Public safety network operators' challenges

Simon Creasey hears from a number of public safety network operators with a focus on their current challenges, including the transition to mission-critical broadband, planning for 5G and cyber security

In March the inaugural meeting of the International Governmental Operators’ Forum (IGOF) took place. The meeting, which was attended by representatives from 19 public administrations of 17 countries around the world, discussed a wide range of topics that are having an impact on the critical communications community.

The highest priority identified was ‘security in broadband environments’, with a particular focus on hybrid networks and devices as well as cyber threats. Another key area identified was the impact of future technologies, such as artificial intelligence and 5G network slicing, on the sector.

I caught up with representatives from public safety organisations from around the world to find out what challenges these specific issues present for the individuals tasked with overseeing critical communications networks.

At the moment a number of large-scale critical communication infrastructure projects are taking place around the globe, with many countries upgrading existing TETRA systems or moving towards mission-critical broadband. Each of these projects throws up a significant series of hurdles that need to be overcome.

Take the example of Germany. The German Federal Agency for Public Safety Digital Radio (BDBOS) is in the midst of commencing a major modernisation project that will take it “two phases” towards mission-critical broadband, according to Dr Barbara Held, its head of directorate, strategy and central management.

“In a first step, we will migrate our voice-centric E1-based TETRA network to an all-IP platform,” says Held. “That also entails a modernisation and simplification of our network architecture. The completion of this phase will take us into 2021. By then we will start the next step: a tendering procedure to acquire all components and services which are needed for operating a broadband data network that is scalable and apt to be developed into a broadband infrastructure that will support voice as data. The biggest challenge is that we intend to implement this transformation of our network without interruption to our services.”

She says the “target scenario” for the project is fairly unique in that BDBOS is planning to introduce a hybrid network that on the one hand will provide nationwide mission-critical voice services until at least 2030, and on the other hand is “targeting the 450MHz area (2 x 4.7MHz)” to implement nationwide broadband data services in mission-critical quality and availability. Held says one potential stumbling block relates to BDBOS being “granted the bands in the 450MHz frequency by our German regulator”. She says if this is not forthcoming, “we will have to substantially rethink our plans”.

The dedicated “basic” broadband network BDBOS is developing will be state-owned and operated and, according to Held, because it is located in the 450MHz spectrum it will be able to largely rely on infrastructures of the existing TETRA network. “Capacities and functionalities of the ‘basic network’ will be supplemented by RAN sharing with commercial operators and roaming services contracted from commercial providers, which will not necessarily have the same level of availability and security as the basic mission-critical network layers. However, this strategy is still in a preparatory state,” says Held.

She adds that BDBOS has already reached a political agreement with relevant partners in the German states and the federal government on the general outline of the strategy and intends to conduct a feasibility study that will come up with recommendations for the implementation of a nationwide hybrid public safety network.

“A tendering process to acquire MNOs as contractors for the technical tests in Berlin has already started,” says Held. “We will be looking into the legal and commercial challenges of a hybrid scenario and certainly at the governance processes to operate such a complex infrastructure. Evidently, security in broadband will be an issue. The outcome of the study will lay [the] ground for the discussion and decision about our future implementation strategy.”

Same goals, different roads
At the moment the Netherlands lags behind its neighbour in terms of making the switch to mission-critical broadband. It is currently replacing its existing C2000 TETRA system with a Hytera Mobilfunk system.

Herman van Sprakelaar, project manager, Vernieuwing C2000 at Politie Nederland, says even though it is essentially just a case of switching out one system and replacing it with another, the project has encountered a number of different challenges and as a result it is running behind schedule.

He adds the country has estimated that it can continue to rely on its TETRA system for at least another five years following the switch to the new system, although it is already preparing the groundwork for an eventual move to mission-critical broadband.

“We are working on the set-up of a programme that will probably have the same kind of outline that you see in Scandinavian countries like Norway and Finland,” says van Sprakelaar. “So, it will be more an evolution of functionality and building a mission-critical platform, but we will not do a one-step migration from nothing to everything within the next five to six years. We will move gradually if possible, [introducing a mission-critical data service first and then introducing 3GPP-compliant mission-critical voice (MCPTT) at a later date].”

He adds it is unlikely that the country will seek to build its own network. “We will buy services from an MNO, so we will be looking at how good are our MNOs and what kind of security, access, availability, capacity and priority they can offer us on their normal networks,” he explains.

According to van Sprakelaar, at the end of the day all public safety operators have the “same goal in mind, but the road towards that goal for each country is a bit different”. At the moment he says his organisation is investigating what the different paths towards the Netherlands’ ultimate goal may be.

“We are looking at our operators and we are also making contact with our partners in Europe and looking at what they’re doing and what their experiences have been. We expect that during this year we will come up with a nationwide approach as to how we are going to make those steps in the coming years,” says van Sprakelaar.

One country he is watching closely to see what lessons he could learn, based on its recent experience, is the UK. Initially the UK government intended to move public safety users onto the Emergency Services Network (ESN) – a commercial network running 4G LTE technology – and turn off the existing Airwave system in 2019. However, the project
has encountered a number of difficulties, which were summarised in a report published in May by the National Audit Office (NAO).

In 2017, the Home Office, which has been tasked with implementing ESN, admitted it could not deliver the new network in the way it initially intended, so it decided to “reset” the programme. As a result of this reset, the Home Office forecasts the project will now cost £9.3bn – 49 per cent more than initially planned – with circa £1.4bn of this being spent on extending Airwave. It is now anticipated that Airwave will be switched off in December 2022 – three years late. In its recent audit of the project, the NAO cast doubts on the forecast revised costs and expressed scepticism that ESN would be ready by 2022.

A spokesperson for the Home Office admits there have been many challenges associated with the roll-out of the new system.

“Among the biggest is ensuring the network is secure and offers the level of coverage and service management support our users need,” says the spokesperson. “Further challenges include ensuring we have a range of devices suitable for the various user groups, delivering a full ‘air to ground’ network and devices using 4G LTE and ensuring the various control room system suppliers are able to upgrade their systems in time for the users to commence transition.”

To address these challenges the spokesperson says the team in charge of deploying the new network has been working closely with industry to understand what technology is currently available and how this can help to shape the market.

“This has included, for example, both leading and working within the 3rd Generation Partnership Project [3GPP] standards bodies to ensure public safety requirements are part of the standards from the start,” says the spokesperson. They add that the Home Office is happy to share its technology solutions and lessons learnt with government peers from around the world and has already hosted “at least a dozen delegations” to do just that.

“One particular solution that many [countries] are interested in is the air-to-ground network and devices, as this has not been implemented anywhere else in the world,” says the spokesperson.

They add that an interesting knock-on effect from the implementation of ESN has been the impact it has had on the supplier side. “The move to 4G LTE has helped open up the market of suppliers, as we are now able to procure from suppliers that before would only have been selling into the commercial market. This is helping us to be more innovative and drive down costs.”

As users transition to ESN and are able to start exploiting the benefits of 4G LTE, the Home Office anticipates that “the market for devices should widen as the requirements become broader and a wider range of devices are needed to support those requirements”.

Will all networks become critical?
The UK’s experience will no doubt provide a number of key learnings to public service operators from around the globe who are looking to make the switch to mission-critical broadband. Going forward, it’s highly likely that advances in technology will help to smooth out some of the challenges that countries like the UK have already encountered.

For instance, Tor Helge Lyngstol, special adviser at the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB) – which operates Nødnett, the country’s nationwide TETRA network – sees a time when there will be no requirement for a dedicated radio network for public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) communication as it will be embedded in 5G.

“Follow this logic,” says Lyngstol. “It is envisaged that the 5G networks will be used for a lot of critical things. [For it to be possible to use them for] all the purposes that are currently mentioned, the 5G networks will have to be robust, secure and so on. And coverage will have to be ‘everywhere’, as it will be too much of a drawback for any part of our country to be outside 5G coverage. Furthermore, if the 5G networks are used for only a fraction of the purposes that are mentioned, these networks will be society’s most critical infrastructure.”

In conclusion, he says it is not practical to build a dedicated network for PPDR that has more rigorous requirements than a 5G network as it would be prohibitively expensive to build. “But PPDR’s requirements will be a catalyst for [the construction of] good 5G networks, [and] 5G networks must also fulfil PPDR requirements. This is one of the reasons why we are co-operating so closely with the regulator and why the Ministry of Justice is co-operating with the Ministry of Communication on [a] future communications system for PPDR.”

Jarmo Vinkvist, CEO of Suomen Virveverkko (the operator of Finland’s nationwide TETRA network), part of Erillisverkot Group, also sees the arrival of 5G as a catalyst for change in the critical communications sector.“We recognise and accept that future is unknown,” says Vinkvist. “We don’t know exactly how information-centric operations will be in the 5G era. Therefore, we try to have in-built flexibility and forward-looking capabilities for early identification of trends and possibilities.”

He adds that the introduction of critical broadband presents a host of new challenges and opportunities for the public safety sector that previously didn’t exist, and this means greater levels of collaboration will be required.

“In the near broadband future our role will be [the] critical communications service operator, while radio access will be provided by a commercial operator,” says Vinkvist. “In this operational mode, deep and close co-operation with the radio access provider is mandatory. This is most of all [a task that requires co-operation] with user organisations. We jointly have a lot of unknowns and plenty of planning to do to tackle this. To be successful with [such a] demanding project, we must do this together nationally and internationally.”

Lyngstol agrees that greater collaboration is needed to ensure the migration to mission-critical broadband runs smoothly. To this end, in Norway the Directorate for Public Protection is already co-operating with telecom regulator Nkom to find “the best solution”, and Lyngstol says there are also “good discussions between our Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Communication – the Ministry of Health is also involved”.

This is not the only area where future collaboration between organisations is going to be vital for public safety operators. Cyber security has been identified as one of the most important topics for public safety operators and many experts believe it is crucial that a common approach to cyber threats on a global level is found. This is a key priority of IGOF, as BDBOS’s Held explains: “The group will put its focus particularly on security in broadband environments, especially on hybrid networks and devices as well as cyber threats. In addition, IGOF will facilitate the exchange of information and experience with their peers, critical communications users, industry and other interested parties.”

It is abundantly clear that public safety operators face a growing number of major challenges in the coming months as they look to upgrade existing TETRA systems or make the switch to mission-critical broadband. However, greater levels of collaboration and co-operation at a national and international level should help operators overcome many of these challenges.