BAPCO 2019: On with the show

Philip Mason looks at the major themes on the British APCO side of the conference schedule at this year’s BAPCO/Critical Communications Europe 2019

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 and so on.

Possibly more intriguing, however, were remarks referring to an anticipated shift in the market itself, in particular around how widespread leveraging of public safety LTE could hasten closer ties with manufacturers, and even crossover between the development of commercial and public safety equipment.

Rather than the traditional Emergency Services Network update – although we did get one of those, at the start of day two – this year’s conference programme kicked off with half an hour from the acting CEO of FirstNet, Ed Parkinson. In his keynote address, he discussed ‘Global co-operation and co-ordination for public safety wireless programmes’, taking in several of the themes mentioned above.

Parkinson began his presentation by giving an overview of the current 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 having been compelled by nothing more than the “leveraging of market forces”.

Continuing on the latter theme, as well as the broader implications of the adoption of LTE as a whole, he said: “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.

“We’re already starting to see a dramatic shift in the direction that folks are thinking from an investment perspective. From our market research, for instance, we predict that over the next two decades, public safety broadband will be about a $600bn market. Global smart cities, meanwhile, which is something else we’re having to think about very seriously, will be worth around $2.2trn over the next 15 years.”

Keeping the above figures in mind, he said public safety now has to be viewed “holistically” (rather than “myopically”), looking in particular at potential links between education, healthcare, emergency management and so on. He also suggested that FirstNet would be maintaining close ties with industry going forward, so that when a new product is developed for commercial use, a discussion can also be had around applications that might be suitable for use in the public safety environment.

He illustrated this through the mention of a five-language ‘translator’ app demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. The city of Houston in Texas has about 174 languages being spoken, he said; “think of the potential benefits from a 911 perspective” if the app could be leveraged for use by the emergency services.

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 (although there were some newsy nuggets in there, which we’ll get to later), 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. He did this in part through the use of a piece of video marketing, the voiceover for which he later revealed was provided by Hollywood actor – and frequent EE collaborator – Kevin Bacon. From here, he moved on to explain why the project is currently so behind in relation to the original anticipated roll-out date.

“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 of 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 in an operational context.

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, and as compelling as Clark’s first official BAPCO appearance was, 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) in person 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. The picture, it would appear, is becoming clearer all the time.

One core area in which the ESN discussion is still ongoing, however, 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 on day one. (The session 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.”

Moving onto the subject of broadband A2G procurement, 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
As is invariably the case at BAPCO events, the primary focus at Coventry 2019 – quite understandably – was on the roll-out of the major public safety networks themselves, as discussed above. There was a further emphasis this year though, with a great deal of new discussion around how the technology is actually likely to be used, over and above rolling out 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.”

Continuing his presentation, 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.”

He continued: “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 the isolated proprietary systems, where you have to build on multiple different 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’, which took place on day two.

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 – and I can’t predict what day that will be – 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.”

Another organisation that is attempting to look at public safety comms in a holistic fashion is Motorola Solutions, which presented a case study looking at cloud control room technology.

Discussing the company’s data storage and analysis platform CommandCentral in particular, its head of marketing EMEA Olatunde Williams said: “The key thing we’re trying to do is provide an end-to-end workflow, from the start of an incident to the closing of a case.

“When you look at the industry in general, people tend to focus on siloed areas – you get people who are CAD vendors, who are radio vendors, and that’s what they do. [By contrast], we are very focused on covering the end-to-end workflow.

“Part of our platform is about leveraging emerging technologies, with a key one being artificial intelligence. That’s going to be transformative, for instance when it comes to analysing video footage.”

Other topics covered in the BAPCO 2019 conference sessions included ‘reverse 999’, automation, control rooms demand, the provision of early 5G, and ‘collaborative planning and delivery’ in relation to Airwave.