Public safety broadband: on the cusp of something great
Written by: Land Mobile | Published:

Philip Mason and Sam Fenwick cover the key talking points from the BAPCO/Critical Communications Europe event, which addressed a range of topics around public safety and the migration to broadband

As might be expected, much of the emphasis in the BAPCO part of the Coventry 2019 conference programme was on the roll-out of burgeoning – and in some cases, even currently operational – national LTE networks for public safety. One crucial difference this year, however, was a noticeable shift in the tone of the discourse, particularly on the American side, away from ‘will it work?’ to ‘what benefits will the systems bring in the long term?’.

This included a fair chunk of material looking at, still fairly amorphous, concepts such as the ‘connected first-responder’, whose life, it’s anticipated, will become considerably easier thanks to the availability of markedly increased bandwidth, low latency, along with how the widespread leveraging of public safety LTE could hasten closer ties with manufacturers.

Rather than the traditional Emergency Services Network (ESN) update – although we did get one of those, at the start of day two – this year’s programme kicked off with a keynote address from the acting CEO of FirstNet, Ed Parkinson. He began by giving an overview of the adoption of FirstNet across the US, with the network having been up and running for around nine months – albeit minus the Holy Grail of mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) functionality. This includes more than 425,000 public safety users working for more than 5,250 agencies, who signed up compelled by nothing more than the “leveraging of market forces”.

“We see in the US how public safety broadband is being used every single day, by every public safety user. Some of that is commercial grade and some of it is FirstNet, [but] that’s the direction in which the market is going, and it’s going to be irreversible.”

From ‘ES when’ to ESN

Having witnessed Parkinson’s FirstNet presentation on day one, it would be fair to say that a good way to describe it was ‘quietly exuberant’. The start of day two also witnessed its own keynote session, this time from ESN programme director Bryan Clark, someone whose tone could best be described as cautiously optimistic, following the emergency reboot of the UK public safety broadband project in the middle of last year. His theme was ‘2019: the year vision becomes reality’.

While not necessarily giving away anything that visitors to BAPCO 2019 didn’t already know, Clark did prove himself to be eminently quotable. More to the point, he has also clearly been brought onboard as a capable and reassuring presence, communicating both realism and self-awareness, as well as a sense of actually being relaxed within the role.

He began his presentation by reiterating the reason for the roll-out of ESN in the first place, focusing on the benefits it will bring to emergency services personnel. From here, he moved on to explain why the project is currently so behind.

“It’s a big programme,” he said, “involving 350,000 customers, 137 separate [user] organisations, 50,000 vehicles that we have to kit out, [more than] 100 aircraft, and nearly 30 direct suppliers not including the rest of the supply chain. One of the things I learned as an engineer is that before you do anything, you need to work out how big it’s going to be. The plain fact of the matter is that it’s hardly surprising that it’s late.”

He continued: “It’s been my job over the past 10 months to work out how to get [the roll-out] back on track. We’ve been doing that through a detailed review of where we’ve got to, and where the next steps need to be. The programme now has an approved, very clear plan to complete the technical element of the work, most of which should be done by late summer next year. I think we can say we’re in the fun phase now, moving from the theoretical [to the practical]. We’re starting to gain velocity, moving into the next stage of the work, which is – how can we assure ourselves that this works effectively from an operational point of view?”

Clark followed this with a discussion on the recently deployed ESN Assure coverage testing solution, as well as news of the network’s first planned critical PTT call, taking place an anticipated three weeks after his presentation. He also said the programme should be in a “great place” by the end of this calendar year, having both completed the core components of the project and developed a “clear plan” for testing.

Without wanting to labour the comparison between FirstNet and the Emergency Services Network too much, one of the core differences between the two programmes is the latter’s reliance – at least at the beginning – on proprietary technology rather than open standards. This is a situation that has now been rectified, with the UK Home Office moving away from its original bespoke solution and towards Kodiak, a Motorola-owned hybrid product that will provide a mission-critical push-to-talk service using both narrowband and broadband (MCPTT over the ESN network) in the interim period prior to the shutdown of Airwave.

With that in mind, perhaps the highlight of the show from an ESN perspective was the opportunity to view the Kodiak interface (as installed on a Samsung handheld smart device) at the Home Office stand. This was also accompanied by an equally compelling, apparently functional, EE gateway device, mounted in the back of a police car.

One core area in which the ESN discussion is still ongoing is in relation to air-to-ground coverage, something that was addressed by product director Steve Whatson as part of the ‘Options for A2G communications in LTE’ session, which also included Hans Petter Naper, chief engineer of the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection.

Speaking of the task in hand, Whatson – who began his presentation by flagging up that the A2G device procurement process is still ongoing – said: “We currently have 78 sites, with about 83 per cent coverage above 1,000 feet. There’s about 115 aircraft in total [using the network], including the National Police Air Service, air ambulances, Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and the Ministry of Defence, with anything between one and five radios being used within the airframe.

“[The current arrangements] are completely interoperable with the terrestrial Airwave network, and completely seamless. No-one sits in the airframe, changing spectrum or the network, it just does it automatically. These are key requirements as we go forward into ESN.”

He continued: “Ideally, we’d like to align our new procurement with more of a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf)-based device. We want to get away from bespoke if we can, but we’ll see what the market offers. Clearly, we want to be 4G LTE, and we also are keen to determine whether there’s an acceptable service coming up from our 4G terrestrial network. It needs to be fully interoperable with the ground-based ESN network, so that as the aircraft transits through the different heights, the radio [makes the changes] automatically. These are the principles on which the procurement is founded.”

Whatson continued by saying that the programme requires support for Band 40 (2345MHz), which is the spectrum it is looking to use above 500 feet. This is the height, he said, to which coverage is provided on EE’s terrestrial network. Coverage ultimately needs to stretch up to 10,000 feet, which is the maximum height at which UK public safety aircraft tend to fly.

Interoperability and economies of scale

In addition to coverage of the roll-out of mobile broadband public safety networks, there was a great deal of discussion around how the technology will be used over and above MCPTT.

This was exemplified by co-founder of the Public Safety Network Jason Karp, who started his presentation on the ‘smart connected ambulance’ by describing its apparent benefits in relation to a hypothetical multi-vehicle accident scenario. These included the ability to live stream body-worn video footage from the scene, instant access to medical details via the scanning of the patient’s driver’s licence, Bluetooth-connected stethoscopes allowing multiple parties to listen to their heartbeat, and so on.

“Every piece of technology that I just mentioned exists today,” he told the audience, “something which is super-exciting for this industry. I predict 100 per cent LTE adoption by public safety within 18 to 24 months.”

This prediction, he said, echoing Parkinson, doesn’t take into account the number of first-responders who already carry their own smartphone, which if they were counted would mean that all those on the front line have access to LTE technology already. “Whether authorised or agency issue, it’s almost irrelevant. It’s part of the fabric and that’s where the environment is going.”

Karp emphasised the need for open standards, to create interoperability and global economies of scale. Speaking of this, he said: “We’re starting to see it across the board now, certainly in LTE with 3GPP, but also via the use of open APIs [application programming interfaces] and the use of SDKs [software development kits].

“We need to make things work together, with operability built in from the beginning. An example of that is in relation to functionality around mapping, which we all use in some area of our lives. We all have to agree on what are the right standards that we want to use, so the industry has something to refer to when offering its products and services to us. I need to be able to integrate my mapping system with my CAD, with my smartwatch, and so on, to give a seamless experience. Ultimately, you want innovation on a global scale, not just on a piecemeal basis. This in turn drives down costs and drives up innovation. Gone are the days of isolated proprietary systems, where you have to build on multiple platforms.”

These themes were further taken up by Karp’s co-founder of the Public Safety Network (and former president of FirstNet), TJ Kennedy, in his presentation on ‘the Internet of Life Saving Things’. Speaking after the session – which also focused in part on the willingness (or lack thereof) of public safety to roll out new forms of connectivity, storage and so on – he said: “I believe that we [public safety] need to change the model where we’re using older technology than most consumers and most enterprises.In the future, when 6G and 7G arrive, public safety across the world should have access to those technologies, as they come out, at the same time as everyone else. With FirstNet, it will have 5G added to 4G LTE as soon as consumers have access to it.”

Finland and Germany’s plans for the transition to mission-critical broadband

We now shift our scene to the Critical Communications Europe stream. Jarmo Vinkvist, CEO of Suomen Virveverkko (which is part of Erillisverkot Group), kicked off with a presentation on the transition of Virve, the Finnish nationwide public safety network, to broadband. He explained that the timing was opportune, given that this was his last opportunity to speak publicly on the subject, as the public procurement process for the broadband service (Virve 2.0) was to begin the day after. He noted that the expected increase in situational awareness is probably the key benefit of moving to mission-critical broadband and highlighted the Finnish police’s use of drones, including during the visit by presidents Trump and Putin to Helsinki last summer.

Vinkvist added that negotiations with interested parties will take place in May/June and then the final procurement process will occur in August/September, so by October/November “we should have the final answers”. Erillisverkot will act as the service operator.

Vinkvist also noted that while all three of Finland’s commercial operators (Elisa, Telia and DNA) have ‘nationwide’ networks, their geographical coverage is around 80-85 per cent, so a “huge amount” of additional work will need to be done to expand the chosen commercial network, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the country where an extra 200 masts or so will need to be built where demand for commercial services is lacking.

He said the RFI for mission-critical apps will also be published this year and that in 2020 a mission-critical sim card will be available, but the extra geographical coverage and hardening of the network (which together are expected to cost €200m-€300m) will not have been achieved by that point.

The plan is to start with 4G provided by one of the commercial operators and move to 5G over the years. The transition from TETRA will happen for the most part between 2022 and 2025, with railway users being the last to migrate. There will be national roaming (it was mandated by law in February). Vinkvist added that Finland suffers from interference in the 700MHz band (which has been sold to commercial operators) from Russia’s TV broadcasting services, and this affects roughly more than half of the country.

Barbara Held, head of directorate – strategy and central management at the German Federal Agency for Public Safety Digital Radio (BDBOS), presented her organisation’s vision for broadband. She emphasised that BDBOS’s propositions have not been agreed at the political level. The German broadband strategy is still under discussion between the federal level and the 16 states. The current hybrid model the agency is proposing consists of continuing to use the country’s TETRA network for voice for several more years, while also using a dedicated nationwide 4G/5G network operating in 450MHz to provide basic broadband data services. The “basic network” would reuse BDBOS’s existing assets where possible, but would also require new sites to be built. The mission-critical services of the future network would be supplemented with RAN sharing with commercial operators in 700MHz and national roaming with commercial partners.

Held added that the hybrid model that BDBOS is favouring will “live or die with the spectrum question” and that BDBOS is filing for spectrum in the 450MHz band. She said the German regulator is offering access to some spectrum in this band to BDBOS, but this requires sharing it with power utilities, so “BDBOS is fighting to get the entire [2 x 4.7MHz] slot… [and] the optimum we would like to get is 2 x 10MHz”. She added that the decision on the assignment of spectrum “should be [made] within this year [at the] latest”.

One new detail was the news that BDBOS will carry out a two-stage ‘Broadband Test’, which aims to obtain practical knowledge on the use and conceptualisation of the future hybrid broadband infrastructure for German PPDR. The first stage is planned to take place in the first half of 2019 – this will consist of developing the detailed concept, drafting and planning the test scenarios and then issuing a call to tender.

The second stage, which will take place in the second half of 2019 and the first half of 2020, will implement the test scenarios, analyse and report on the results of the tests, together with considerations on the legal, organisational and commercial aspects of this approach. Held added that it is “more of a comprehensive feasibility study than a simple test, although there will also be technical testing on our testbeds and in Berlin with some real antennas”.

Held also said that “what we are going to test are exclusively hybrid solutions, we’re not going to consider [a] purely dedicated network or a purely commercial network. We’re going to test different versions of hybrid solutions, and the idea might be elaborated and might also change in the long run. Depending on what the outcome is we will then present recommendations on how to proceed to our supervisory board and our customers.”

She explained that BDBOS “won’t become active for the time being in the area of applications… this is something our [federal] states and customers in the states are doing”.

Clearly, there was a great deal of interesting and topical discussion at BAPCO/CCE 2019. With both FirstNet and ESN appearing increasingly well positioned and with Finland and Germany looking to follow in their footsteps (though potentially with a hybrid approach in Germany’s case), the push towards mission-critical broadband continues to gather pace.

Judging by Clark’s comments, next year’s BAPCO Annual Conference and Exhibition should have some very practical insights in store for us given that his programme is starting to focus on ensuring that ESN and the services it enables can work at the operational level.

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