The Italian job: moving to the next phase of emergency services comms

Philip Mason talks to two major players in the current roll-out of mission-critical communications in Italy, and asks what a broadband-enabled future might look like there

The global critical communications environment is currently in a state of massive change as nation states continue, or in some cases start, to negotiate their ongoing moves from narrowband to broadband technology.

Needless to say, the speed of this process is tending to vary from country to country, with the likes of the UK – which initially scheduled its roll-out as if it was in some kind of peculiar LTE adoption race with the rest of the world – at one end of the scale, and countries such as Germany at the other.

One country sitting very firmly in the latter category is Italy, which, like its aforementioned European not-quite neighbour to the north, is only just getting to the later stages of its own country-wide TETRA roll-out. More to the point, Italy is also the location for a plethora of individual legacy and local systems – analogue and digital – deployed on a regional/organisation-by-organisation basis. While this may not make for a straightforward story, it’s certainly a compelling one for those with interest in the sector and the progress of European critical comms.

Network of networks

Massimiliano Veltroni is homeland security and critical infrastructures business director for Leonardo, the company responsible for rolling out and maintaining the country’s aforementioned nationwide emergency services TETRA network.

Giving an overview of the current situation for emergency services when it comes to communications, he says: “As in other Western countries, critical comms has a big role in support of public safety and emergency services in Italy.

The current TETRA network shared by different first-responders is a result of what’s known as the PIT [Programma Interpolizie TETRA], which began in 2006.

“Participants in the programme include all the national police forces in Italy: Polizia di Stato, Carabinieri [or gendarmerie], and the Financial Police and Penitentiary Police. Privacy and independency are enabled through the adoption of a TETRA VPN [virtual private network] mechanism.”

The PIT project began well over a decade ago, with the initial Ministry of Internal Affairs contract issued to Finmeccanica (executed using a controlled company) which in time rebranded as Leonardo. In terms of served area, today the PIT covers Piedmont and all the Italian southern regions, along with Sicily and Sardinia.

Speaking of the project as it exists today, Veltroni continues: “PIT is still in progress, and currently covers more than 60 per cent of potential users. There are also other regional networks still in operation to serve police forces, but these are going to be replaced as the TETRA PIT programme enlarges its coverage.

“Regarding the latter in particular, the National Police has a legacy nationwide synchronous network operating at lower VHF (70MHz), while Carabinieri possesses its own legacy analogue network at UHF. The Financial Police has a VHF national synchronous radio network for its helicopters and patrol boats, with the Penitentiary Police – serving prisons and inmate transfer – having a nationwide synchronous VHF network. This covers the main regional roads and national highways, and there is a plan to revamp it with a DMR system.

“These systems were rolled out during a process which began in the 1980s, again, in lower VHF, VHF and UHF. They don’t have any point of contact apart from the one provided by the new TETRA network which – organised in VPNs – can supersede the legacy networks of each police force.”

As mentioned above, the infrastructure rolled out by the PIT project is for use entirely by the different parts of the Italian national police forces as a replacement for their own legacy systems, which had been deployed on an organisation-by-organisation basis. PIT is also being updated where required – for example, moving infrastructure from TDM to full IP and from dispatching only to full control room functionalities, such as integration with video surveillance, location services and workflow management, etc.

According to Veltroni, however, the situation gets even more complicated when it comes to critical communications being used by other emergency services such as the fire and rescue service, civil protection institutions and so on.

As he tells it, these organisations tend to operate through the use of regional mobile radio systems, many of which are analogue-based. These too are in the process of being replaced, meanwhile, in the first instance via the introduction of discrete DMR networks, eventually leading up to the planned implementation of a nationwide digital backbone.

Speaking of this, he says: “In Italy there are several emergency services that have developed their own infrastructures over the course of many years. Fire brigades have region-wide VHF/UHF networks, transitioning to DMR. Medical emergencies rely on regional or local UHF networks supporting ambulances.”

Over the next few years, the fire brigade’s regional DMR networks will be connected by a microwave network called CRUN, to a central control room (CON, Centro Operativo Nazionale) in Rome.

“Civil protection is based on regional or local VHF networks for institutional activities, alongside various analogue radio networks for volunteer organisations,” adds Veltroni. “Medical service and civil protection are likewise equipping themselves with a common regional backbone infrastructure to interconnect their broadcasting networks.”

In regard to other mission-critical sectors in the country, Veltroni says railways have adopted ETCS (European Train Control System), alongside an attendant nationwide GSM-R (Global System for Mobile Communications Railway) network for interaction between drivers and signallers. Buses, meanwhile, typically use public cellular networks for location services and operational information, occasionally in conjunction with private radio networks.

One area of the transport piece, again according to Veltroni, which has embraced TETRA is Italy’s underground train services. This has been demonstrated in Leonardo’s work with the Rome Metro, in particular the fully automated Line C, the Milan metro and others – all of which are using an onboard digital radio solution.

The procurement rabbit hole

There is a nationwide TETRA infrastructure in the process of being deployed. Via the national system integrators, the programme is rolling out TETRA hand-portables for first-responders. Sepura’s sales manager for Italy, Simao Rocha, explains that this takes place in a very specific fashion: “Selected integrators are able to sell directly to Italian public safety. Sepura is able to sell its terminals to the integrators and these can then be supplied to the end-user.

“In this manner we have been able to provide more than 35,000 SC20 TETRA hand-portables into the market. The SC20 had significant operational advantages which opened the market to Sepura’s products. These devices are being used by first-responders across the country on the existing TETRA networks.”

Going into greater detail about the procurement process, Rocha says that the Italian Government decides who is allowed to directly supply first-responders. “A number of factors affect this. There are important security considerations for any national infrastructure investment, and similar due diligence is completed in most public safety national procurement programmes.

“Once the authorised suppliers have been confirmed, radio manufacturers are then invited to bid to promote and sell their terminals, which themselves have to be separately authorised for use on the network. Sepura as a manufacturer is not involved in the discussion between integrator and end-user. This is to maintain security and integrity in the procurement process. Clearly, we are able to have commercial discussions with the integrator, but never with the end-user and in this way we are still able to agree prices, timescales and additional features.”

Discussing the involvement of Sepura, or indeed any potential radio manufacturer, from a technical point of view, he continues: “Once technical approval is given for the radios to operate on the network, our engineers become involved and provide support. To me, the network infrastructure is more important than the terminals, because that’s obviously the basis for operation. Again, I wouldn’t have any direct contact with the users in relation to any of this unless I was invited to do so by the customer or Government itself.

“I absolutely don’t disagree with the Italian approach – the company responsible for the infrastructure is also responsible for the handsets. Operationally, and particularly from a national security point of view, it’s completely understandable.

“Ultimately, selling in Italy is just the same as anywhere else. They require good functionality and performance, as well as interoperability with the existing network and value for money. As a manufacturer, we just have to deliver on what we promised – if we miss on that, we won’t be a supplier next time.”

Sepura’s distributor in Italy is Sintel Italia, with which the company has recently signed a long-term deal. According to a statement released at the time, as part of the deal the latter company is establishing a service centre to maintain the devices.

Estimated time of switch-off

It’s clear that the Italian critical comms landscape is currently relatively settled, with a nationwide TETRA network slowly but surely being rolled out for the benefit of the police in particular. This is 2019, however, and the spectre of broadband communications is never far away for either the civilian population or those working to keep the public safe.

Regarding the situation in Italy in particular, Leonardo’s Veltroni believes there is an interest in broadband as a “high-speed vector” used to “enhance operational capabilities and complement narrowband networks”. This is currently manifesting itself at the local level through the non-mission-critical use of commercial networks, as well as in the activities of one of the major umbrella police organisations mentioned above.

Giving an overview of the current situation, and possible thinking heading into the future, Veltroni says: “At the moment, of the four police organisations served by TETRA, one is experimenting with LTE usage in the form of a specific deployment over [TIM’s (a mobile network operator)] RAN. This is using dedicated frequencies – 2 x 5MHz at 1800MHz – made available by the Italian Ministry of Defence.

“Other agencies are simply using MNO services as available to consumers. Bearing that in mind, there are currently no private broadband networks in use by mission-critical operators, and no harmonised spectrum available for them.”

Turning his attention to the possibility of an LTE equivalent of the PIT programme being rolled out in the coming years, he continues: “Discussion is ongoing about whether relying exclusively on public telcos for public safety broadband is an option or if a commercial network would need to be complemented with dedicated LTE coverage or whether secure voice and localisation data (the main mission-critical services) should instead remain on dedicated professional networks. At this point in time, a joint use of TETRA and LTE – according to each technology’s strengths – is perceived as a more reliable solution, but a future LTE-only solution is also gaining consensus (the timeframe is under discussion).”

“A mobile virtual network operator approach seems to be the preferred model, to better address concerns around security and network control. This would be in conjunction with the possible enhancing of public networks in under-served areas, through the use of private fixed and deployable access. These – plus, obviously, the availability of relevant features, as fully standardised by 3GPP – are the major driving factors being considered in the context of the future broadband transition.”

Earlier on in this article, the UK ESN project was mentioned, specifically in relation to its – entirely unrealistic – initial timescale (as driven by what, at the time, was considered to be the urgent need to fully deploy before the contract with Airwave ran out). An unfortunate knock-on effect of this was to send those at the coal-face of UK public safety into something of a panic, confronted with the apparent possibility that any delay in the programme might leave them without access to mission-critical push-to-talk.

This fear has since been assuaged, primarily through the guarantee that the Home Office’s current TETRA network will be available for as long as necessary (current ETSO – estimated time of switch off – 2022). There is also the sense that the ESMCP programme has now fundamentally got a handle on the technology itself, via a shift from proprietary to open standards. According to Veltroni, this is something which users in Italy are angling for right from the get-go.

“User organisations are generally pushing for a full standard solution, providing multimedia professional services according to the 3GPP MCX suite [ie, MCPTT, MCVideo and MCData],” he says. “TETRA integration with pre-standard solutions will be taken into account while waiting for the full completion of 3GPP standardisation – as well as the subsequent time for implementation and deployment – in Release 16.

“With that in mind, it is questionable whether public telcos will make investments for upgrading their network for the effective support of mission-critical services, for instance by fine-tuning QoS [quality of service] and adding eMBMS [evolved multimedia broadcast multicast services] network components at the functional level. [Other considerations include] items required to improve service availability, especially in areas not justified by return on investment analysis.”

Needless to say, potential willingness on the part of commercial MNOs to upgrade/harden their networks for mission-critical-grade communications is only one currently undecided aspect of future roll-out plans. Another massive question, and this will come as no surprise to readers of Critical Communications Today, is the availability of spectrum.

“Spectrum is a key element,” says Veltroni, “especially if the possible roll-out will involve a mixture of private and public networks, with some private-access portion integrating and enhancing public commercial networks in under-served and rural areas. The 700MHz band is the portion of spectrum preferred by the mission–critical community for coverage and interoperability issues; however, it is also a target for public operators that will want to use it for 5G network deployment.

“In the latest national frequency plan issued by the Italian Authority, a portion of 2 x 8MHz in 700MHz, commonly named band 68, has been left available for PPDR usage. Unfortunately, too few devices are currently available operating in band 68 – which is not attractive for chipset vendors – so, for the moment, this band cannot be used in any practical fashion.

“At the same time, other substantial portions of the 700MHz band have been auctioned for 5G networks, with a public tender that resulted in an income of more than €2bn for the Italian government. Total 5G earnings, including also 3.7GHz and 26GHz, amounted to more than €6.5bn.”

He continues: “Other challenges are related to the budget available for building a dedicated network [if that is the chosen course], or for integrating the aforementioned commercial networks, depending on which model will be chosen.

“Public telco operators’ coverage is not homogeneous, and rural or unpopulated areas are not properly served. Police forces need, however, to control the whole territory, and if broadband becomes part of the solution toolbox, it must be available everywhere an emergency appears. Each police force has its own coverage needs, whether that’s in major cities, rural areas, in the mountains or along the coast.”

As with many other countries, this is an important time for Italian public safety comms. Keep checking Critical Communications Todayfor the latest updates.