CCMENA: Travelling towards a broadband future

Critical Communications MENA 2017 felt like an important moment, with attendees and speakers eager to discuss both narrowband and broadband technology. Philip Mason reports from Dubai

Taking place at the Dubai World Trade Centre in September, this year’s Critical Communications MENA (Middle East and North Africa) was an important event for the sector. First of all – and probably most significantly – a great many of the presentations centred in particular around the development of LTE technology for use in a community safety environment. This suggests a clear acceptance of mission-critical broadband right across the global radio community, at the very least as an accompaniment to TETRA and ultimately as its likely replacement.

It was also an important event for the region itself, giving visitors the opportunity to learn more about the cutting-edge work being carried out in states such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, one of the highlights of the two days was a presentation from Bravo’s CEO Dr Fahad Mushayt describing the ongoing roll-out of a hybrid system within Saudi Arabia.

Lastly, CCMENA 2017 marked the beginning of a new era for the brand. As announced by TCCA chair Mladen Vratonjic, next year’s event will take place at the Madinat Jumeirah resort rather than the Dubai World Trade Centre.

To share or not to share
The first day began with a presentation from new TCCA CEO Tony Gray, who described the work that the organisation has been doing around the development of LTE technology in the community safety realm. While he expected TETRA to be around for many years, he said it was necessary to take as wide an approach as possible going into the future. To illustrate this, he formally introduced the TCCA’s newly formed Broadband Industry Group (BIG), which launched in September.

“For years we’ve represented the TETRA and PMR industry,” he said. “Now we’re equally representative of the broadband sector. The group is currently working on its terms of reference, out of which we can generate components for the new LTE standards required from the industry by users.”

Current members of BIG include Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia, the latter of which provided the next speaker, its public safety business development director EMEA Noel Kirkaldy. Continuing on the topic of mobile broadband for public safety, he asked whether the emphasis should be on the technology itself, or on the change management processes necessitated by it. Beginning by discussing the conditions that need to be in place for the public safety broadband market to function to its full potential, he said: “We’re fully behind harmonised open standards and wherever possible harmonised spectrum. Standardisation is not a destination but a journey, allowing us ultimately to achieve interoperability.”

Kirkaldy illustrated this point by saying that both ETSI and the TCCA are still occupied with the standardisation of TETRA technology, a process that clearly began years ago. Continuing on the subject of global and national requirements, meanwhile, he outlined some of the pertinent questions for governments thinking about investment in mission-critical broadband. “Do I have dedicated spectrum? Am I going to work with hybrid networks? Am I going to work with commercial operators? To share or not to share – that is a question we’re all going to be facing.”

He continued: “The process of providing spectrum to government services is relatively easy when there’s only a small number of commercial operators, as with markets in the Middle East. That’s not the case elsewhere.”

Kirkaldy finished by discussing work recently accomplished by the 3GPP RAN4 group, including the standardisation of an additional 5MHz to be allocated for dedicated spectrum in the 700 band. “These are globally harmonised standards,” he said, “allowing dedicated – or hybrid, or shared – networks to offer similar coverage to what we have in the traditional narrowband technologies of TETRA.”

The first part of the first day ended with a panel discussion on the topic of ‘What part can the region [ie, the Middle East] play in pushing the global critical communications industry?’. This involved a variety of industry experts, including Kirkaldy, Motorola Solutions’ director of business development Kiran Vaya and the founder of Quixoticity, Peter Clemons.

Speaking about one of the fundamental differences between the Middle East and other markets, Vaya said while the region is often further ahead on adoption of technology, it has a long way to go on standardisation. It is, he said, probably the only region where private networks are still the norm.

The league of TETRA nations
The agenda now turned to work being carried out by individual nations. This discussion was led by Dr Barbara Held, head of directorate operations at the German Federal Agency for Public Safety Digital Radio (BDBOS).

Held began her presentation by looking at some of the issues facing European nation states in particular, following a “manifest expression of the need for broadband” issued by the continent’s public responders. Unsurprisingly, these included areas already outlined by Kirkaldy, such as standardisation and the fight for spectrum, which she referred to as “decisive”.

She cited the work of countries, beginning with Finland, the inhabitants of which she described as “so good at strategy and planning”. This talent, she said, is reflected in the country’s five-step plan – taking place over the next 20 years – to upgrade its government-owned Virve network to accommodate data as well as voice.

She moved on to other European countries including France, the Netherlands and Germany, whose own TETRA system is the largest in the world. Her account of BOS – which was finally completed in 2016 – was particularly compelling, due to the country’s political system. “The German network was jointly financed by the 16 federal states, alongside the government. Since everyone is putting money in it, everyone wants to have a say. Planning for an upgrade is a lengthy process. There’s a working group comprising all states under the co-ordination of the federal Ministry of the Interior, but the nature of the broadband structure has not been decided.”

The European nation that is furthest forward in its public safety LTE roll-out is the UK, whose Emergency Services Network project should come to fruition around 2020. Held said: “The UK is one of the projects we’ve watched with the highest interest, because it’s at the forefront of what’s happening. Airwave is one of the oldest TETRA networks, and rather than renewing the contract they decided to implement a broadband system for first-responders.”

By the end of Held’s presentation it was clear that there are numerous possible approaches when it comes to upgrading nationwide legacy public radio systems to accommodate broadband. Each one is as unique as the geopolitical, social and economic needs of the country in question.

The portion of day one focusing primarily on the move from TETRA to broadband came to an end with two presentations – one from Motorola Solutions’ account director Philip Bond, and the other a case study looking at ‘The Finnish story’.

Speaking of the need to focus on the needs of first-responders above all, Bond said: “It’s all about the applications, which need to be addressed in a technology-agnostic way. Everything else is just a means to an end. Mission critical means delivering the right piece of information in the right format to the right person at the right time.”

He continued by discussing the market itself, suggesting a level of confusion due to the recent ‘coming together’ of the IT and radio industries. According to Bond, this has sometimes caused an issue around decision-making, with the two groups not necessarily speaking the same language. “There are legacy systems which need upgrading, but that’s often put on hold because of confusion about what technology should be implemented,” he said.

Other speakers from day one included Airbus DS’s Simon Riesen (‘Our hydrid solutions for networks’), DundasTech director John Dundas (‘Future technologies and their use in mega sporting events’) and Motorola Solutions’ Vaya (‘Public safety networks cyber security in next generation’). Clemons, meanwhile, led a discussion on the notion of ‘one ideal, long-term broadband solution’.

Across the kingdom
Following an introduction from the TCCA’s Vratonjic, the second day of the event began with an account of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to roll out a hybrid TETRA/LTE network across the kingdom. This was delivered by Bravo’s Mushayt.

Mushayt began his presentation by describing the context into which the new network is being deployed. The current situation, he said, is quite fragmented across the country, with numerous ‘siloed’ networks operating on a variety of different technologies. There are also many different verticals functioning within the region, including the military, health and transportation, again with each sitting on different networks.

He continued by citing Bravo’s own iDEN solution, which he said currently has around 200,000 subscribers, including the military and the Saudi Ministry of Hajj. This is expected to continue until around 2020 at the latest.

The company’s current “journey” towards TETRA started in mid-2016. Bravo has chosen Airbus as its partner in deploying the technology.

Speaking of the progress which has been made so far, Mushayt said: “We decided to build the first network in the western region of Saudi Arabia, which had to be prepared to cater for the Hajj.

“It’s a very sophisticated environment, including mountains, tunnels, underground infrastructure, and hundreds of kilometres of highway. We’ve built around 100 sites in something like four months, with the thought that if we deploy the network, the demand will come.”

He continued: “Part of the journey is to build beyond TETRA and really start thinking about what’s next regarding LTE. We’ve included it in the roadmap, already building 25 sites across five zones. Working with companies such as Nokia and Ericsson, we are learning what can be done beyond voice.”

According to Mushayt, this includes live-streaming from drones, something that has already been demonstrated in the kingdom. In terms of voice itself, Bravo is hopeful of operating TETRA functionality over LTE by 2018.

One hundred per cent owned by Saudi Telecom, Bravo possesses its own frequency in the 800MHz band, which has been used to launch the new TETRA offering. It has also acquired, via its parent company, a “plentiful chunk of frequency” in the 700 band at a recent auction. “We are trying to bridge the gap between the public and private sector,” said Mushayt. “We want to make sure that there’s an interoperable and integrated network that can really provide our vision.”

The morning was completed by two panel discussions, focusing first on the ever-more voracious desire for data on the part of users. This was followed by another session looking specifically at ‘intelligent public safety operation’.

Heads in the cloud
The theme of the final part of CCMENA 2017 was the growing investment in command and control solutions, with much of the discussion centring firmly on the analytics and the storage of data.

The session was steered by a TCCA transportation working group chaired by Robin Davis. He also gave a fascinating presentation on use of the cloud, in particular exploring its increasing relevance in relation to critical and public safety communications.

Davis began his presentation by suggesting that a certain level of mistrust has traditionally existed within the critical communications community when it comes to the cloud. What would need to happen, he asked, for people to fully give themselves over to this solution? Davis continued by outlining current cloud use in the public safety environment, suggesting that it will likely consist of a mixed economy, with agencies using a variety of different hybrid technologies.

These will include remotely hosted solutions, as well as software as a service, something which is already used by some public safety organisations for back-office functions such as HR and payroll. This has the added advantage of being flexible, he said, a factor which will become more important with organisations increasingly reticent to invest in their own infrastructure (or, as he called it, “tin”).

Outlining further the benefits of this kind of working, Davis discussed the potential for better business continuity, illustrating his point by mentioning Oxfordshire County Council’s ability to get core services back up very soon after a fire. He also suggested that service providers have improved prioritisation and latency, illustrating this by discussing how easy it was to have a WhatsApp conversation with his wife on the plane coming over to the event, as well as mentioning cloud-based private automatic branch exchange (PABX) systems being used in the UK. That being the case, he said, security and data ownership is clearly still an issue, as well as standardisation, given the variety of models and vendors.

He concluded by restating his premise, saying: “For me, the future is a mixture of hybrid solutions. That includes private cloud – some remotely hosted – but also accessing services via public cloud. A lot of these applications are moving towards being browser-based. At the end of the day, the only thing that will stop us is when our imaginations stop.”

Other presentations from the last part of the second day included Ged Griffin from the Australian Institute of Police Management on the use of public safety mobile broadband, and Prisma Telecom Testing’s Luca Dell’Anna introducing the company’s product for portable mobile network emergency management, EmergencyNET.

CCMENA 2017 was instructive for a number of reasons. First, it proved once and for all that public safety comms is on the cusp of a new epoch with the ongoing move from narrowband to broadband. Different nation states may be taking different approaches and working to contrasting timescales, but it’s clear that a more connected – and potentially more complex – world is on the way.

At the same time, however, the event also made clear that the core challenges to the sector are the same as they ever were, no matter what the technology. These include issues around standardisation, spectrum, regulations and so on.

Summing up the event, the TCCA’s Gray said: “CCMENA was an excellent opportunity for its many participants – drawn from around the region as well as worldwide – to catch up on the latest developments and to exchange ideas and views.

“As always, TCCA’s regional operator partners NEDAA from Dubai and Bravo from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia led the way in demonstrating the many vital and lifesaving applications in their own networks for TETRA, as well as their future plans for standards-based mission-critical broadband deployment.”

He continued: “Broadband is coming. It’s not here yet though, and TETRA has many years of life left as the de facto standard for mission-critical speech and short data.”