Last Modified:                                                                                                



Homepage / Publications & Opinion / Silicon.com

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: How many mobile phones do you need?
"We are witnessing a divergence on a par with the Cambrian explosion of life itself some 500 million years ago."

Communications should be simple, right? Peter Cochrane thinks so but there are plenty of factors meaning it isn't always so...

I'm standing on a New York street corner observing an archetypical American policeman. He seems to be wearing over 30lbs of hardware around his waist, plus a bullet-proof vest and a yard-stick in one hand. On his waist are a pistol, several ammunition clips, mace, handcuffs and two walkie-talkies. And to my surprise he is using a mobile cellular phone.

I wait until he has finished his conversation and then cannot resist the temptation to stroll over and ask him why he is using a mobile phone. The response is a curt, New York "because it works". And your walkie-talkies don't? "Not all of the time," was his reply. Interesting.

Just a few weeks ago I was up in the Boulder, Colorado area and got an earful from the local sheriff's department on the pros and cons of analogue and digital mobile systems. The Rocky Mountains are less than friendly to any wireless system. But digital systems are binary. They work or they don't, with very little in between. On the old analogue systems it appears the performance was far more robust. So the police department has reverted to the old technology because it works!

Curiously I seem to have mobile telephone coverage almost everywhere I travel in Colorado - on the plane, across the dessert, in the forests and up the Rockies the coverage is excellent given the nature of the terrain.

I suspect that more than one sheriff's department across the US is also using cellular mobile as the primary or secondary means of communication. A mobile phone comes off a production line at less than $20 a pop while the police walkie-talkie is usually priced at 10 times higher. The military, of course, pay an even higher price for man packed radios, which also lack the performance and resilience of a standard mobile phone.

This raises the question as to why the emergency services, police and military do not adopt the cellular standard and reduce their communications costs, while advancing their abilities in one fell swoop.

The simple allocation of a few channels of the civil cellular network for exclusive government use, plus a little software that allows them to override other cellular users in cases of national emergency or war, would see a far greater capability than enjoyed today. In addition, battlefield or war zone communication could easily be adapted to use mobile cellular base stations, which if necessary, could be linked to HF radio and satellites for a wider range of communication.

During every terrorist incident or outbreak of war, communications between multiple services from multiple countries turns out to be a key stumbling block. The coordination of these fighting on the side of the good is hampered by the very technology that should make it easier. The enemy, however, is using a mobile phone and a cellular network and has far more efficient and rapid communication. It might be that vested interests are preventing the obvious step towards an integration of communication for all our services but I prefer the cock-up or snafu explanation.

There is a major opportunity here for what I would call bridgeware. I mean a technology that would allow the devices used by our police, emergency services and military to hop from one available network to another and provide both voice and data communication. This is not rocket science but it is different.

People in the communications industry often talk about convergence. As far as I can see there is absolutely no evidence of convergence anywhere, anytime in our past or present.

The reality is we are introducing more networks and network types, more protocols, operating systems, applications and devices by the day. We have never seen a period of convergence and we are not seeing a period of convergence now. We are witnessing a divergence on a par with the Cambrian explosion of life itself some 500 million years ago.

I have no doubt in my mind that there will ultimately be a collapse in every respect to a small number of network types, operating systems, applications and devices - only not yet. Until that does happen we are going to continue to see one period after another of people having communications difficulties in companies, corporations and the services but the very simplest step is to adopt the most prevalent signalling standard and technology at the very lowest cost that will do the job.

The vast majority of humanity (except those living in North America) enjoys a mobile communications capability everyday that is the envy of the military and police - and Dick Tracey! And like my New York cop, the vast majority of the people in government services are purchasing their own mobile phone and setting up their own sub-networks to by-pass something that doesn't work quite as well as it might.

This could be the start of a new regime. Perhaps we will see companies and governments withdrawing from the purchase and supply of mobile communications for their people - as we all vote with our feet and purchase our own.

This column was typed on my laptop in a New York hotel room overlooking Broadway and despatched to silicon.com via a high-speed LAN in the same room