Google Maps to start predicting crowdedness on public transport

Google Maps is already one of the most popular ways to plan the comings and goings of daily life, but a new update makes it just a little bit better.

Launched at the end of last week, Google Maps will now tell users how busy public transport is likely to be and whether users should anticipate delays on a journey. It’s a simple upgrade, but this extra little bit of information is an example of why Google Maps is such a popular application around the world.

“On days when everything runs smoothly, taking public transit is one of the best ways to get around town,” Google stated in a blog post. “Not only is it cost-effective and efficient, but it also lets you stay hands-free, so you can sit back, relax and maybe even read a few chapters of your favourite book.

“But unexpected delays or overcrowded vehicles can quickly turn your ride from enjoyable to stressful. Starting today, Google Maps is rolling out two new features to help you better plan for your transit ride and stay more comfortable along the way.”

There are two new snippets of information which are being introduced here. Firstly, users will be told whether there are any delays on the bus to be aware of. Many estimates on time of arrival are based on the average time in which it takes the bus to get from point A to point B, not taking into account the conditions at that time. To counter this problem, Google will introduce live traffic updates.

Secondly, the Maps application will begin to tell users whether they are likely to snag a seat on an up-coming bus, train or underground journey. This section is more guesswork than anything else, using data collected on journeys through the last two years to figure out the current situation. That said, these guesses are usually correct and might be useful for anyone who gets a bit fidgety during the busy periods of travel.

These two features will be rolled out in 200 cities across the world, including numerous locations in the UK such as Cardiff, London, Nottingham and Reading.

Google Maps is turning into a wonderful money maker for the team, and this is perhaps the very reason why. Numerous features are being introduced without necessarily tying them to the bottom line. Google is not necessarily going to make money from these updates, but more people might use the product. It’s the built it and they will come attitude, focusing on nailing experience before turning to profits.

Three UK shows off its new Nokia cloud core

Mobile operator Three UK has upgraded its network with a fully cloud-based 5G-ready core and has started internal trials of the service. It plans to launch 5G later this year.

Three announced that it is testing the world’s first fully cloud-based core network, delivered by Nokia. The software-based core network is 5G ready and is already carrying the ongoing trial for Three’s own staff. The trial is on the 3.4-3.8GHz spectrum Three bought with over £164 million in the auction concluded in April 2018.

The readiness is also achieved on the edge. Three announced that by December 2018, all its mast sites were already connected to the new cloud-based core networks, meaning when 5G is switched on all Three customers would be able to access 5G services, provided they have the 5G-enabled user devices (fixed wireless access modems, or smartphones and tablets).

Another infrastructure update Three announced is the expansion of its datacentre network. The operator used to have three datacentres in London and the Midlands. After the latest upgrade, it now has “21 data centres spread from as far North as Edinburgh to Portsmouth in the South” which are all live and “have been connected up with fibre”, said the statement. In practical terms, the more distributed datacentre network would reduce latency experienced by the users faraway from southern England, giving customers more or less equal user experience.

Indeed, “enhancing its market-leading customer experience and becoming the best loved brand in the UK by its people and customers” is the explicit target of Three’s latest network upgrading. The company reiterated its target to launch commercial 5G service later this year, after committing to invest over £2bn into 5G. “We have been planning our approach to 5G for many years and we are well positioned to lead on this next generation of technology.  These investments are the latest in a series of important building blocks to deliver the best end to end data experience for our customers,” Dave Dyson, Three UK’s CEO, said late last year.

According to the latest telecoms complaints numbers released by Ofcom in January, Three received 4 complaints per 100,000 customers, narrowly behind its mobile competitors EE and O2 (3 complaints each) but way ahead of Vodafone (8).

ETSI publishes new spec and reports on 5G tech

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute, ETSI, has released new specifications on packet formatting and forwarding, as well as two reports on transport and network slicing respectively.

The new specification, called Flexilink, focusing on packet formats and forwarding mechanisms to allow core and access networks to support the new services proposed for 5G. The objective of the new specification is to achieve efficient deterministic packet forwarding in user plane for next generation protocols (NGP). In the conventional IP networks, built on the Internet Protocols defined in the 1980s, every packet carries all the information needed to route it to its destination. This is undergoing fundamental changes with new technologies like Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Control and User Plane Separation (CUPS), where most packets are part of a “flow” such as a TCP session or a video stream. As a result, there is increasingly a separation between the processes of deciding the route packets will follow and of forwarding the packets.

“Current IP protocols for core and access networks need to evolve and offer a much better service to mobile traffic than the current TCP/IP-based technology,” said John Grant, chairman of the ETSI Next Generation Protocol Industry Specification Group (ISG). “Our specifications offer solutions that are compatible with both IPv4 and IPv6, providing an upgrade path to the more efficient and responsive system that is needed to support 5G.”

The new specification defines two separate services, a “basic” service suitable for traditional statistically multiplexed packet data, and a “guaranteed” service providing the lowest possible latency for continuous media, such as audio, video, tactile internet, or vehicle position. It is worth noting that Flexilink only specifies user plane packet formats and routing mechanisms. Specifications for the control plane to manage flows have already been defined in an earlier NGP document “Packet Routing Technologies” published in 2017.

The report “Recommendation for New Transport Technologies” analyses the current transport technologies such as TCP and their limitations, whilst also providing high-level guidance on architectural features required in a transport technology to support the new applications proposed for 5G. The report also includes a framework where there is a clear separation between control and data planes. A proof-of-concept implementation was conducted to experiment the recommended technologies, and to demonstrate that each TCP session can obtain bandwidth guaranteed service or minimum latency guaranteed service. The report states:

“With traditional transport technology, for all TCP traffic passes through DIP router, each TCP session can only obtain a fraction of bandwidth. It is related to the total number of TCP sessions and the egress bandwidth (100 M).

“With new transport technology, new TCP session (DIP flows) could obtain its expected bandwidth or the minimum latency. And most [sic.] important thing is that the new service is not impacted by the state that router is congested, and this can prove that new service by new transport technology is guaranteed.”

Importantly, the PoC experiment showed that the current hardware technology is able to support the proposed new transport technology and provide satisfactory scalability and performance.

The report “E2E Network Slicing Reference Framework and Information Model” looks into the design principles behind network slicing. The topic of network slices encompasses the combination of virtualisation, cloud centric, and SDN technologies. But there is gap in normalized resource information flow over a plurality of provider administration planes (or domains). The report aims to “provide a simple manageable and operable network through a common interface while hiding infrastructure complexities. The present document defines how several of those technologies may be used in coordination to offer description and monitoring of services in a network slice.” It describes the high level functions and mechanisms for implementing network slicing, as well as addresses security considerations.

Uber introduces taxis for patients in the US

Uber has unveiled its latest initiative which will be known as Uber Health in a bid to bring mobility to the health sector.

The theory is relatively simple. The team claims 3.6 million Americans miss doctor appointments each year due to unreliable transportation, while no-show rates in some corners of the US could be up to 30%. Healthcare organizations will be able to order rides for patients going to and from the care they need.

“We’re unveiling a new service focused on an issue vital to all of us: health,” said Chris Weber, GM of Uber Health on the company’s blog.

“Every year, 3.6 million Americans miss doctor appointments due to a lack of reliable transportation. No-show rates are as high as 30% nationwide. And while transportation barriers are common across the general population, these barriers are greatest for vulnerable populations, including patients with the highest burden of chronic disease.”

Coordinators working for the healthcare organizations will be able to schedule individual appointments for patients, caregivers and staff, or repeat rides for those who need it. All the tasks can be managed from a centralized platform, while there is also the option for patients to communicate via text. This is an important note, as it is not guaranteed older patients will have a smartphone.

While this is certainly an interesting idea, it might have limited success. Firstly, it would be limited to markets where the healthcare is driven by insurance. Any healthcare organization will order the rides and will most likely include it in the customer’s bill at the end of the procedure or treatment. It is tough to imagine organizations like the NHS, which is already pretty cash-strapped, forking out for Uber rides for its patients, unless there were exceptional circumstances.

Secondly, if one of the basic ideas for the service is that public transport is rubbish, this might be a bit of an oversight. How many of those in the US who can afford healthcare insurance are reliant on public transport? They will have their own vehicles, or able to order their own. This might be a service reserved for the caregivers or as a value add service, as opposed to becoming a standard and integral part of the healthcare experience.

It is an interesting idea which might make Uber a bit of money, but we can’t see this having more than a very minor impact on the healthcare space.