our communities safe, transport people and goods from place to place and keep the lights on and ensure that our houses and apartments are warm in winter and cool in summer. These services demand networks that are truly reliable, resilient and more or less bullet-proof.
Increasingly, the kinds of services described above depend on remote sites with components and sensors, which are essential to the delivery of mission-critical services. From new Intelligent Electronic Devices (IEDs) deployed in utility distribution grids to enhance performance and safety to closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras in metro stations to high-bandwidth connections between first responders and command and control centers, the demands on networks in terms of the number and variety of connections and applications they need to support are growing exponentially.
Historically, service providers (AKA phone companies) were able to meet these organizations communications requirements with dedicated circuit-switched networks deployed to support any given applications traffic. As applications and associated requirements have evolved, however, these traditional networks will no longer be able to meet these needs. Why?
First, the bandwidth requirements of some of these emerging services are far more demanding than anything seen before. Imagine thousands of CCTV streams coming from metro stations, street corners or virtually anywhere else that city planners feel necessary. Some municipalities are deploying hundreds of thousands or even millions of cameras to support public safety efforts and traffic management. The result is a flood of video traffic flowing through communication networks that cant be accommodated by legacy infrastructure.
Second, there are many new, highly specialized types of services that organizations are looking to introduce – such as positive train control (PTC) for railways (which can automatically stop a train if it is traveling too fast). Railways deploying this service would naturally prefer not to deploy a new dedicated network exclusively to support this service and would be particularly unlikely to do so using legacy technologies. Similar dynamics exist in other industries as well.
The reality is the traditional Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) circuits running over copper wires that have supported critical functions for decades are no longer cost-effective to manage, and in many cases, simply no longer available. As important, they cannot meet the growing demand for more bandwidth intensive services, such as video, that represent perhaps the fastest-growing source of data traffic on mission-critical networks.
So what is the alternative?
Keeping the Lights On
Virtually every public service and business is utterly dependent on a steady flow of electricity and both public and private utilities work hard to ensure a reliable, consistent flow of power. Their ability to accomplish this, however, is being endangered by a process known as the TDM, Analog and Frame Relay sunset, which involves the decommissioning by commercial service providers of their traditional phone lines and digital services.
These are the networks on which power utilities have relied on for decades to remotely manage and control some of their most essential operations at substations and enable key safety applications like teleprotection.
With TDM networks being shut down, utilities are forced to explore alternatives. One option is to upgrade to Ethernet and MPLS services offered by their current carriers. However, these services likely include substantially more bandwidth which will result in significantly higher operations costs that could become prohibitive if these expenses are replicated across an entire grid (particularly as grid control become more geographically dispersed). Similarly, wireless solutions are available and can meet many utility needs, but they don’t have the same reliability and predictability as the services they replace. Therefore, they may not be a good option for applications such as teleprotection.
Of course, teleprotection is just one application and utilities need to maintain support for many existing legacy applications while preparing for the emergence of new capabilities that many are beginning to install today.
Keeping us Safe
Governments face similar challenges. Traditionally, public safety networks have served a single purpose – to provide reliable connectivity between first responders and command and control centers and among various agencies.
Just like utilities, public safety organizations have traditionally relied on a combination of microwave radio links and TDM circuit switched, wireline data connections to support existing two-way land mobile radio (LMR) systems for police, fire departments and ambulance squads. As mentioned, these networks are becoming obsolete and need to be upgraded to handle new IP-based multimedia applications such as live video feeds and camera surveillance and collaboration tools. Unfortunately, data capacity on existing systems is extremely limited.
What is increasingly required are high-bandwidth, IP-based connections that can form links between a wide array of locations – firehouses, police precincts and command and control centers – as well as a variety of mobile end-points, such as squad cars, ambulances and police officers themselves.
For governments, however, the demands for broadband communications extend well beyond public safety. Modern communications networks are making it possible for public safety networks to more effectively support their traditional mission-critical requirements, while at the same time transforming government communications whether municipal, statewide or regional to support a range of additional public services.
Keeping us Moving
Railway safety has lately been in the spotlight as a result of recent, high-profile accidents in the United States and Europe. Fortunately, such events are quite rare. There are technologies available today, however, which could make them even less frequent.
These signaling and train control technologies PTC in the U.S. and European Train Control System (ETCS) in Europe can track the speed and location of a train using an array of sensors and automatically trigger emergency brakes when a train exceeds the speed limit on a particular length of track. This helps eliminate driver error – a key cause of railway accidents.
The roll-out of these technologies has been slow and patchy for a variety of reasons, perhaps most notably cost. There have also been substantial debates about how best to implement and evolve these systems. Regardless of the outcome of this process, railway operators will ultimately implement train control in their systems, both to save lives and to protect the industrys reputation.
This means that railway operators will need to deploy the latest communications technology to support these mission-critical capabilities. Fortunately, modernizing their communications networks, these operators can reap a wide variety of additional benefits.
From Many to One
So what is the common thread between all of these different scenarios? Increasingly, organizations responsible for delivering essential services to communities worldwide are facing a dilemma. The communications networks they have depended on for decades to support absolutely critical services will soon be unable to meet the demands being placed on them. Moreover, building out individual networks to support each of the new services and applications they need to deploy will be economically untenable.
What they need is a communications network that can support links between a wide variety of remote components and locations, using connections that are utterly dependable and resilient, since in many cases lives will be at stake. It also must be able to support both traffic generated by both new and legacy applications.
What is ultimately needed is a single, multi-service network that can support a host of applications and traffic types simultaneously. Internet Protocol/Multi-protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) has emerged as the networking technology of choice to support a wide variety of mission-critical applications in an equally wide array of industries and markets.
IP/MPLS is the technology at the foundation of the largest, most reliable communications service provider networks in operation today. Service providers already followed what is a natural technological evolution to more efficient, flexible and powerful networks that can support data, voice, video and broadband Internet services simultaneously. They made this transition out of economic necessity – the older networks are unprofitable to operate and difficult to maintain.
A key benefit of IP/MPLS networks, however, is that they can be engineered to adhere to the strictest requirements for reliability, resiliency, performance and security, making them ideal for delivering existing applications where failure simply isnt an option. At the same time, IP/MPLS networks offer the opportunity to efficiently introduce additional capabilities, such as enabling utilities to better manage the introduction of distributed, renewable energy sources onto their grids, for railway operators to introduce onboard Wi-Fi to improve the passenger experience, or for municipalities to expand their network to enhance public services from waste collection to traffic monitoring.
Because it is an IP-based technology, IP/MPLS can also provide the foundation for the introduction of other networking technologies in future, such as 4G LTE wireless broadband or software-defined networks (SDN).
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