Blog: March 2017. Intelligent Transport Systems – what’s the smarter choice: radio or cellular?

It’s a question we get asked a lot. Which network system should you choose for your smart transport system, a private radio network for reliability and security? Or a cellular network for speed, flexibility, and ease of installation?

There are plenty of articles online to convince you either way. Typically, decisions will be based on weighing up the pros and cons of each network. The traditional benefits of radio over cellular is control, security, and net cost of ownership. This is because a radio network is privately set up and not reliant on a cellular network carrier. Not only do organisations have more control over the network configuration, management and security with radio, the costs are also more predictable than cellular data, which can increase and fluctuate over time.

Cellular, on the other hand, is easier, cheaper to setup (but generally more a more expensive option in the long-term than radio) and more efficient to set up and extend, as the carrier manages and maintains the shared network. Albeit, if you factor in through life costs, the return on investment from a radio system can be realized in a surprisingly short period of time (less than 5 years in most instances), while you generally pay monthly fees to access cellular services. Depending on the loading on the system, cellular services can be offer much higher data rates than conventional private radio systems. But it’s the ‘shared’ part that has people worried when it comes to cellular, for good security and reliability reasons.

While emerging tech can counter these negatives, perhaps the strongest argument against cellular is failure in a disaster.  As we know too well in Christchurch New Zealand, cellular systems will either get overloaded (as members of the public attempt to contact loved ones), fail completely, or eventually run out of power after a major earthquake. Which is why emergency response teams always have radio and satellite backups for their emergency communications.

But how much disruption would a disaster have on an intelligent transport system, and would a radio network really make a difference? Of course, it would depend on the emergency in question, but if, say, your city was affected by a major terrorist explosion, and people needed to be evacuated from the area immediately, then reliable control of your transport system could be critical.

Without doubt the evidence, based on real world disasters, provides a compelling argument against cellular systems.  As it is unlikely that a cellular system would be capable of providing the operational capacity to continue supporting ITS operations after a major local disaster.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND – A Bus covered in building debris is seen on February 22, 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand following a major earthquake. First responders were quickly able to locate several buses trapped under fallen debris thanks to the fact buses were tracked using a private radio network, while the region’s cellular networks became congested and largely failed.

Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images

Evolving technology and intelligent transport systems

Technology is constantly evolving however. And there are some exciting new developments happening in the networking and mobile technology space that are creating a world of new opportunities for intelligent transport systems.

In recent years, the emergence of the Internet of Things has gone off the chart. More and more machines are being connected to wireless networks to create and provide new value-added services, or for information sharing and gathering, including electronic signs, bus finders (including our new Bus Finder 2), ticket machines, passenger counters, and more.

As billions of embedded devices are installed in vehicles, consumer and industrial electronic equipment, mobile operators are beginning to play a huge role in smart city services. They are connecting infrastructure and individuals’ handsets to central servers and databases, with data aggregation and analysis to produce new insights, real-time information sent to people and machines, and customer support operations, such as call centres and web portals.

Next generation networks

However, this explosion of machines attached to wireless networks is creating challenges in the congested RF spectrum and high energy consumption. To ensure both spectrum availability and stability of all these new connections, developers are working on standardising fifth generation mobile networks and wireless systems.

It is hoped that by 2020, 5G ‘cognitive radio’ (CR) networks will be able to improve both spectral and energy efficiency by operating like a cross between private radio networks and cellular networks.

These clever networks will converge routing, computing and wireless technologies to enable a multi hop communications network infrastructure. And they will pave the way for future mobile network connectivity and smart-city mobile transport products and services.

With this increasing convergence of technology, perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether you choose a cellular or private radio network. As in a few short years, the technology landscape in our smart cities will look quite different from today, particularly with driverless cars and thousands of data gathering transportation applications clogging the spectrum.

Perhaps a combination of networks is the best answer: a private radio network for mission critical operations, which are typically low-bandwidth applications, and a mobile network for the higher-bandwidth non-critical applications.

Whatever you decide, weigh up which network option best meets your needs and risks today, versus how important it is to invest in using energy efficient, intelligent technology to sustainably enhance the quality of life in your city.