Critical comms in the Mediterranean: sun, sand and strife

The Mediterranean, hard-hit by the financial crisis, is starting to look to the future when it comes to its networks, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean LTE, there are opportunities for TETRA, as Sam Fenwick reports

The Mediterranean, while famed as the birthplace of Western civilisation and much-visited for its idyllic climate and seaside locales, has had a difficult recent past, as exemplified by the tussle between the Greek government and the IMF in the wake of the financial crisis, while the ongoing conflict in Syria and the legacy of regime change in Libya have also left scars. However, as the saying goes, time heals all wounds and while the diverse nature of the region means that it is hard to identify distinct trends, there appear to be grounds for optimism.

Ryan Darrand, Senior Analyst II at IHS Markit, says: “The European LMR market is one of the most digitised in the world, with the number of digital subscribers increasing year on year. Europe is the cornerstone of the global TETRA market, accounting for over half of the world’s TETRA users.”

However, Emanuele Algieri, Sepura’s regional director, SEMEA, says: “The Mediterranean part of Europe didn’t follow the trend of the other countries, Scandinavia, Germany or England. Two countries decided to go for a proprietary standard – Spain and France chose to use Tetrapol and the rest, apart from Portugal, didn’t develop national TETRA networks, so [they are] behind the other countries.”

He adds that the region’s key problem is the impact of recession, which has restricted the amount that countries can invest in mission-critical infrastructure. Consequently, “the modernisation is still migration from analogue to digital. Most of the police in Italy and Greece still use analogue radios.”

Tragedy in Portugal
“Portugal has a national SIRESP TETRA network which [serves its] public safety and security agencies,” says Darrand, adding: “There was pressure to modernise the network in light of the communications problems during the summer of 2017 as its aerial lines could not withstand the forest fires.”

According to the BBC, the forest fires were the worst in the country’s history, leaving 64 dead and 254 injured. It also reported that the Portuguese civil protection authority had confirmed that “failures in the SIRESP network” took placethroughout the four-day emergency and on one evening firefighters had to resort to using their old radio network.

Algieri says that Sepura is the largest TETRA terminal supplier to the users of the SIRESP network and, as a consequence, it tries to follow the market very closely. “We know that the next step for Portugal is not investing in the modernisation of the network; instead the Minister of Interior is planning to buy the network, which currently belongs to a private consortium.”

According to Darrand, Spain – despite having a national Tetrapol network – “has several large regional TETRA networks, particularly in the transportation sector, giving Spain a formidable installed base of TETRA users”.

Regarding the country’s appetite for further investment, Algieri says “it has too many problems from a political viewpoint, this chaos between Madrid and Barcelona”. He therefore doesn’t believe that the next phase for the network is a priority for the Spanish government.

While the bulk of France lies outside the Mediterranean, both Darrand and Sepura’s Simao Rocha, business development manager, Southern Europe, have much to say about this important market.

“France has a large Tetrapol installed base in the public safety and security domain; however, TETRA has had success in the realm of non-public-sector organisations, particularly in the transportation sector – many of France’s large transportation hubs such as airports, metros and bus systems use TETRA networks,” says Darrand. “Furthermore, Airbus DS has made significant investments in research and development for LTE for professional mobile radio (PMR); this investment will continue to see TETRA as an integral part of the solution in the roadmap for mission-critical broadband solutions for public safety organisations.”

Rocha says there is more pressure in France “to move to a future LTE solution that will replace Tetrapol than in countries like Italy, Portugal or Spain, where TETRA satisfies the customers”. He adds that multiple companies are showing strong interest in Push to Talk over Cellular (PoC) solutions. Turning to the commercial markets, where Sepura is particularly active, he says: “TETRA is still a reality and the current users of TETRA feel that they want to keep investing.”

He adds that SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company, has extended the validity of its existing frame contracts with Sepura for one more year until the end of 2018, and he is hopeful that it will issue a new frame contract – still for TETRA – for three to four more years.

Italy’s interest in LTE
Speaking more broadly about the Mediterranean region, Darrand adds that “investment in TETRA is also veering further south and east”, so let’s turn our attention in that direction.

“There has been significant investment in TETRA technology in Italy,” he says, “since the Italian Ministry of Interior signed a €450m contract with Finmeccanica, extending the TETRA PIT programme to implement a TETRA-based mission-critical national mobile radio service for the police forces. IHS Markit expects that investment in TETRA in the public safety and security domain will trickle down into business-critical industries, as it has done with Aeroporti di Roma (ADR), and the investment programme illustrates a firm commitment to TETRA for the next 10 to 15 years at least.”

Sepura’s Algieri adds that the Italian government has allocated €600m to fund trials and experiments for LTE for critical communications use, but despite this level of funding (€50m per year), he believes its focus is very much on building out the TETRA network, which he says currently covers 50 per cent of the country, “so there’s a long way [to go] before [it] is complete”.

He adds: “In fact, in Italy there was a big debate about jumping to LTE rather than completing TETRA, but that was aborted because LTE is too early.”

Algieri says Morocco started early in terms of TETRA and a few of its cities have their own TETRA networks. He adds that it is now seeking to build its own national mission-critical/TETRA network – “the tender is out but again it’s not an upgrade, it will be something completely new”.

Moving to Algeria and Tunisia, Sepura’s Rocha says: “At the government level there is an open mind towards the LTE solutions and that is not driven mostly by technical reasons but the interesting financial conditions offered by some large corporations that are present and active in the region and pushing for the new LTE solution as an alternative to TETRA.”

“Political unrest and instability and the requirement for physical safety and security have provided strong market drivers for robust communications infrastructure in parts of the Middle East and Africa. Lebanon, given its geographical location, its proximity to Syria and Israel, its ties to Iran through its Shiite community and the geopolitical implications of these factors have all provided strong market drivers for communications investment. TETRA was procured by the Ministry of the Interior in Lebanon,” says Darrand.

Turning to Libya, Darrand highlights the factors that are driving TETRA adoption.“Not unlike other countries in the region which have experienced war, and the subsequent rebuilding of safety and security in such states, Libya has been the recipient of strong investment in TETRA communications; the fragile power vacuum which ensued following the Arab spring, and the regrouping of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Libya, have provided the necessary conditions for investment in safety and security infrastructure in this region,” Darrand says.

Greece: making up for lost time
In November last year, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development stated that it expected average growth in south-eastern Europe to accelerate, hitting 3.6 per cent in 2017 before falling back to 3.3 per cent in 2018. It added: “The Greek economy has returned to growth in the first half of the year amid progress in reforms and rising confidence.”

Greece used a Motorola Solutions-supplied TETRA network for the 2004 Olympic Games. However, the financial crisis limited its ambitions in this regard – until recently. “They are trying to make up for lost time,” Rocha says. “For five years, there was no money, there was no investment. “Now [the Greek government is] doing what it should have done in 2012, it is starting to look at what it has, look at the infrastructure and the capability of other systems and [see if it should invest]. It makes sense to expect further investment in TETRA.”

Back in 2014, Sepura was selected by Lamas Pinto Consultants Corporation to provide a mission-critical TETRA communications system for the Police in Attica, the largest administrative region of Greece, to cover the whole region. Rocha says: “We are finalising the negotiation for the supply of the new TETRA terminals.”

Moving to Cyprus, Rocha adds that the market is not very active, although it recently issued a tender for the supply of TETRA network and terminals. “Once this is complete, I don’t forecast another opportunity for TETRA because it will cover all their needs for the foreseeable future.”

However, in his view, “Turkey is a totally different story”. Rocha explains that the “myth” of a tender for TETRA by the country’s Ministry of the Interior has persisted for the past five to seven years. “There’s a need for TETRA in the country and I think there is a technical understanding that TETRA is the safest critical communications technology.

“I don’t know if there is the political will to go ahead with such investments in Turkey,” he says, adding that part of the issue is the extent to which the country tries to protect its companies against foreign competitors. “Aselsan is a major Turkish manufacturer of critical communications solutions – it has some influence and its position in the market will bear some weight on the decisions of the government. They cannot absolutely ignore the local manufacturer when they make a global decision for the country.”

Rocha adds that the Turkish private sector is expanding quickly, “so there may be many opportunities for transport, oil and gas, industry – TETRA has huge potential in Turkey, in terms of growth and investment”. That said, he adds that as Turkish customers are very price-sensitive, DMR is a strong competitor to TETRA when it comes to private sector projects. “[DMR] is everywhere in the world, but in Turkey it can be present in very large projects.”

A look at Lebanon
Back in 2015, Airbus won, through its local value-added reseller Serta Channels SAL, a contract by the Ministry of Interior of Lebanon for a TETRA network system for the country’s General Directorate of General Security. The contract, which was funded by a grant from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, included the delivery of TETRA switches, base stations, dispatcher workstations and more than 2,000 radio terminals. It replaced the existing networks and was made available to several thousand subscribers.

According to Walid Khoury, the managing director of Serta, the project was delivered on schedule in the first quarter of 2015 and new users are still being added to the network.

Mustapha Elbaba, senior sales manager, Secure Land Communications at Airbus, adds that his company successfully completed a proof-of-concept trial for the Lebanese government to allow the security agencies’ users to communicate using both their TETRA terminals and smartphones, through Airbus’ Tactilon Agnet. He adds that this project is now being discussed with the government and that, should it be rolled out, smartphone users would connect via both the commercial network or Wi-Fi in certain areas.

“We’re seeing some interest from the non-security governmental agencies and the municipalities of Beirut, who want to build small TETRA networks and rent the services in an opex model to some verticals that need group communications and are not allowed to use the security TETRA network,” he says.

At Davos, the IMF welcomed the global strong economic outlook, while more needs to be done to sustain it. Given that many of the countries in the Mediterranean are only just starting to recover from the financial crisis that struck roughly 10 years ago and that lack of funds has been a historic roadblock to further investment in mission-critical networks, the future growth of the market may well hinge on politicians and bankers’ ability to avert (or at the very least, delay) another recession.