I have long argued that R&E networks not only have an important role in helping universities and scientists in pursuit of their research objectives, but they can play a critical leadership role in defining new business, health care, and education opportunities for society at large. It was the university R&E networks that first brought us the Internet and have played an important catalyst role in defining new low cost optical network architectures and the development of open access networks by connecting anchor institutions and facilitating the developing of transit exchanges amongst other initiatives. As I mentioned in my previous blog I think they can now also play an important role in helping universities and schools reduce their energy costs and CO2 footprint: http://green-broadband.blogspot.com/2010/02/new-revenue-opportunites-for-r-networks.html.
Another important area where R&E networks can play a new leadership role is in the development of next generation wireless networks which I have labeled as “5G” networks. The 5th “G” stands for green. The idea is based on an original concept developed by David Reed at MIT to deploy a national wireless R&E network. The green bits are my embellishment to his original idea.
The ability of R&E and open access networks to now provide wireless services has been enabled by the evolution and flattening of the Internet as documented by John Markov in his NY Times article http://bit.ly/aog7y8 and as I outlined in my paper that was originally commissioned to be submitted to the FCC as part of the Network Neutrality hearings at http://billstarnaud.blogspot.com/2010/02/personal-perspective-on-evolving.html. The development of a content centric network with local connectivity makes delivery of a low cost 5G network possible as now you dont have to build an extensive back haul network.
As noted recently by many pundits, the big challenge facing today’s wireless 3G networks is data overload. Many industry experts are talking about “mobile offload” to deal with the huge data volumes now being carried on wireless networks. With mobile offload, large data streams from a wireless device (or tower) would be redirected through the nearest WiFi or “white space” (the old UHF TV spectrum) base station wherever possible. This offloads the data from the congested 3g/4g network which often only have microwave backhaul links.
Demand for mobile wireless access to the Internet is expected to explode in the next few years. Increasingly most university students and researchers are using wireless devices such as iPhones and Blackberrys or connecting their laptops with 3G sticks as their primary interface to the Internet. As well mobile and wireless devices are being used in research fields as environmental, geological, agricultural, forestry sensors etc. These mobile sensor networks need low cost high bandwidth connectivity back to the host research institution. In addition, many universities are offloading many student (and some research) applications like e-mail and applications to Google and others and so primary access to their e-mail and applications is not through the institution’s LAN network, but directly over the Internet. Increasingly the primary form of electronic communication for many young people is not e-mail, but texting and facebook which again does not need to be carried over the university LAN network. It is not only students who are changing their Internet habits. But wireless access to social networking tools like Twitter, Linkedin, etc is becoming increasingly important to many researchers. Wireless access to clouds and a variety of cyber-infrastructure services will be also become critically important.
What I propose is that R&E and open access networks become “5G” wireless networks where the primary connection for wireless devices will be transparent interface connection to nearby wifi and/or “white space” base stations at R&E connected institutions. WiFi mesh radio networks can significantly extend coverage off campus, especially if deployed in partnership with open access fiber networks. If wifi or white space connection is not available the device would fall back to the default backup 3G/4G network. It is proposed that all participating Wifi and white base stations be powered solely by micro wind mills, solar panels and/or micro hydro. If there is no energy for the wifi or white space base station the wireless device would transparently connect to the much slower default backup 3G/4G network
R&E networks and their partner institutions would be the customer facing service provider to students and faculty perhaps also in partnership the 3G/4G network provider. They would charge a small fee to users for this service which would be significantly less than what students pay now to the cell phone companies with their the concerted practice of outrageous charges for texting and roaming. The R&E network would contract with an existing 3G/4G carrier to be the default service provider where there is no wifi or white space signal from a participating institutions for example when the students are off campus. This business model already exists with what are called virtual network cell phone providers like Virgin. The R&E network would also provide voice gateway to the PSTN for voice calls that are carried over the WiFi or white space connections.
Understandably most of the incumbent cell phone companies would be not keen on this model, but in jurisdictions where there is competition from both domestic and international players I suspect some new entrants might be interested in this business model.
Some of the issues that need to be addressed are:
(a) Where to find wireless devices that will automatically switch from authorized Wifi and white space node to 3G/4g seamlessly? How do you extend 3g/4g authentication and signaling to the wifi nodes over the R&E network? How do you integrate with SIMs and RADIUS?
(b) How do you provide seamless and mobile services between Wifi and 3G/4G? Should Skype or Google voice be the default voice application? Can this be done transparently and seamlessly?
(c) How do we co-manage wifi and white space base stations between R&E network and participating institutions? (we can do this with most wifi base stations)?
Will cell phone companies build devices for this type of market,? Will Wifi companies build the appropriate green powered base stations that can be interoperate with 3G/4G data?
Your feedback on this idea is most welcome