CCW review 2019: three days in Kuala Lumpur

The Critical Communications Today team reports on the highlights from Critical Communications World

The first of CCW 2019’s three days provided visitors with a series of masterclasses, designed to get them up to speed with some of the central issues taking place within the industry. Streams included ‘Tetra Today and Tomorrow’, ‘Pushing the Boundaries of Innovation Across Transport, Utilities and Industry’, ‘The Global Flavour of Critical Broadband’, and the two-part ‘Critical Broadband Masterclass’.

One key presentation came from IHS Markit’s directing analyst, critical communications, Ken Rehbehn, which took place during the Critical Broadband Masterclass stream. Focusing particularly on devices, he provided something of a reality check in relation to mission-critical broadband, highlighting the industry’s dependence on chipset manufacturers (and Qualcomm in particular, in FirstNet’s case).

He noted that ProSe (proximity-based services – 3GPP’s version of TETRA’s direct mode) has a significant impact on modem design, while both QoS Class identifiers for MCPTT and MCVideo and support for eMBMS (Evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Services) that were added in Release 13 have moderate implications for modem design.

Referring to eMBMS as a critical component for mission-critical broadband communications, Rehbehn said: “So much of our PTT experimentation has been with unicast traffic flows from the network to the end-users and I do not believe that this scales [up]. If you have 15 emergency services workers [at] a scene and they can hear each other’s radios, if the traffic is delivered in unicast to each of the units and is not synchronised then [there’s] going to be noise. It’s [also] an inefficient use of network resources, especially in a location where you have scarce resources, such as a remote area where a temporary isolated network needs to be established. [eMBMS] has not been embraced by mobile network operators due to the costs of putting it in play. However, AT&T is committed to making it part of the FirstNet network; I believe it needs to be part of every network going forward to get MCPTT to work properly.”

He added that ProSe’s performance might not be adequate, given that other elements of the cellular RF chain are poorly positioned to enable back-to-back coverage (power amplifiers being limited to 125mW and the use of internal antennas) – “I don’t believe that even if we get a modem that supports [ProSe] that the physics are going to allow that support to actually be useful.” That said, Rehbehn noted the way in which 5G vehicle-to-vehicle communications share some characteristics with TETRA’s direct mode, though this is seeking to tackle a different problem. A member of the audience said that an enhanced proximity-based service is already commercialised in South Korea’s PS-LTE network, with a Korean chipset vendor and a device from a Korean Android device manufacturer and that during a field test last year it achieved a line-of-sight device-to-device range of several kilometres.

Rehbehn also drew attention to the fact that support for mission-critical features on the LTE module side is still in its early days, with most modules on the market being aimed at general purpose IoT applications, rather than mission-critical functionality. He also said: “It’s not enough to say: ‘I’ve got a modem that supports mission-critical communications.’ You have to factor in the other elements of the band-specific radio chain that are needed for a device [to work] in your country.” Rehbehn concluded with a “glint of optimism” that the interest in private broadband networks for non-public-safety verticals “may help stimulate a virtuous cycle of innovation that drives us forward”.

This was followed in the same session by Ahmed Laslah, business development director, mission critical and private networks, at Ericsson. Looking at the broader strategic picture, he explored the different models for mission-critical networks. For instance, dedicated, shared RAN with dedicated spectrum usage; shared RAN with dynamic spectrum usage; and secure MVNO.

He also discussed such networks’ potential evolution, envisaging three steps along the way. The first of these consists of a considerable amount of ‘alphabet soup’ – even by our industry’s standards – comprising LTE MCPTT/MCVideo, VoLTE, MBB and NB-IoT, and so on. The second phase comprises the adoption of 5G New Radio for high and flexible capacity, along with URLLC (ultra-reliable low-latency communications). The third phase, meanwhile, consists of real-time end-to-end traffic observability, strict device synchronisation and time-sensitive networking.

The Malaysian story
The CCW 2019 conference kicked off on the second day with a series of presentations looking at specific national roll-outs. As was only fitting given the event’s location, these included in the first instance keynotes from Al-Ishsal Ishak, chairman of national regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), and Praba Sangarajoo, vice-president, business development at host operator Sapura. Ishak began his presentation by giving a general overview of the communications environment within the country, mentioning also the numerous opportunities that are anticipated following the maturation of technologies such as 5G. Regarding the latter – alongside the likes of big data analysis and AI – he said these had the potential to represent nothing less than a “fourth Industrial Revolution”.

“5G networks will change all aspects of human life,” he said. “That is the promise. As such, it’s important for us to unlock such hi-tech capabilities for critical communications as well. In light of this, Malaysia has embarked on efforts to improve the country’s connectivity through its national fiberisation and connectivity plan, a development which was announced in October 2018. We’re going to be moving towards a very important phase within the industry.”

According to Ishak, this plan was developed to provide a nationwide public digital infrastructure which is “robust, pervasive and affordable”, thereby enabling the adoption of the aforementioned new technologies.

Moving onto the subject of mission-critical communications in particular – and again, how things are likely to develop in the coming years – Ishak started by giving some context on the geopolitical situation: “The global population will increase to approximately 9.7 billion in 2020. This in turn will be accompanied by an increase in urbanisation, with around 68 per cent of the world’s population living in cities by 2050. Malaysia itself is predicted to register urbanisation of 85 to 90 per cent, a figure which is massive by any standard.”

He continued: “That being the case, PPDR [public protection and disaster relief] radio communications will become increasingly vital to maintain law and order, as well as in response to emergency situations. With advances in mobile broadband technology, there exists the capacity for enhanced capability and capacity in this realm too.”

Outlining the country’s plan to improve public safety communications in parallel with the aforementioned fiberisation programme, Ishak stated that the MCMC had already designated and harmonised several spectrum bands for use by PPDR. These include 400 and 800MHz, as well as in the 4.9GHz band, promising that “we will facilitate more where possible”.

Following immediately after Ishak, Sapura’s Sangarajoo gave a brief overview of the company’s history, in order to tell what he referred to as the “Malaysian story”. He followed this by discussing the challenges presented by the needs of those within the region, and how these have been overcome through the company’s considerable R&D efforts.

For those who don’t know, the country of Malaysia currently provides first-responders with nationwide TETRA coverage in the form of the Sapura Research-developed Government Integrated Radio Network (GIRN). The initial roll-out for this was completed in 2008, using equipment provided by Hytera Mobilfunk, with the network later undergoing expansion using technology from Teltronic.

Picking up the company’s story in relation to this, Sangarajoo said Sapura had started from “humble beginnings” around a decade ago, manufacturing VHF and tactical communications radios. “With the high-frequency radio we then exported to the world,” said Sangarajoo, “we [subsequently] moved into building a nationwide network.

“In building the GIRN, we had to make sure all the critical agencies had coverage. At the same time, however, we also had a challenge in that we had to build for many organisations rather than just one, with the system being shared and secured for 16 different government agencies.”

He continued: “In Malaysia, a minimum of six agencies will be working hand-in-hand [during incidents such as floods], which could include the police, civil defence, the fire brigade, local authorities, ambulance services, hospitals and so on. They all have their own doctrine and sharing is not always seen as the best way forward, so we needed to come up with something through which they could rest assured that their part of the network is not being compromised.”

The answer, according to Sangarajoo, was to build dedicated virtual private networks (VPNs), each of which is secured and encrypted on behalf of the agency in question.

Staying on the subject of research and development, he said the company had spent around 100 million US dollars over the last ten years, investing heavily in a range of fields including network connectivity, GIS, dispatching, analytics, simulation systems and so on. “The only reason to do this is that we would like to build indigenous technologies, in order for Malaysia to have its own products and solutions.”

Discussing how the technology is likely to progress, not just in relation to public safety but also initiatives such as the roll-out of new transport infrastructure, he concluded by saying that there is now the need to add to the current TETRA infrastructure. “Communications systems using TETRA are still valid, because that’s the best solution available for voice. But moving forward we will need facial recognition technology, the monitoring of certain passengers in the transport environment if required, and much more.

“In order to do all that, we will need for transportation in Malaysia to have its own broadband spectrum, and work will be done by MCMC on providing that. Also, for public safety, our aspiration is to roll out 5G. We do not see that we will be going through an LTE route.”

These Malaysia-centred presentations were followed by two more focusing on specific national public safety communications systems. The first of these was delivered by president of BDBOS Andreas Gegenfurtner, after whom Nina Myren from the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB) discussed the situation in that country.

Picking up on Sangarajoo’s broadband roll-out theme, Gegenfurtner continued by discussing the future of public safety comms during a presentation titled ‘A network of networks’. He said: “BDBOS is now modernising the German PPDR network with the next step in mind – that is, the migration of data and voice to broadband. In doing so we envision a change of paradigm, with our future network being completely different. It will necessarily integrate dedicated, commercial and third-party infrastructures, and it will rely on heterogenous technologies. It will inevitably be a network of networks.”

Myren, meanwhile, discussed Norway’s experience with roaming between national TETRA networks, with its own system (Nødnett) already linked with Sweden’s – Rakel – and Finland’s – Virve. Going into greater detail, she discussed a recent operational incident where Norwegian firefighters aided their Swedish counterparts to help fight the forest fires in the latter country last summer.

According to her, this situation revealed some challenges; for instance, that not all of those on the ground had correctly programmed terminals. Some of the Swedish firefighters meanwhile hadn’t been trained to use the talk-groups in question. Myren suggested that this highlighted the need to facilitate communications between user organisations in each country, while also noting the close co-operation that exists between the Norwegian health directorate and its Swedish counterpart.

She then discussed the DSB’s work to introduce Nødnett Connect, an over-the-top service, based on Motorola Solutions’ Kodiak platform. This will allow smartphone users to securely communicate with colleagues using TETRA, both over commercial networks and Wi-Fi. However, it lacks priority, and is not considered mission-critical.

According to Myren, part of the thinking behind the project was that: “In the future, it is likely that all public safety [critical communications] services will run over commercial networks or in close co-operation with them. It allows us to get experience with that future, which has great value for us but no big risk as we are not [swapping] Nødnett for something else.”

Some of the Nødnett Connect use-cases mentioned by Myren include using it to allow communication when out of TETRA network coverage. It also includes communication with people who don’t normally carry TETRA radios, such as doctors, and also as part of temporary communications during large incidents such as forest fires. The latter could potentially see the local community being able to install the app on their phones. It can also be used to allow the sharing of videos and photos. The project is being executed in three phases: plan and design, test and pilot, and launch of service. Myren said that the plan is for pilots to take place this year, with the goal of going live with the service in 2020.

Railways and public networks
Some of the same themes were taken up during a key panel session looking at ‘Building a critical broadband network: best practices’. Speaking as part of this, Pierre Tane, solutions expert for mission-critical networks at Kapsch CarrierCom, discussed the views of the railway community, particularly in relation to coverage. Tane said that in Europe in particular, operators are looking to reuse the 900MHz spectrum and related assets which they have already invested in. The general view, he said, is that dedicated networks are required, with sole reliance on public networks not being seen in a positive light.

Reasons for this include railways being subject to incredibly formal coverage obligations, which in practice require extensive verification, along with the use of GSM-R for train control. Another factor according to Tane is the tendency for railway operators to get the blame when something goes wrong, even if the incident is not fully within their control.

Giving an example of this, he talked about a railway station in Paris that was disrupted by a fire at a large power plant. Despite all the necessary precautions being in place, “they were still affected, and everybody blamed the railway rather than the power company”.

He continued: “[Operators] want to be able to rely on the network, controlling – for instance – whether it’s up or down. That’s something that obviously would be very difficult to do if you had to rely on an external solution, such as an MNO network.” While Tane recognises the argument that this could be addressed with a service level agreement (SLA) between the railway and the MNO providing the service, in his discussions with railways, some have told him that [even when] they do use MNOs to provide an operationally-sensitive service in some locations with SLAs in place, and despite these and the MNOs’ assurances there are still occasions when such networks become unavailable resulting in service disruption for which the railways get blamed, rather than the MNOs.

Tane adds that he and his colleagues are not saying that MNOs don’t have a role to play in railways, given that the latter don’t have enough dedicated spectrum for all their wireless communications, so they use it for critical applications and use MNOs to complement their dedicated networks. He outlined an approach whereby multiple MNOs could be used to provide railways with mobile broadband. “There will be more and more reliance on wireless networks to support signalling and train control applications,” he said.

AI and video surveillance
As indicated by the keynote presentations reported above, there was a real sense at CCW 2019 that the industry is taking future mission-critical communications tech incredibly seriously. Whereas in previous years this would have meant LTE, however – at least in the main – the disruptive technologies du jour are now increasingly considered to be 5G, artificial intelligence and so on.

This was apparent on the afternoon of the second day, which contained nearly two hours of content on AI and its potential uses within the sector. Speakers included senior vice-president of technology for Motorola Solutions Paul Steinberg; Leonardo CTO of cyber security Francesco Calabro; and Zoltan Wirth, vice-president and head of cyber networks for Airbus.

Discussing the potential uses of AI within a mission-critical environment, particularly in relation to the analysis of video, Steinberg said: “There’s a lot of surveillance video currently being created, and [the question arises] who’s looking at all that footage and how are we making use of it?”

He continued: “NASA did a study a few years ago, which found that if someone starts to watch a video and has a task to perform within that activity, initially they’re 100 per cent efficient. However, within 20 minutes a lack of attention and inability to handle mundane cognitive tasks will take them down to 20 per cent efficiency.” For Steinberg – and for Motorola as a whole, given its recent purchase of Avigilon – the use of the technology in this context is clearly incredibly valid.

The march of standardisation
Going back to the subject of broadband technology, one of the most compelling presentations of the second day came from Huawei 3GPP chair Georg Mayer, who discussed the standardisation of mission-critical features.

Mayer began by giving an update on the ongoing standardisation process, with Release 16 scheduled to be completed by March of next year, and 17 starting around the same time. The standardisation of 5G, meanwhile, began with Release 15 several years ago, and in his words it is now clear “what 5G will look like in the first deployment phases”.

Giving an overview of what the technology will mean, both to the mission-critical sector and everyone else, he said: “5G consists of new radio, but also of the new core network, which allows you to do so much more [than LTE]. You can deploy new radio to stand alone or with the 4G core, but that doesn’t constitute the real revolution. That only comes when you deploy the core, and go for what I call ‘service-centric transformation’ across many vertical industries.”

He continued: “Out of this – and something that we’re seeing as the next step regarding the technology – will come something that we call cross-industry service harmonisation. Going forward, different industries, from agriculture to healthcare and mission critical, will now all be based on common technologies, therefore forcing them to harmonise their services.

“The 5G core network is sliced, which is one of the big hype issues that exists around the technology. At the same time, the hardware has no service logic, because that resides in the software – it’s virtualised. You can therefore have several networks operating at once, all of which have specific characteristics when it comes to quality of service.”

Innovation on show
There was a great deal of innovation on show in the exhibition hall, and it felt as though more companies had new products on show than last year. This is an encouraging sign, particularly given that the industry continues to be at a strange stage in its lifecycle, with TETRA being a mature technology and mission-critical broadband yet to fully take off.

On Sepura’s stand, head of global TETRA terminals product line Peter Hudson showed us its new mobile handset, the SCG22. It includes the features present in Sepura’s SC20 and SC21 hand-portables plus a 10W RF power rating, while also offering full gateway and repeater functionality. It has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as an expanded operating frequency range of 380-470MHz.

Hudson demonstrated a prototype LTE mobile terminal, which the company is gathering feedback on. It has a slot for a TETRA modem, so that it can function as a dual-mode device if required. It supports 3GPP Release 12, runs on Android and can later be upgraded to support MCX services if required. He also mentioned the company’s new over-the-air-programming (OTAP) functionality, which allows terminals to update their configuration once they are switched back on, having received the necessary files beforehand. It also provides a full audit trail.

Moving across to Hytera, Roger Leung – the product director responsible for the development of the company’s multi-mode radio series – discussed feedback received on the technology from first-responders. “They told us that they wanted a multi-mode radio that is more like a traditional radio. Slimmer and rock solid, so it’s easier for one-handed operation, and with louder and clearer audio for noisy environments, and also keeping the ability to use data applications.”

With that in mind, Hytera has developed the IP66/68-rated PTC680 Multi-Mode Advanced Radio (TETRA/LTE), which has a narrower form-factor than the company’s previous multi-mode models and weighs 325g (15g lighter than the 760 series). The company has retained the previous model’s dual display design, while at the same time layering three programmable keys below the screen to “put more one-touch functions at users’ finger-tips”.

Patented ‘front cavity expansion technology’ is used to generate up to 128dB of audio, with clarity also being achieved via combination of digital acoustic microphones and audio-processing algorithms. A version that can support TETRA in 800MHz is due to be released in the fourth quarter.

DAMM used CCW 2019 as the platform to launch its FT5 TETRA handset, which the company claims is the first of its kind to work in VHF, thereby allowing customers to benefit from a longer range. The device, which is the result of a joint project between DAMM and Funktel GmbH, features 3W output power, IP65 protection as well as support for a range of positioning technologies. It can work in conjunction with the DAMM BS422 MultiTech base station, which also has the ability to operate TETRA in VHF.

TASSTA’s managing director Kaveh Hosseinzadeh revealed that it has started implementing push-to-video (PTV) functionality into its products. The aim is to have an MCVideo-compliant solution by the end of the year, although this may slip given that the company is prioritising MCPTT, and will also develop MCData after MCPTT but before MCVideo.

Its current application automatically optimises video quality based on the available bandwidth. It is also possible to answer a PTV call with PTT, which reduces unnecessary load on the system. Hosseinzadeh added that TASSTA is expecting to have implemented group and individual call functionality before September. It will take part in the next MCX Plugtests event, to which it will be bringing an MCPTT client and server.

Discussing the market more broadly, Hosseinzadeh passed on his observation that companies tend to jump in and out of the MCX market due to a failure to understand the amount of effort required to operate within it. (TASSTA has so far invested more than €2m on MCX development, with more to come).

He said TASSTA is seeing a great deal of interest from hardware companies around the world, offering as it does a 3GPP-compliant solution and full ecosystem. This includes GPS and lone worker functionality, with the company also working on Teltronic, Tait and Kenwood RadioActivity gateways.

Motorola Solutions had a strong showing once again at CCW, demonstrating a range of mission-critical communications technologies on its stand, with a particular emphasis on integrated, end-to-end software solutions. An example of this would be in relation to its command and control ecosystem, incorporating video feeds, data from sensors, access to historical records, as well as “citizen input”.

The company also welcomed its longstanding partner STC Specialized (STCSC) to the show, with which it has provided – according to the company – more than 50,000 TETRA radios and accessories over the past year.

Speaking of STCSC’s relationship with Motorola, the latter’s senior director of sales, Middle East, Patrick Fitting, said: “It is a pleasure for Motorola Solutions to have such a strong partner in the region and it was an honour to meet their team at CCW. We presented our entire portfolio of mission-critical communication solutions [at the event], including our latest TETRA portfolio, Al-based video security solutions and CommandCenter software.”

Airbus unveiled a new feature at the show in the shape of Dabat Hybrid Roaming, which combines the company’s Tactilon Dabat hybrid TETRA/LTE terminal and its Tactilon Agnet 800 solution. This is designed to allow users of the terminal to seamlessly roam between their TETRA network and LTE coverage.

Tactilon Agnet 800 is an app for smart devices – such as the Tactilon Dabat – which enables the use of features including push-to-talk, status notifications, text messaging and emergency calls, along with the ability to switch to LTE coverage. The Tactilon Dabat’s primary mode of operation is via the use of a TETRA network.

A sizeable space on the exhibition floor was occupied by Critical Communications Finland (CCF), a conglomeration of agencies and manufacturers representing the critical communications work currently taking place in that part of the world. Some of the names involved include Bittium, NSION, Savox, Beaconsim and Nokia.

Speaking on behalf of CCF, Tero Pesonen discussed why it was deemed important that Finnish companies demonstrate a united front in this way. “The purpose of Critical Communications Finland is success in co-operation,” he said. “We are always seeking that, sharing what we do and answering any question that’s asked.

“From the government public safety operator and the first-responder point of view, we wanted to have an exchange in relation to how we work, and what people think regarding how we should be working in terms of broadband, and the transition from TETRA. A particular source of stress at the moment is the things ‘you don’t know you don’t know’ [aka ‘unknown unknowns’]. So, we listen to everyone with very open ears to make sure there’s nothing we’ve missed. That’s what’s happened at CCW 2019.”

While it is not intended for mission-critical use, one product that stood out from the crowd was Shanli Tongyi’s 4G Intelligent Patrol Instrument – a combined LED torch/PTT over Cellular (PoC) radio. This can also be used as a club if necessary, allowing security guards – for example – to carry less devices.

Other products that caught our eye from Chinese vendors included Telo Systems’ DMR/LTE TE580PD hybrid smartphone, which is IP67-rated and has a 3600mAh removable battery, and BelFone’s BF-TR925D dual band portable DMR repeater. The latter can also feature as a single frequency repeater and has an impressively large 30Ah battery to allow it to support a full day’s operation.

BelFone was also showing its new BF-SFR600 DMR single frequency repeater. This allocates one timeslot to receive a signal and the other to transmit it at the same frequency, using DMO mode to extend radio coverage.

We hope that this has given you a sense of the sheer amount of content, innovation and discussion that was on show at CCW 2019 and we’re looking forward to bringing you the highlights from next year’s event in Madrid.