The Coming Spectrum Crunch, Wireless Network Directions, Hetnets, Ad Hoc Networking, Darknets, Collectivist Networks, Privacy in 2024, Biometric Identification, Healthcare Implications, and Implantable Devices
In this Future Tech interview, we’re speaking with Narelle Clark — a data communications and Internet specialist who has been working in advanced technology areas consistently throughout her career.
Narelle has been a user, builder, operator and researcher of Internet networks since 1986, for consumer groups, major telcos and research agencies, and has a particular interest in convergent networks and applications. Narelle is the Director of Operations and Deputy CEO, ACCAN (Australian Communications Consumer Action Network), as well as the President of the Internet Society Australian Chapter.
In Part 1 of the interview we discussed how the Internet has changed since 2004, the evolution of WiFi, social media integration, holograms, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things.
Shara Evans (SE):
Let me ask you a question about WiFi and class licensed spectrum, commonly called free spectrum.
In the US apparently, there’s a bit of a crunch happening with spectrum that’s class licensed for WiFi because of the proliferation of gadgets and the proliferation of public hotspots. A number of industry groups are coming together, lobbying the US government to allocate more spectrum for WiFi use.
As we fast-forward 10 years, when we have this Internet of Things, I’m imagining that there’ll be a lot of devices that use either WiFi or Bluetooth or perhaps some newer technology. Do you think there could be some sort of spectrum crunch here?
Narelle Clark (NC):
Well, we’ve already had a spectrum crunch. Again, being an old-timer and working on that early commercial WiFi network, I had WiFi at home and so did my neighbour who worked for one of the leading equipment vendors, so the two of us had WiFi. Fast-forward to today when around my house, all of the neighbours have WiFi base stations and more than one in some cases, so it’s actually quite crowded. I think we already do have that.
But is there enough available spectrum? No. There isn’t enough, and the opportunity to get some back with the digital dividend looks like it’s pretty much lost. Thanks to the GFC, governments needed that extra cash, and so they want to get as much out of that extra spectrum as they possibly can. You know, what we’re going to have to contend with, too, is the actual owners of other licensed spectrum bands, what we fondly call GSM operators. They’re also moving into the public bands.
Wireless Network Directions
NC: There are some standards developments in the GSM space, which allow you to combine public spectrum with private spectrum in order to expand the spectrum available to the handsets that deliver your services.
There are some other products available, too, whereby people are combining WiFi networks — they buy a home broadband service bundled with a WiFi access point, so the home gateway’s got WiFi on it. It’s pretty complex, but it has been available for a while.
There’s a new product out here — I know that Comcast is offering it in the US — whereby you can make your WiFi available to your neighbours or other Comcast customers. A second SSID is set up, so a separate network name is set up on your WiFi network that then means your neighbours can use your service. In return, you get to use their service as well. So if you were wandering up the street with your smartphone under your nose, checking this, that and the other, it can then go across the available WiFi networks rather than across the GSM network, which is metered differently or made by somebody else. It’s complex.
People, I think, so far are a little bit resistant to taking that up, but the benefit of being able to bundle together all of your usage onto one bill or have it applied to one charging regime is attractive to people, and also you get access to all of the content that you might have bundled up with that particular account — is also attractive to people. That’s the way some of the operators are getting involved with the public spectrum.
But onto the ways around that, there are a few other technologies where you can do carrier aggregation, and even white space usage.
There are other tricks to opportunistically use spectrum, whereby you use what we call the private spectrum, but in small enough quantities to not cause interference to others, or it might not be in use where you are and you use it underneath the legislated limits. Then you might use that with frequency hopping and white space or unused frequencies, and combine different pieces of available spectrum, right across the available range, bundle that all together into one nice big chunk of available bandwidth, and off you go.
SE: Is that a standard track item?
NC: Yes, the name eludes me just at the moment, but there are a few different methods here.
SE: Is it IEEE or ITU?
NC: It’s all 3GPP standards work and that draws in a number of standards bodies. People will successively roll out all the new features from LTE-Advanced via carrier aggregation.
It all blends into the future of heterogeneous networking — the increased use of small cell technologies, both owned and not owned by the telcos, and co-operative networking, where the cells increase and decrease their throughput in relation to the other cells in their proximity.
The other big one I’d like to see is ad hoc networking and people making available the chunks of bandwidth that they’ve got free in a sort of ad hoc independent way. If my device has got some spare bandwidth available and your device has got some spare bandwidth available, then they could quietly talk to each other and barter that, make some transit arrangements amongst ourselves, and, hey, presto, we have a whole new network pathway enabled, which is not part of the commercial operator networks.
SE: Could that be put to use, say in a neighbourhood network on your street?
NC: Yes, it could be. I suspect where that one will break through is more in the activist territory and in the crypto territory, where people are actually deliberately trying to go under the radar. The criminals will do it; the terrorists will do it; the privacy freaks will do it; and the activists who have legitimate approaches to resisting oppressive governments and so forth. They will be setting up these sorts of Darknets using available and ad hoc networking in order to get bandwidth that is off the radar, as it were.
SE: So, it’s not a service provider’s network — it’s literally a private network but it’s not owned by any individual, it’s a collective.
NC: Collectivist networks. Actually the correct term is “self-organised large scale ad hoc networking” but perhaps you and I should trademark that one — it’s a good label!
SE: So, it’s a collectivist network, but none of the other people in the network actually know who the rest of the other people in the network may be.
NC: Well, it would need to be that in order to ensure it remains a truly private network, yes, which is the way I would see it happening. It would be largely motivated by a need to get around the surveillance issues that we’re seeing.
Privacy in 2024
SE: Well, that was one of the things I wanted to bring up with you in terms of the Internet of 2024. We’re already starting to see rulings in the name of copyright and in the name of national security that are increasingly looking at big data — harvested from the digital footprints that we’re leaving across the websites we visit, the emails that we send, the phone calls that we make — how do you see that evolving in the next 10 years?
NC: Well, the thing is that people feel they get a huge benefit from the free services they get from a lot of websites. The amount of data that people are happy to give away to Facebook, for example, is phenomenal. You, now, through some very handy tools, can go to Facebook and download all of the data it keeps on you, and you can see exactly what you’ve done over time on Facebook. It’s extraordinary.
SE: What tools are you talking about?
NC: You can find out what advertising you interacted with, or didn’t but was served up to you, what games you played, the apps you used, all sorts of stuff.
SE: If you can get it, someone else can get it, too, I suppose. I guess the question is: in 10 years time, will we have any privacy at all?
NC: Did we ever have any privacy before?
SE: Well, you know, back in the agrarian age, unless someone was physically in your vicinity, you probably did.
NC: But everyone always seemed to know who was involved with whom and where, didn’t they?
SE: Well, they were interested in gossip, yes.
NC: Well, there was plenty of innuendo and gossip in those days. But I suppose the ability to replicate that information out from the village was fairly restricted. You needed a town crier that went between towns and a lot more effort. Now it can be replicated much more broadly very quickly, but you’re also competing against a lot of other people. So, in some ways, the privacy problem is the same sort of problem, I think, that we’ve always had.
SE: Except today, there is the technology to collect masses and masses of data over a sustained period from multiple sources all about you, and then reassemble it in ways that may have not been the original content.
NC: Yes — With evil intent, you can do some very evil things, or we can just sell you the right pair of trousers.
SE: Yes, we can custom-fit a brand-new outfit to exactly our body shape, or we could do something quite nefarious like steal your identity, and that’s already happening.
NC: Yes, or tell all of your prospective clients and job prospects and so forth that you’re highly likely to be coming down with cancer, and that’s just because you were helping a friend look up some stuff.
SE: Yes, that just happened to be in your search term. When we were talking a few weeks ago, you mentioned health care and the fact that ECGs are actually a unique feature of someone’s own personal physiology and potentially could be used as proof that it’s you.
NC: That’s right, yes.
SE: And it leads me down the path of biometric identification and how that might fit into the Internet of the future, and in particular the services that might be offered.
NC: Well, I do think that biometric systems will gain a lot more currency. Again, they’ve been around for a while, and I’m pretty sure that the data centre I built close to 15 years ago had biometric systems on the front door. But what we’re seeing just recently in newer versions of various handsets are a range of biometric tools…
SE: Using fingerprints?
NC: Yes, fingerprint scanners and so forth to get people in and out of their laptops, their iPads, their phones…
SE: Easier than remembering lots of PINs.
NC: Easier than remembering a lot of PINs. And, again, as I said before, it’s built into nice, neat, user-friendly interfaces that now make it easy for people to use.
SE: And at a form factor and cost factor that means you can mass-produce it.
SE: Whereas the biometrics systems of 15 years ago at the data centres were really expensive.
NC: That’s right, yes.
SE: Do you expect biometric technologies to be more pervasive in terms of everyday Internet use? Do you see that happening as just matter of course?
NC: Yes, I do.
SE: PINs go away and biometric ID comes in?
NC: Well, I think people will still want the choice of a sort of a password because they’ll feel that that is that little bit more impersonal. Sometimes they feel that perhaps it is too invasive to be reliant on their fingers or retinas. But it isn’t just their fingers or their retinas. As we were discussing last week, your ECG is unique to you, so if I were to record your ECG right now, it would be uniquely Shara’s ECG. I could use a segment of ECG and determine that, “This ECG came from Shara,” which means I could also use that as the carrier wave to encode a whole bunch of stuff over the top of that ECG — a whole bunch of other information I want.
It would be really useful, for example, if I was delivering a home biomedical monitoring service and I was your doctor: “Dear Shara, I’d like you to connect yourself to your home check-up system and simply strap on a band over each of your wrists or potentially other locations of your body,” and it could soak up a whole bunch of basic metrics, check your glucose perhaps, gather a whole range of different basic health indicators, encode that in over the top of your ECG, and send it across to me at the doctor’s surgery. I could then unpack that. My system would know it was definitely Shara. It wasn’t somebody pretending to be Shara. We would be able to go through your health checks in that way. So more about you will be used to identify you. I imagine if your ECG is uniquely identifiable, then your EEG, your encephalogram, so your brainwaves, would also be probably unique to you, too.
SE: The thing that comes to mind, Narelle, is how does this change over the course of a lifetime? Because we know that our body’s physiology changes, and neither one of us are really medical techos, so I suppose that’s a question to ask for the future but…
NC: Yes, I don’t know. Actually, well, I started in biomedical engineering. That was when I had my first proper Internet connection in the mid ‘80s doing ECGs and doing work on implantable defibrillators and implantable pacemakers, and I remember thinking the security on this is not great.
SE: You know, I’m glad you mentioned implantables because that was going to be the next question I asked you about.
I think that we’re rapidly getting to a time when it’s conceivable and perhaps affordable on a mass scale to implant little chips in people, and I don’t know that that’s happening yet but I know that it’s certainly being thought of. Do you see that in the future?
NC: My dog has a chip. I think the cats have got chips, too. So it’s really not that far off.
SE: No. If it can be put in animals, then it can be put in a person. The question is would people let you do that?
NC: I recall a few years back this was actually approved by the US FDA. So the question is where would the market start, and for what purpose would that be? Perhaps the strongest argument, and people may not like this one, but the strongest argument may be for people with profound intellectual disabilities. Perhaps they may need that sort of assistive technology the most, and in the first instance simply for tracking. It may be the whole range of disability technology where we get more acceptance of implantables first, but of course things like that don’t ever go commodity until the mainstream wants them.
SE: Yes, I’m thinking perhaps even in terms of —going back to a TV series from long ago — the bionic man and the bionic woman, where you get implantables as part of medical procedures to help your body function after serious accidents.
NC: Well, so perhaps it will be because of the ageing population that it will go commodity.
SE: You replace a hip and you put something in to monitor how it’s working, or you do something else, and instead of just a heart pacemaker you have a heart monitor as well.
NC: Well, there’s also a range of implantable pain management devices, too. I suspect that, again, that suite of simple devices to correct very, very common problems will be part of that tipping point, too.
SE: Then we as people become part of the Internet of Things. You can imagine — and it’s in science fiction books, and if we can imagine it, it could be real —where normal people, not ill people, will implant something to augment their memory perhaps, or augment their computing power. We might be a bit more than 10 years beyond the horizon there, but it’s conceivable, isn’t it?
NC: It certainly is, yes.
SE: What happens in a world where the Internet of Things is actually embedded in our bodies? Have we given up privacy for good?
NC: Well, that takes me back to: did we have it in the first place?
I’m not convinced we did. But would I like more privacy? Yes. Most certainly I would like more privacy.
I think that is something that we do need to fix in these things because we need to be able to enable us to choose what we disclose, and what we don’t disclose, and when we disclose it, and to be able to choose to do those things through a simple set of rules and simple interfaces, and also that those interfaces should be private because, again, that gets down to my right to choose what I disclose to whom about me and when. And for my children, for the people I am responsible for, for the older people that I might be responsible for, for the younger people I might be responsible for, for people with disabilities that I might be responsible for. People need to be enabled to make the choices that they want to make when they want to make them. At the moment, we don’t have these as realistic choices — we are not on an equal playing field now. The balance is way the other way now and in an inappropriate way.
SE: If I look at opportunities for services in the Internet space in the next 10 years, where would you see opportunities that aren’t available today?
NC: I’ve often seen opportunities which others didn’t in the past and been surprised later that they haven’t been out there. Maybe what people need to do now is to look for those opportunities, and see that there is an appetite for them and go for it. That’s what’s been missing in the past, I think — the appetite for implantables, wearables and the Internet of Things. Technology entrepreneurs need to give these things a go.
SE: This has been such a fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for your time, Narelle. It’s been great chatting with you!
NC: It’s been a typical wild excursion to the dark recesses of the crazy science-fiction brain I happen to have in here.