Event report: Critical Communications World 2023

We report from CCW 2023, held in the Finnish capital of Helsinki earlier this summer

TCCA’s Critical Communications World 2023 event took place at a pivotal time for the industry, with many nations now well under way in the ongoing move from narrowband to mission-critical broadband for first-responders.

The location for this year’s event was also significant, however, with hosts Finland – via its Virve 2 project – playing a leading role in what might be considered the ‘second wave’ of national MC broadband roll-outs.

The relatively close proximity of Russia to Helsinki, meanwhile, also brought the importance of mission-critical comms and IT into even sharper focus, with the host country sharing a 1,340-kilometre border with its belligerent neighbour.

Nordic defence

This latter consideration informed one of the most compelling panel discussions from the first day of the CCW conference, focusing as it did on the doctrine of ‘total defence’ among the Nordic countries.

Participants included Camilla Asp and Ronny Harpe of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection’s Elisabeth Aarsæther, and Kimmo Kohvakka of the Finnish Ministry of the Interior.

Discussing the concept in broad terms, Aarsæther said: “In Norway we are very keen on structures that bring us together. When the Norwegian armed forces are fully mobilised, it’s about 75,000 people. The ‘total defence’ concept has never been laid down after the war, but it has been sleeping.

“But, in 2016, the government decided that we have to put forces together. So, after that we have been exercising a lot together and meeting up, from the governmental structure down to the local structure. Speaking with each other – how do we do this if something happens?”

Aarsæther continued by saying that these discussions also extend to what would happen if civilian support were required. This was echoed by Asp, who said that the total defence concept combined military and civil defence, with a “common goal” and “co-ordinated and integrated planning”.

She continued by saying that ‘civil defence’ in this context meant the protection of civilians in relation to shelters, warning systems and evacuation. “It is maintaining the functionality of the society and how to secure the supply of goods and services, cope with disinformation and promote the will to defend the country,” she continued.

Those who are familiar with the Nordics from a cultural perspective will recognise this urge to work together among countries such as Finland, Sweden and Norway.

Indeed, the overall theme of this year’s CCW was ‘success in cooperation’, something which is most obviously illustrated – at least from a communications perspective – by the cross-border interoperability baked into those countries’ respective emergency services TETRA systems.

Another highlight of the first day was ETSI CTO Adrian Scrase’s presentation on the standardisation of 5G, relating in particular to its potential deployment in the mission-critical context.

Scrase began his presentation by discussing the increasing relevance of the standard, quoting figures suggesting that 240 commercial 5G networks have already been launched. “If we look at the GSMA’s figures, roughly two billion 5G connections are likely to be in place by 2025,” he said.

“Whichever way we look at this, it is deployment on a grand scale. The clever bit is how can we be sure that the mission-critical elements are captured within that, so that the relatively small [mission critical] community can benefit from the economies of size.”

Discussing the ongoing evolution of the technology itself, he stated that 3GPP Release 17 is complete, with work on Release 18 continuing to go forward as we speak. “That,” he said, “will be completed by the end of this year and is where we’ll change the branding from 5G to 5G Advanced. That will be the mid-generation point between 5G and 6G.”

The timeline for Release 19 has already been set, meanwhile, with estimated time of completion being the middle of next year. The research effort around 6G is ongoing.

Summing up – and addressing the audience directly in relation to 6G in particular – he said: “From a mission-critical point of view, the question is really are you sure that what you need is being represented with the people who are setting the plans for future generations.

“Because if not, if you come to the table after the generational plans have been made, then it’s going to be very difficult for you to influence them. It’s a general call that you [the mission-critical community] should be aware of what’s happening in terms of setting the agenda for the future and making sure that every step of the way, mission critical is included in that agenda.”

As might have been expected, a large chunk of the CCW 2023 agenda was taken up with content relating to the roll-out of mission-critical broadband to first-responders. This included projects taking place within nation states themselves, as well as multinational endeavours.

The latter is exemplified by the BroadWay/BroadNet project, which is attempting to provide cross-border mission-critical broadband roaming to European emergency services.

Discussing progress during a presentation on the first day of the conference, BroadNet co-ordinator David Lund said: “BroadWay [is about] looking for the solution for what we call operational mobility.

Operational mobility is the ability for responders to carry out their operations wherever they are, whenever they need to and with whoever they’re tasked to co-operate with.”

He continued: “BroadWay is a team of 11 countries at ministry and agency level, coming together to jointly procure the solution for operational mobility, based on the 3GPP standards.”

During the presentation, Lund was accompanied by Airbus SLC head of Europe Eric Davalo and Gunter Graf, who is the vice-president of innovation at Frequentis. The businesses in question led the two consortiums, which are still in competition, to provide the final system.

Government authorities

Remaining on the topic of mission-critical broadband deployment, one of the key CCW exhibition features since its return in 2021 has been the ‘Government Authorities Global Village’. In Helsinki, this was augmented by GAGV conference panels, with sessions focusing on ‘Critical broadband developments from around the world’ taking place across all three days.

As might be expected, updates were delivered by a variety of countries including France, Germany, the USA, Australia and, of course, the Nordics. (Alongside Finland, the show was co-hosted by Norway, Denmark, Estonia and Sweden).

Discussing the situation in Germany, BDBOS head of directorate strategy and central management Thomas Scholle said: “We are currently running the largest TETRA system in the world, with more than 1.1 million subscribers and more than 5,000 base stations. It’s a mature and good system.”

This system, said Scholle, would continue to run for “very, very many years” for mission-critical voice. At the same time, he continued, users desire broadband, which has resulted in the development of a “four phase programme”. This was conceived of prior to COVID, in 2019, but is still regarded as valid, although “maybe the timescale needs to be adjusted a little bit”.

Describing each of these phases in turn, he said: “We want to start with Phase 0, which is a pre-phase. We’re doing this because our users are partly using broadband already, by commercial contracts. They have contracts with national network operators, and we want to consolidate these under one contract.”

If this runs in a positive way, he said, “we might even be able to offer national roaming, prioritisation within this contract, but this [remains] to be seen.”

Phase 1, meanwhile, will see the setting up of a dedicated core network for PPDR users. That will involve finding one national network operator via a tendering process, in order to set up and run the network.

“So, at the end of Phase 1 we will have a core network that we own. We will have full control of our data, and all three big nationwide networks in Germany will be connected.

“At that point, we can start using mission-critical applications.” That is planned for the end of this decade, but can only take place – Scholle said – by obtaining the requisite frequency. Phase 3 will see the ‘powering down’ of the BDBOS TETRA network.

Scholle finished his presentation with a deep dive into the expected timeline, describing the plan year-by-year. He said: “From ’27 to ’31, we will introduce all relevant MC services, and allow our users also to use their own applications. [That’s] from our federal states, from the 16 landers and from other organisations. Then I expect the national plan for the allocation of frequencies to be complete.

“As soon as this is clear, we want to start a tendering process for the radio access network. We will need to build a few more towers, and will also have to go into negotiations with vendors and MNOs again so that we obtain the necessary equipment for the sites. We will start to build them in 2029.”

Another presentation relevant to the location of this year’s show, meanwhile, focused on cybersecurity.

Titled ‘How war in Ukraine has changed the cybersecurity landscape’, the session featured NATO CCDCOE head of technology branch Urmas Ruuto and Milrem Robotics science and development director Raul Rikk.

Discussing Russian ‘supply chain’ attacks which took place towards the beginning of the invasion in 2022, Ruuto said: “One of the things that we can see is that
attacks are more politically motivated. Speaking in general, cyber attacks are mainly ransomware because hackers want money. Now, it’s just the breaking
of things.”

He followed this up with information derived from the Estonian state information agency, discussing denial-of-service attacks taking place in 2021/2022. “The number of attacks is four times higher. Obviously, if you do something which is not popular [with] the Russian Federation, you might expect to be hit.”

He augmented this with a slide detailing the removal of a Soviet-era tank monument from the Estonian city of Narva, in August of last year. Following this, he said, “there was a huge attack rate coming to Estonia”.

The exhibition floor

Critical Communications World in Helsinki offered one of the fullest conference programmes in the history of the show, making it pretty much impossible to cover it all in any depth (certainly not in the space of just a few pages). The same goes for the exhibition floor, which was very full across all three days.

As might be expected, there were plenty of Nordics-based companies exhibiting at the show, including Ericsson and Nokia, both of which we caught up with on the show floor.

Discussing the latter company’s presence at the show – and the recent change to its branding – its global head of enterprise business, Chris Johnson, said: “We’re here at Critical Communications World, and really proud to be hosting this in our home country. Our brand was last refreshed about 55 years ago, so there’s been a lot of water under the bridge.

“The old branding was quite often associated with mobile phones, and we haven’t done that for a long time. There’s a whole new generation of customers and partners that weren’t around then. Nokia today is primarily telco infrastructure and more prominently now, B2B, enterprise and government.”

Linking in with an important theme of the conference mentioned above, meanwhile, one key area of work being demonstrated by Ericsson was its knowledge of the “threat landscape” in relation to mobile networks.

Discussing this, a spokesperson for the company said: “We want operators to be prepared using our software.

And to be prepared in these kinds of dynamic networks, one needs to automate a lot of things.

“Automation is key to what we do, making sure the posture is as good as possible to protect the network.”

Another big name on the exhibition floor was Sepura. Traditionally associated with the manufacture of narrowband products, the company is now branching out into hybrid solutions, such as its SCU3.

Discussing the latter, head of pre-sales engineering Luke Stanley said: “New to the show, it’s our first LTE mobile. Released later this year, it now has TETRA on board as well.

“So, [customers] have the option to take TETRA mobile, but [they] also have an Android OS platform there, with all of the applications. It’s also a router and Wi-Fi hotspot.”

Control room manufacturers were also represented on the exhibition floor, including Frequentis and Hexagon.

Discussing why the latter decided to exhibit at the show for the first time in 2023, its managing director, Peter Prater, said: “In the safety [vertical], Hexagon provides collaboration tools, command and control tools, event management tools. The reason we’re [at CCW] is to demonstrate the ever-closer ties between the command and control centre and the solutions that are sold here, and their immediate proximity to the radio networks.”

Prater continued: “What we’ve found in the marketplace over the last five to 10 years is more of a coming together of the radio control and command and control. Different things, but now coming together in one product base.”

Another product area which is becoming increasingly crucial to mission-critical communications is satellite, for instance in the provision of backhaul for remote locations.

Discussing its offering, Globalstar IoT regional sales manager Robert Clarke said: “Globalstar is a worldwide satellite network, and we see [CCW] as a means of communicating with customers the need for satellite to fill gaps in where cellular and terrestrial are not available.

“Globalstar has the ability to offer services globally for both personal monitoring and asset tracking. We have many different types of verticals.”

Another first-time exhibitor, meanwhile, was Cyrus Technology, which manufactures ruggedised devices across a variety of verticals, in and outside of the mission-critical sphere. “Mission critical has always been very good business for us, and from the beginning, we saw the huge potential in this market,” said the company’s VP of global sales and marketing, Javier Holguin Trujillo.

Finally, we were able to catch up with Zebra Technologies, which also provides handheld devices across a range of industries.

Discussing its presence at the show, Zebra’s Oliver Ledgard said: “In the last five or 10 years, we’ve been getting pockets of wins in this space, but there hasn’t been an overarching focus on [these verticals]. So I’m now looking at a strategy to target government, public safety and public sector customers, specifically across EMEA.”

He continued to illustrate the “wins” the company has had so far by talking about the roll-out of its L10 tablet to the Spanish police. The company has also collaborated with emergency incident management specialist Unblur.

Critical Communications World has always been an important show in its sector and is continuing to make good on that reputation in the years following the COVID-19 pandemic. Its next iteration will see it leaving Europe for the first time since 2019 and heading to Dubai.