eCall – why prioritising network traffic saves lives

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Recent data has revealed that, on average, 500 people are involved in fatalities on European roads each week. The new eCall directive from the EU, which recently came into force, introduces a breakthrough vehicle safety system that is set to play a significant role in reducing this number of deaths, along with the number of injuries and loss caused by traffic accidents across Europe. 

The directive requires every new car sold in the European market since April 1st this year to be equipped with eCall technology, which enables automatic communication with emergency services should the vehicle be involved in an accident. In the event of a crash, a sensor will cause the eCall system to make an immediate 112 or 999 connection to the emergency services and, even if the driver and/or passengers are unable to speak, will automatically provide details of the vehicle’s identity and precise location. A manual push button is also available for use in those cases where the driver or passenger has not been incapacitated, or for use by a witness to the accident.   

This revolutionary technology clearly represents huge benefits to the public, the emergency services and insurers. Indeed, estimates suggest the eCall system will lead to a reduction in emergency response times of around 50 percent in rural areas, and 60  percent in built-up areas which, in turn, will significantly reduce the seriousness of injuries sustained in tens of thousands of cases. 

Supporting mission-critical applications   

Wireless connected devices such as eCall already underpin a growing number of mission-critical applications, such as military situational awareness and disaster monitoring, for example. When networks are able to support them on a broader commercial basis, applications such as these will quickly become invaluable components of the Internet of Things (IoT), soon set to become fully ingrained in our personal lives, and in which connected devices will increasingly be deployed to build a safer world. Indeed, surging momentum in the adoption of IoT technology is already leading to an evolution in networks. The deployment of low-power WAN (LPWAN) technologies to support IoT use cases is becoming increasingly popular, for example, and as further use cases, services and applications continue to emerge, so there will be a need for networks to change and evolve in order to support them. 

For now, however, the eCall system will predominantly use existing 2G/3G/4G networks for its connections with the emergency services.   

Nonetheless, given its stated purpose is to reduce emergency response times and save lives, connectivity and service assurance are of prime importance. For the initiative to be a success, it’s important that mobile operators can find a way of ensuring that every single alert generated by the system is able to reach the emergency services as quickly and accurately as possible.   

Differentiating and prioritising traffic 

When you consider that critical traffic from systems such as eCall can – quite literally – be a matter of life and death, it’s clearly important that it is prioritised over non-critical network traffic. New quality of service standards are likely needed so that operator networks can make this differentiation for emergent and critical services aside from the usual bearer requirements for voice. 

Operators must still take a proactive approach to monitoring and analysing and traffic data emanating from an eCall device. By working with regulators and network equipment vendors, they should develop a classification system for use with lifeline traffic such as that from an eCall device. Such a system can then be used to support a form of application aware routing which can ensure that any emergency traffic is automatically prioritised over non-emergency traffic.   

By classifying a specific type of data traffic in this way, operators and regulators will have taken a significant step toward maintaining a full and ever-connected presence that will enable the full potential of eCall’s life-saving capabilities.   

Increased visibility and actionable insight 

Connected devices such as eCall, designed specifically to contact the emergency services, depend on voice and data being sent consistently to and from a server, in real time, no matter where the device is located. Networks are designed to cope with the occasional data peak, of course, but these peaks tend to be based on traffic to and from always-on consumer devices such as mobile phones or smart watches. Only ever used in the case of an accident, lifeline devices such as eCall will lie largely dormant, however, and will therefore behave differently to more consumer-oriented devices.   

As the burgeoning IoT continues to gain greater momentum, and the adoption of connected devices continues to grow, so the networks will come under increasing pressure from this unprecedented and unpredictable traffic. This, in turn, will lead to levels of congestion and downtime that could prove unsustainable for the success of mission-critical applications such as eCall.   

With these applications entirely reliant on consistent high availability, operators require complete visibility into the performance of their networks. Meaningful and actionable insight, derived from the analysis of smart contextual data from across the network, in real time, will enable potential issues to be identified and resolved before they become problems, and provide operators with the full service assurance both they and their customers need.   

Each day sees an increasing abundance of mobile services and applications come to market, although not all of these are created equal. A connected fridge, for example, will have significantly different bandwidth requirements and traffic priority to an autonomous car or a “life line” emergency service, both of which depend on ultra-low latency and extreme high availability. The ability of operators to differentiate and prioritise emergency data traffic for the eCall system, while simultaneously employing greater visibility and actionable insight to support its demands on the network, will be integral to its success, and to the safety of those who require its potentially life-saving capability.   

John English, Senior Product Manager, Service Providers at NETSCOUT 

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