Mobile IP is the voice -- and data -- of the future
Distinctions among voice, video and data blur in the march toward unified communications
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling and title of Dan MacIvor of CDW Government.
During a disaster, terrestrial communications networks are often destroyed or degraded to the point that they can't handle the demands placed on them.
“That is the story line you see in any major disaster, and that was the story line you saw in Haiti” in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake that struck the island on Jan. 12, said Jack Deasy, civil programs director at satellite communications provider Inmarsat.
Haiti’s wireless service capacity was reduced by about 30 percent as hundreds of emergency responders flooded into the country, increasing demands for bandwidth. IP satellite communications filled much of the gap.
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“Most of the teams that went in in the early days went in" with Broadband Global Area Network service, Deasy said.
BGAN is a service offered through Inmarsat’s fourth-generation satellites, which became fully operational in 2008. Operating in the L Band spectrum, BGAN enables voice and data communications through a laptop-sized terminal that users can set up in a few minutes to establish a shared 0.5 megabits/sec IP channel.
Those portable L Band systems are easy to set up because “you don’t have to be pointing directly at the satellite,” Deasy said. “You have about a 12-degree range at which the terminal will be able to access the satellite.”
At the peak of rescue and relief operations, there were as many as 500 BGAN terminals in Haiti, sometimes with as many as 100 of them operating simultaneously. That created a spike in demand. Inmarsat spectrum managers in London, anticipating the spike, began studying bandwidth usage as soon as they received news of the quake.
“They started making adjustments to be ready for the surge before it happened,” Deasy said. “One of the biggest challenges of using an IP-based system is you can’t say how many users you can support because it depends on what they are doing.”
The emergency responders' use of BGAN in Haiti caught systems operators by surprise and demonstrated the benefits of converging communications in a mobile IP environment.
During earlier emergency events, the principal use for BGAN had been voice. “Voice is the primary communications channel people want in a disaster,” Deasy said. But in Haiti, the greatest demand was for data communications. Text messages, e-mail messages, maps and Global Positioning System data were being transmitted from survivors in the rubble to emergency responders, sent to the United States for analysis, and passed back to rescue teams.
“That was a surprise to us,” Deasy said. “Because we are using an IP system, the most efficient use of our spectrum is when we are running data through it.” This helped to simplify management of the ad hoc communications system that sprang up after the Haitian quake.
Mobile IP communications that support voice, video and data is increasingly in demand, particularly in environments that require rapid response and quick deployment, which has made converged communications a good bet for military operations.
“Unified communications is not a specific technology; it’s really a strategy that combines a suite of services,” said Bill Sapp, president of Ultra Electronics Criticom, a videoconferencing company that works with the Defense Department.
The company’s ISEC line of videoconferencing products enables secure communications on classified and unclassified networks. A toggle switch can flip between networks and secure the system between calls in about 90 seconds to avoid crosslinks or data leakage. “You don’t have to have two sets of hardware for two networks,” Sapp said. “The alternative is a 30- or 40-minute sweep of the system between calls.”
ISEC products include a portable, rugged system with a 10-inch screen that the military is using for rapid deployment in Afghanistan.
“We’re seeing a tremendous amount of play in mobile,” in part because the technology is evolving to support it, Sapp said. “Generation Y is also a big influence on the technology,” because they expect to have the ability to communicate any way they want from anywhere and on any kind of device.
That evolution has been a long time coming. AT&T introduced the first prototype picture phone at the 1964 World’s Fair. It quickly became a staple technology for the Jetsons. But in the real world, cost, quality and a lack of demand got in the way. “In 1964, it was impractical,” and the technology remained “just around the corner” for 40 years, Sapp said.
The equation finally has changed with the emergence of more advanced IP technologies. Cost has come down, quality has gone up, and demand has increased. The military and intelligence communities like unified communications' flexibility, mobility and ability to convey different types of information.
“All of this leads to one thing: It speeds the delivery of information,” said David Hawkins, unified communications manager at Iron Bow Technologies, a provider of secure voice-over-IP communications. “You can get the right information to the right person, right away.”
For a long time, IP was not well suited for voice and video communications. “One of the problems with IP in the past was timing issues,” Sapp said. The redundancy and resiliency that makes IP so reliable for technology such as e-mail did not work well for latency-sensitive communications such as voice and video. Eventually, the Public Switched Telephone Network was used to provide those services through Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) for the transmission of digital data via switched networks.
Emerging IP standards, such as Scalable Video Coding, are helping to overcome the constraints of low bandwidth and limited quality and can make IP videoconferencing feel like participants are in the same room, Sapp said. However, uniformly high-quality voice and imagery is still in the future, he said. Many existing systems automatically adapt to the lowest bandwidth link in a networking chain, providing consistent but not necessarily high quality. “For the next four or five years, you are going to have an ISDN world and an IP world.”
The military and emergency responders aren't the only ones who want to take advantage of the mobility that modern VOIP offers. Jefferson County, N.Y., chose to go with VOIP when it was time to change its aging PBX.
“We have a very old legacy phone system, and it is hard to find parts for it,” said Greg Hudson, the county’s information technology director. “We could have replaced it with another telephone system. We have all of the copper in place. But we also have the Cat 5 cable in place, and we recognize that VOIP is the future of telephone service.”
The county, which borders Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River in New York’s northwest corner, conducted a trial implementation of a VOIP system from Cisco Systems and now is soliciting bids for a production system for all of the county’s 850 employees and 11 buildings. The county considers VOIP to be the future because of features such as mobility.
“The phones have even more capabilities than we thought of to begin with,” Hudson said. “I had never considered before the soft phone client that can go on a laptop and how useful that can be.”
He said he envisions county nurses being able to take their office phones with them on their laptops during field visits, maintaining contact by using the same office number and having access to all phone system services, such as conferencing, voice mail and videoconferencing. Hudson added that he likes the follow-me feature that allows users to direct calls to cell phones.
“As an IT director, I’m not in my office a lot,” Hudson said. “With VOIP, I don’t have to give out my cell number; I just give out my office number,” and he can pick up calls on his cell phone when he's out of the office and move them back to his desk phone when in the office. “For our workers who don’t sit at their desk all the time, it’s great.”
That connectivity usually requires switching calls from an IP to a cellular system. But the next big thing in mobile VOIP will be the integration of cellular and IP into a single system, said Dan MacIvor, field account executive at CDW Government, which is helping Jefferson County with its deployment.
“The ability to be talking on your cell phone and walk into your wireless LAN environment and seamlessly switch to your unified communications platform is emerging,” he said. “It’s on the horizon.”
Lifesavers in Orbit
The unified communications networks put into use during the Haitian earthquake response were an ad hoc collection of systems that tied together a variety of protocols and data types to overcome bandwidth constraints. The BGAN terminals used by many emergency response teams tapped the half-megabit satellite links to provide communications to the outside world, although performance of each link varied depending on local use.
“As a practical matter, users tend to see from 200 to 400 kilobits/sec,” which was adequate for voice, e-mail and Web access, Deasy said. Many reporters in Haiti also used Inmarsat service for video reports. But that requires a separate streaming service to provide the necessary synchronization.
BGAN uses three satellites in geosynchronous orbit over the equator, each about the size of a London double-decker bus with large solar panels about 100 yards across. What distinguishes this constellation of satellites is its ability to focus power and bandwidth where needed.
“The real innovation was the ability to shine a high number of spot beams anywhere on the Earth,” Deasy said. Each satellite has about 190 of these communications beams available, each covering an area of about 200 nautical miles. “You can reuse the spectrum a lot more easily and more often” by focusing them where the demand is.
People trapped in the rubble of destroyed buildings often were able to send low-bandwidth text messages from cell phones, which were delivered to aid agencies. But those messages often were in Creole, and someone needed to translate them. Existing maps often were inadequate — landmarks had been destroyed by the quake — so rescuers unfamiliar with the country needed some way to pinpoint the position of the survivor.
That was often done in the United States, where teams of crisis mappers assembled at San Diego State University and the Fletcher School of International Affairs at Tufts University after recent tsunami emergencies. Volunteers who were familiar with Haiti translated the text messages and provided GPS coordinates where possible.
The data was sent to aid agencies via satellite and given to rescue teams, which used the information to locate victims, an innovative use of unified communications.
“It really caught everyone by surprise,” Deasy said. “Haiti has changed how a lot of people who support disaster response think about things.”