Richard Martin explores the preparations that are paving the way for a project that will provide Canada’s public safety organisations with mission-critical broadband

Over a century ago, navigators attempted to find a route through the islands and ice to the North of Canada. Canadians today who advocate a nationwide broadband network for public safety have also been facing a navigational challenge in steering through a complex series of issues towards a funded programme.

On the surface it looks like progress is slow, but there is a wealth of goodwill, such as from the chiefs of the public safety agencies at both the federal and provincial level. Key players are working through the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG), which hosts an event each year to encourage co-operation and interoperability, and the next event is in December this year in Toronto.

The first step was taken some time ago with the allocation of 20MHz of bandwidth in the 700MHz band for public safety. But how will the network(s) that will make use of it be operated and financed? Earlier this year a temporary governing body was established and funded, and will work towards making formal recommendations in 2020.

At the same time, supporting trials are under way, involving universities, suppliers and MNOs. The results of these can help to move the process forward. At this time no major commercial mobile operators have come forward with an offering, either using public frequencies or 700MHz.

The programme takes shape

The Public Safety Canada team gave me the following statement:

“Lawrence Chow is the new director of the Temporary National Coordination Office (TNCO) for the Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) at Public Safety Canada. The TNCO is a temporary national office that will develop national options and recommendations on a potential PSBN for Canada, supported by research, analysis, and engagement with key stakeholders. It has a two-year mandate to develop a national approach to advance the PSBN, an initiative that has been in discussion for several years.

“In May 2018, federal, provincial and territorial ministers collectively endorsed the establishment of the TNCO to advance a PSBN in Canada. This decision was informed by stakeholder consultations that took place over the last year, where Public Safety Canada hosted a series of stakeholder workshops in six cities across the country, as well as one engagement session online.

“Since last year, the Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) Interoperability Working Group (IWG) together with stakeholders developed a set of guiding considerations to advance the work on a potential PSBN, as well as an approach for the co-ordination of PSBN activities, following a careful review of all the feedback received throughout the engagement period. Of these, three key themes emerged:

Innovation: promoting the lessons learned of current pilots and trials and the exploration of findings from research and development that demonstrate the benefits that a secure and interoperable communications network could offer public safety personnel.

Efficiency: leveraging existing infrastructure and funding programmes, and building synergies with other public safety communications initiatives to take advantage of potential cost savings.

Flexibility: recognising that timelines for the establishment of a potential PSBN in Canada could vary and that this network would likely co-exist with current Land Mobile Radio systems in the medium term.

“During the course of its work, the office will develop and recommend: a PSBN strategy for Canada, further develop and recommend approaches for business and governance models; identify deployment options for a national and interoperable PSBN; outline national PSBN requirements (eg, interoperability, security, priority and pre-emption); and suggest innovative solutions to address coverage gaps and capacity challenges.

“Over the coming months, the TNCO will continue to build on this momentum and gain further insights by looking at public safety broadband models from other countries, such as the US and Australia.”

Earlier work

The work of the TNCO takes advantage of a number of earlier studies. For example, the Canadian Community Safety Management Strategy lays out a vision for information sharing as part of interoperability across the nation and with the US, while respecting federal, provincial and territorial laws.

In terms of broadband implementation, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) published a paper in 2017 examining broadband models. These will differ from that of FirstNet in the US in that while it will also operate in the 700MHz band, it may be implemented by different carriers in each province. Three nationwide models are proposed for implementation, which broadly correspond to the dedicated, commercial and hybrid models that have been discussed by many other public safety operators and organisations. All three will re-use existing cell sites wherever possible, although some hardening may be necessary.

Given that different operators are dominant in the major areas of Canada, it is unlikely that a single nationwide contract would be possible if the country opted for the commercial-only model. Another consideration is that the dedicated model is less efficient in terms of spectrum usage and capital expenditure given the comparative size of the public safety end-user population in Canada. Other models also have the advantage of allowing public safety users to use commercial spectrum if the 700MHz spectrum is congested. Spreading the cost of a spectrum licence and additional core elements between public safety and commercial users will help affordability, but commercial users can easily switch to carriers not burdened with the costs of these.

The conversation

Stakeholders and experts from a number of organisations were asked about the progress towards a national Public Safety Broadband network. They have all been working towards this for some time and expressed a number of views regarding the progress.

Lance Valcour is a seasoned police officer who now consults with industry and government agencies; he talked about 2010 when the CITIG conference in Victoria requested 20MHz for public safety, which has since been allocated. “This [was] a collaborative effort involving the chiefs of police, ambulance and fire as well as supporters in provincial and federal offices and defence. The issue is what happens next, now that the TNCO is in place. Getting the governance right will be critical, each province will need to buy into any service contract. Back in 2012 the PSC/CITIG/CATA/ISED looked at possible governance models; this became known as the Montreal model. The idea for the not-for-profit organisation came out of this work. All the provinces were represented, the expectation being and still is that each province will purchase their own system, but within [the] standards.”

Valcour has views on the requirements for the system which will be a factor in choosing the most appropriate service model. “Around 90 per cent of the population of Canada live within 100km of the US border. 4G coverage in urban areas is already significant, but we also need coverage along major highways. Provisioning for cross-border emergencies is required, possibly using deployable base stations or other methods such as balloons. In these situations we will need up to a 100km circle of coverage. The broadband system will need strong security if different agencies and provinces are to interoperate.” Valcour has produced work on this topic which has been submitted to the federal agencies.

Michael Sullivan from CITIG links the work on broadband to developments in Next Generation 911, with rich data from the public needing to be shared with officers over a secure network. “Meantime we are seeing trials taking place in a number of locations including western Canada and interesting work at Toronto Airport. In this case a dedicated 4G network is providing data services to air-side staff. Our CITIG annual conference is where all the players share their work, and there is international representation.”

Kevin Wennekes from the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) feels that funding has been slow to come, even though there has been a great deal of consultation and studies submitted to the government as well as pilots. “Trials such as those in Regina and Toronto are a sandbox in which end-users and application providers can make progress and learn lessons ready for a national network.”

Wennekes was asked if the commercial operators might jump the gun and offer a dedicated service using the public bands. “We are not seeing any real movement in that direction, public safety users in Canada represent a small population and are unlikely to excite these operators. Today there is use of commercial networks and broadband by public safety, but this is not a dedicated service with any priority.”

Mike Webb from E-Comm, which operates the P25 network in Vancouver, western Canada, is a CITIG member. “There are initiatives going on now in the background, and there is frequent sharing of information,” he says. Moving forward, Webb points to the current guidelines being adopted by the TNCO. “It will need to lay down a governance model and standards, a service model, address provincial as well as federal considerations and, the tricky one, finance. We will almost certainly have to work with commercial operators in some way, but also fund some aspects of the network such as a separate core or network extensions for commercial networks. Revenue, ownership, control – these are all to be sorted out.”

Trials and early deployments

Trial deployments are under way in several locations across Canada; some are awaiting approval to be made public, but the following cases can be described. George Krausz is Motorola Solutions Canada’s president and describes the broadband trials they are facilitating. “We are working in a number of locations to move broadband forward. In terms of developing the use-cases and applications, users will need to see efficiencies coming from this capability. We also need to ensure the network will be effective and affordable.”

Krausz describes the work in Calgary, Alberta. “The agencies there were concerned with the reliability of their mobile communications during major events. Their LMR system holds up well but commercial coverage is a problem. We completed a trial using the Band 14 700MHz frequency in 2017; this comprised 10 base stations and Motorola Solutions LEX handsets. In terms of applications, we demonstrated mobile access to records, Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) and video. The system performed well and the agencies were pleased. We have also worked with the Federal Government on a trial in Ottawa and have shown how situational awareness can be improved with a number of applications including video. The work also includes assessing seamless roaming with commercial networks and the use of deployable networks.”

Motorola Solutions is now building a broadband network for the region of Halton, to the west of Toronto. Deputy chief of police Nishan Duraiappah of the Halton Regional Police Service says: “This is a permanent installation which will comprise 10 sites by the end of 2018, with three being added each year. We are hopeful our experience will be valuable for the nation. There is a world of opportunity out there.

“Here in Halton, data is just as important as voice for our officers. We have approximately 165 vehicles equipped with computers, and we also need to equip 700 officers on foot with data devices on band class 14. The applications such as real-time diagnostics, CAD, video and records will help us at major events and regular duties. For example, we have to patrol a large lakeside festival with 200,000 visitors. We need to rapidly download images such as a missing child. In the future we will need to integrate with the Next Gen 911 service, multimedia feeds into our call centres will need to be shared with officers. We still see a case for using commercial networks for non-urgent data, as long as we have a dedicated system for emergencies when commercial networks are overloaded.

“We are looking to use dual-SIM devices. In terms of working with other agencies, a neighbouring district is also introducing a broadband system and we will work to interoperate with them. Beyond that, we are implementing a shared secure core solution for multiple agency interworking, in effect a network of networks.”

Dr Yasser Morgan is the founder and lead researcher at the Bridging Research & Interoperability Collaboration (BRiC) facility based in Saskatchewan, developing a broadband test bed for public safety. BRiC is part of the Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety at the University of Regina. They are working with grants from Western Economic Diversification Canada and with local cellular suppliers and manufacturers such as Motorola Solutions and General Dynamics. CA$2.3m has been made available to establish the Public Safety Interoperability Platform (PSIP). This funding is now being used to purchase equipment and software to enable public safety end-users to freely trial applications on the platform. It is also a route for SMEs to participate and trial solutions and get feedback. The test bed is also a means for users to learn, and for different agencies to exchange ideas and harmonise requirements.

Dr Morgan says: “We are mainly looking at the applications layer, and we recently participated in the MCPTT plugtests in the US. Harmonising standards is vital for interoperability. We are increasingly focusing on services, such as group and location-based tools. We have recently submitted a confidential report on data security.”

He adds that “utilities and other critical services need to be brought into the studies to ensure that their requirements are properly taken into account”.

The future beckons

The TNCO now has the ball, and by mid-2020 will have made its recommendations to national and provincial governments. So, we will be waiting to see what is proposed; in the meantime, they will be working with a wide range of users and suppliers to tease out the optimum approach. It is far too early to predict which of the options will be recommended, but cost will have to be a major factor. In general, Canada scales at a ratio of 1:10 with the USA in terms of population and funds; when you also factor in the size of the nation, the cost of a dedicated network will be daunting. It seems that commercial operators may well have to play a part in the broadband system. The trials under way are both encouraging and valuable – these will help in determining which model is viable, as well as give end-users experience in using broadband in their operations, and stimulate application development.

CITIG 12, the interoperability event, will be in Toronto from 2-5 December. There will be a particular focus on Next Gen 911 and broadband evolution, so this should be in the calendar of anyone involved in this topic, both from Canada and further afield. More details can be found at www.citig.ca/citig-11-the-eleventh-canadian-public-safety-interoperability-workshop-2017-12-03.aspx.

Author: Richard Martin