The future of travel

The future of travel

In my last column I wrote about the use of mobile phones on our walking safari in Zimbabwe, and described how our guide carried one to summon help in the event of an emergency.

Mobile communications are also finding more mundane uses in improving the efficiency of their safari operations, albeit with a distinctive local dimension. The previous week, a vehicle had broken down a few miles from camp. The guide and clients walked back, and a mechanic was dispatched the next day. The safari operator was then able to check on progress with the repair and make alternative arrangements as necessary. As they were confirming the details of a spare part to be ordered, the conversation was interrupted and the mechanic returned to the call slightly out of breath. "Sorry about that," he said, "an elephant was headed my way and I had to take cover behind a termite mound. Can I call you back in a minute?"

More routinely, running a bush camp requires frequent messages on supplies and arrangements for client transfers, which has been simplified by the arrival of mobile phones. Staff in bush camps could previously only be contacted by radio, requiring expensive infrastructure and generally only working to a pre-arranged schedule. The mobile phone changes that with truly anytime, anywhere communications.

Mobile data access will offer even great options, and my last column introduced some of the emerging standards which will offer greatly increased performance. This week, the technical frame gives additional background on Universal Mobile Telecommunications Standard, the most important new standard, which focuses on data services. Even safari operators are subject to the tyranny of e-mail. The messages (and potential business) piles up in their in-box after a few days away from the office. On-line access in camp would reduce the need for trips back to base.

But there is also a potential downside to anytime, anywhere communications, and right time, right place should perhaps be the goal. Our itinerary included a few days canoeing on a remote stretch of the Lower Zambezi River. These trips are self-contained and the isolation is part of the appeal. At present radio is the only means of communication, but even here the introduction of mobile-phone coverage is only a matter of time.

We were travelling during the second stage of the Cricket World Cup, and while the daily updates from the Kariba office on Zimbabwe's progress were welcome, I would not have wanted the disruption of routine phone calls. But perhaps other clients might take a different view? Our trip was uneventful in wildlife terms, but a group following a day behind were bothered by an unusually attentive lion one night. Their guide was obliged to fire a number of warning shots and keep a fire by the tents during the night for additional security.

Some clients might find the opportunity to make a few phone calls and share the experience live with their friends and family appealing. Then again, they might chose to phone their travel agent or lawyer to express their views on the trip.

Universal Mobile Telecommunications Standard is the European vision for third-generation mobile radio systems. The third generation design effort started from a list of the services that people want from portable communications. While voice traffic is expected to remain an important application, the standard will provide a selection of faster services up to real-time, wide-band multimedia. It will also support Internet applications such as e-commerce, video conferencing, weather and news services.

UMTS is expected to support up to 144 or 384kbit/s in all circumstances, with low-mobility or indoor environments supporting up to 2Mbit/s. Contrast this with GSM which is centred heavily around voice, with typically less than 3% of network usage involving data over the 9.6kbit/s channel.

Work on UMTS has been progressing rapidly, with a number of manufacturers and operators, including BT, announcing systems trials.

Some of the Japanese operators are aiming for early deployment by 2000. Within Europe, UMTS deployment is generally expected to start around 2002, with large-scale deployment by 2005.


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