A matter of life and death

John English, senior product manager, service providers, at Netscout, says that assuring network functionality for the EU’s new eCall directive is key to its success in saving lives.

The EU’s eCall directive came into force on 1 April, meaning that every new car sold in the European market must now be equipped with technology that enables automatic communication with emergency services in the event of an accident. With thousands of fatalities occurring on European roads each year, the breakthrough vehicle safety system is set to play a major role in reducing the deaths caused by traffic accidents, as well as injuries and property loss.

Following a crash that sets off a sensor, the eCall system automatically initiates a 112 or 999 connection to the emergency services and notifies them of the precise location and identity of the vehicle, as well as offering a manual push button for drivers who witness a crash should the driver and/or passengers involved in the crash be incapacitated. With estimates suggesting that the technology will cut down emergency response times by 60% in urban areas and by 50% in rural ones, the revolutionary regulation is set to bring huge benefits to the public, emergency services and insurance providers.

When the networks are in place to support it, eCall will become a valuable element of the Internet of Things (IoT), the surging momentum for which is leading to an evolution in networks. We’re already seeing a growth in the uptake of low-power WAN (LPWAN) to support IoT use cases, for example, and as more and more IoT applications and use cases emerge, networks will need to develop and change in order to keep pace with demand.

For the time being, eCall will largely rely on existing 2G/3G/4G networks for its connections to the emergency service. It is, however, another example of how connected devices are increasingly being ingrained into our everyday lives and how they can be utilised to build a safer world. As the eCall initiative demonstrates, devices such as these now underpin more and more mission-critical applications, such as disaster monitoring and military situational awareness, making connectivity and service delivery assurance paramount.

Prioritising emergency traffic
eCall technology is evidently an important initiative and one that will make a significant difference when it comes to personal safety. For it to be truly successful, however, mobile operators must address the technical challenge of ensuring that every alert generated by the system makes it to the emergency services as quickly and accurately as possible.

It’s crucial that operators are able to differentiate between the different classes of services that run on their network. Critical traffic from systems such as eCall must be prioritised over non-critical network traffic, for example, as the need for real time connectivity is, in this case, literally a matter of life and death.

While voice bearers will be assigned to eCall traffic to ensure it receives the service level appropriate for voice call characteristics, operators will still need to take a proactive approach to monitoring and analysing traffic data from eCall devices. They should be encouraged to work with regulators to develop a classification system for lifeline traffic such as that from eCall, in order to support a form of application aware routing, the purpose of which will be to ensure that emergency traffic is prioritised over non-emergency traffic.  Classifying a specific type of data in this way will go a long way to maintaining a full and ever-connected presence for eCall capabilities.

Mission critical
The success of connected devices for emergency services, such as eCall, depends on data being sent consistently to and from a server, in real-time, regardless of the application’s location. Largely dormant, except in the case of an accident, these particular devices will behave in a different way to their consumer counterparts.

While networks are designed to cope with occasional data peaks, these are generally based on traffic generated by consumer devices. But as the adoption of connected devices continues to grow – particularly as the IoT gains greater momentum – so too will the pressure on networks, and the resultant potential congestion and downtime will clearly be unacceptable for mission critical applications like eCall.

Given this critical need for high availability, it’s vital that operators have visibility into the performance of their networks if they are to have the full service assurance they need.

Not all mobile services and applications are created equal. The bandwidth requirements and traffic priority will vary greatly from the demands of a connected fridge, for instance, to the ultra-low latency and extreme availability requirements of “life line” emergency services and connected cars. As such, the capability to differentiate and prioritise emergency data traffic, while supporting its network demands through greater visibility and insight, will be crucial to the success of eCall, and to the safety of those who may come to depend on its ability to help save lives.