A Potential Windfall for Cellular Operators

Research conducted by Tel Aviv University has found that cellular telephone infrastructure is a much better source than radar for measuring quantities of rain, and could save the state quite a bit of money.

This past year has been difficult for cellular operators. Not because the market has stopped growing for the first time, causing all players to lose tens of millions of shekels in revenues; not because of the uphill campaign to get subscribers to use more value-added and 3G services; and also not because of regulatory struggles, to which the operators already are accustomed. This past year will be a memorable one for cellular operators mainly due to the stiff and sweeping opposition by homeowners to the continued spread of cellular antennas.

"The cellular monsters" (the antennas) are no longer perceived as an instrumental part of progress or as infrastructure that enables everyone to communicate, view video clips and surf the Internet from anywhere, but rather are identified with the growing fears of exposure to radiation, which could cause cancer.

The antennas, however, now are receiving an image boost due to a Tel Aviv University study that revealed a new method for measuring rainfall via cellular networks.

Conducted by Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron of the School of Electrical Engineering, Prof. Pinchas Alpert of the Faculty of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences, and Artem Zinevich, a doctoral student in the School of Environmental Studies, the study revealed that data on the power of the signals from the cellular network can be used to forecast and measure rainfall quantity. The study's findings showed that precipitation can be measured more accurately than by radar, and on a country-wide scale.

Reliability and savings

The researchers measured the intensity of the electromagnetic signals transferred among base stations in the cellular network, which is very sensitive to weather conditions. As everyone knows, rain, hail and snow affect cellular transmission and reception.

An innovative idea

For years, researchers have been trying to reduce the effects of weather changes on cellular reception quality. For this reason, cellular companies regularly gather data on the intensity of the reception of the relayed signals.

"Until now we have used the data only to understand the extent of the effect on reception quality, and to figure out the required increase in broadcast strength in order to overcome the effects on the signals," Messer-Yaron explains. "We had no further use for the data, so the printouts used to be tossed into the trash can. Now I can use the data to forecast precipitation. Since the wireless networks are densely scattered all over the earth anyway, this innovative idea will facilitate the precise monitoring of the weather."

The measurements, conducted in Israel in January, were provided by Cellcom.

What have you set as your next challenge?

"We have to present more complex models that can achieve high accuracy in categorizing precipitation (rain, snow or hail), identify the effects of air pollution, and transfer the research ability from microwave frequencies (over 1,000 megahertz, which are used in communication between the base stations) to the frequencies of cellular devices (800 and 900 MHz), Messer-Yaron says. "This is in order to significantly increase the quantity of data received, and therefore, obtain a clearer picture [of the weather patterns].

What is the business potential of this study, and how much money can it save?

"The savings will be in regions that currently have no coverage, or which suffer from insufficient measurements," Messer-Yaron says. "It is difficult at this stage to estimate the potential monetary savings. The market for this research is the public market, and we already are examining the study's potential revenues in the international market. We already have met with five companies from throughout the world that have expressed an interest in the resea. One European company even sent its representatives to meet us in Israel. We also have first rights to register a patent for 12 months."

After entering the television, Internet and music fields, will cellular companies now start providing meteorological services?

"That is an ethical question that must be addressed to the regulator," Messer-Yaron says. "Should a private company profit from resources that essentially belong to the state, and which involve broad public interest?"

Israel's cellular companies neither initiated nor financed the TAU study, but they could turn out to be the main beneficiaries of the use of their networks as a reliable source for monitoring precipitation and air pollution. In fact, this study could be viewed as another expression of the need for multi-disciplinary academic freedom that does not necessarily have a specific purpose.