Old networks can hobble IoT, even in tech paradise

AT&T's shutdown of its 2G network has disrupted San Francisco's transit predictions system

20170110 sf transit user with smartphone
Credit: Stephen Lawson

IoT isn’t all brand-new, cutting-edge technology. In fact, some of it’s already suffering through painful upgrade cycles.

A case in point is the system that tells transit passengers in the tech hub of San Francisco when the next train or bus will arrive. The NextMuni system, based on the third-party platform NextBus, recently began sending out wildly inaccurate forecasts on many lines.

Why? Because most trains and buses had been communicating with NextMuni over AT&T’s 2G network, which was decommissioned on Jan. 1. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) said Friday that about 70 percent of its vehicles haven’t yet been upgraded with newer 3G technology. It was awkward timing, as that same day, the agency was playing up its innovation credentials as it announced a federal grant to fund six transit pilot projects.

AT&T warned as early as 2012 that it would shut down the 2G network in 2017, but apparently, that wasn’t enough time.

“Simply put, the deactivation work that affects our vehicles started sooner than expected and outpaced our ongoing upgrade of all Muni vehicles to a new communications and monitoring system,” SFMTA said in a blog post. Muni was the first transit agency to adopt the system, back in 2002, which made it fittingly high-tech at the time but now saddles the city with orphaned technology.

Network shutdowns are nothing new. Once every decade or so, carriers phase out an older technology so they can reuse the frequencies for other systems that will carry more traffic on the same amount of spectrum.

AT&T moved faster than some of its rivals in this case. T-Mobile, which uses the same 2G technology as AT&T, has said it plans to keep its network available until 2020. Verizon plans to keep running its previous-generation system, CDMA, at least through the end of the decade. Sprint expects to keep CDMA into the early 2020s.

It’s not often that consumers have to rely on these old networks to make calls and get information. But IoT devices, like sensors, street lamps, and in-vehicle systems, haven’t required the higher data rates of newer technologies, so enterprises and cities have hung on to the old.

Upgrading IoT to a new network is also more complicated than buying a new phone. Doing system audits, setting priorities, and budgeting all play into it. The work itself may take six to nine months, counting things like testing systems on the new network, IoT analyst Steve Hilton of MachNation said. Anyone facing the end of a network that connects their devices needs to take it in steps, he said.

“Get started early in planning, get hardware and software testing started, then do the upgrade,” Hilton said.

Systems like NextMuni that were designed in a different technological age don't usually allow for swapping in new cellular modules, said Peter Jarich of Current Analysis. “No one back then had any idea,” he said.

San Francisco’s high-tech transit plans for its nearly US $12 million grant will bring some of the region’s tech stars together with government, a relationship that hasn’t always been cozy.

Among other things, SFMTA wants to set aside more carpool lanes and tap into services like Uber and Lyft to get more commuters sharing cars. It also plans to test wireless DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communication) to coordinate traffic lights with transit and emergency vehicles.

On Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, the city will set up an electronic toll-collection system that can be adjusted for traffic levels, and it plans to test autonomous electric shuttles to carry people around the island.

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