The Middle East: Reaching for the sky

Ahead of Critical Communications MENA, Sam Fenwick looks at some of the biggest trends in the region and the current state of its biggest projects

Ahead of Critical Communications MENA, Sam Fenwick looks at some of the biggest trends in the region and the current state of its biggest projects

Dubai, CCMENA’s host city, is pushing ahead with public safety LTE and ANPR technology

The MENA (Middle East and North African) region continues to be one to watch – both politically and economically. While the eyes of the world have been distracted by North Korea’s recent antics, the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, together with the conflict in Syria, are far from being resolved, although Iran’s decision to allow its citizens to make the Hajj after the previous year’s boycott is a welcome development. The region has a huge task ahead: delivering the economic growth required to keep populations, that lack democratic means of venting any discontent, from boiling over into a repeat of the Arab Spring.

This is even more difficult against a backdrop of reduced oil prices and the urgent need to diversify economies away from oil and gas, given the growing adoption of electric vehicles, dropping renewable energy prices and OPEC’s inability to slay its recently acquired nemesis, the North American shale oil hydra. This transition won’t be easy, as recently illustrated by news that Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Plan will be reworked, just over a year after its launch. 

Given the above, it’s no surprise that the region continues to invest in the latest critical communications technology.

Ryan Darrand, senior analyst II at IHS Markit, says the Middle East has a diverse LMR market and has experienced a fast pace of digitisation, ranging from P25 and DMR to TETRA. He attributes this to diverse economic prosperity, with some countries being rich in natural resources with the means to invest in communications technology, coupled with regional political and social instability in others, which has driven investment in public safety technologies. 

 IHS Markit projects that this region will continue to adopt digital communications technology, and by 2021 it will be one of the most digitised regions in the world with more than 90 per cent of LMR users converting to digital. 

Darrand adds that the market for TETRA in the Middle East remained strong in 2016 and is expected to remain buoyant throughout the forecast period to 2021; nearly 20 per cent of global TETRA shipments were destined for the Middle East and Africa alone in 2016. Saudi Arabia has been a significant adopter of TETRA, along with public safety and security organisations in the UAE, Oman and Iraq, which has been in a state of sectarian war since US troops withdrew from the country in 2011. Other moderate states such as Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain have also witnessed significant investment in TETRA.

This year and 2016 saw several TETRA contracts awarded, including the Thales project for Qatar’s railway and Dubai’s renewal of its service level agreement for its metro. Ooredoo, a leading telecommunications company in the Middle East, also announced it will sell TETRA devices in Qatar. The Middle East’s relative administrative wealth and willingness to innovate has led to significant investment in public safety LTE. Jesus Gonzalez, analyst, critical communications at IHS Markit, says several administrators have announced dedicated LTE spectrum assignments for public safety and critical communications broadband services. 

IHS Markit understands that there are more private/hybrid LTE networks in the region, and across multiple sectors. At the end of 2016, IHS Markit estimates nearly $271m in revenues were attributed to mission-critical LTE networks (infrastructure, LTE devices, system integration and managed services) in the Middle East. 

Darrand adds that despite the emergence of private LTE networks for public safety use in the Middle East, IHS Markit projects that the region will continue to adopt TETRA until at least 2021, partly due to its tried-and-tested status. 

In 2012, the United Arab Emirates (in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai) announced its intention to allocate the 700MHz band for mobile broadband services. In March 2016, security networks operator Nedaa selected Nokia to deliver a next-generation network for mission-critical and smart city services for the Dubai government. Applications to be delivered to public safety agencies include push-to-talk over LTE; push-to-video with applications; geographic information system integration; and dispatch-controlled CCTV endpoints. 

According to Alex Richardson, senior research analyst, critical communications and security technology at IHS Markit, Dubai’s police force is working on a project that will embed 12 cameras into the light bar of the patrol car, including eight for an automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) system to scan cars in all directions, and four video cameras for incident management. 

Richardson also notes that Dubai plans to build the world’s ‘largest 5D control room’, which will monitor emergencies, road conditions and weather; and will be a truly multi-agency facility. It will also be used to oversee government projects and the government has plans to install approximately 3,000 CCTV cameras by 2020. The Dubai Police use a GIS system called GeoStats, which contains a record of all criminal incidents that have occurred since 2005. The database is connected to a 3D GIS map so that all incidents can be visualised within the control room.

Abu Dhabi has a huge Safe City initiative where they have integrated a wide range of systems and gone much further than some other cities, routing in information from malls, hotels and airports. Richardson adds: “It’s much more difficult to do this in Europe, for instance, where privacy concerns are much greater.”

Following the presentation of Nokia’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management (UTM) concept last year at CCMENA, it has redirected its focus towards a control centre that serves public safety and rescue missions and is testing various use cases based on LTE-enabled drones, control centre and video analytics. It will test how to leverage a swarm of drones that can be quickly and securely deployed to help first-responders assess much more quickly a crisis situation and set up priorities in between the different teams operating in the field. Nokia is working with Nedaa and government agencies to develop and test this concept in Dubai.

Nokia signed an MOU in April last year with mobile and fixed-line operator Zain KSA to collaborate on a major initiative that seeks to transform Jeddah into a model for smart cities in the country and worldwide. The two companies are working together to apply advanced networking technologies in the Internet of Things (IoT) and the cloud to connect and manage a wide array of devices, vehicles, homes and applications. Noel Kirkaldy, Nokia’s head of technology, Middle East and Africa, adds that the project will have a critical communications element. It will boost the network capacity, accessibility and efficiency of Zain KSA’s mobile broadband network in Jeddah, eventually leading to 5G access, while also expanding the use of small cells and Wi-Fi to ensure continuous connectivity throughout the city.

In Saudi Arabia, Bravo recently used its new TETRA network to help ensure the safety of pilgrims during this year’s Hajj [see Bravo’s article on page 30 – Ed].

Peter Clemons, Quixoticity’s founder and managing director, says the Kingdom “still has strict regulations in place regarding use of video for oil and gas, which currently restricts the use of LTE, although there are moves to get these updated to allow companies and operators to offer more advanced solutions”.

According to Harald Zeier, ecom’s vice president, sales, Asia Pacific, the oil and gas sector is starting to use intrinsically safe smartphones and tablets for PTT over cellular, mobile working and as a way to reduce the use of paper-based processes. In addition, these devices are being used in combination with RFID tags and BLE beacons for track and trace asset management solutions, giving companies better visibility of their expensive assets. Similar systems are also being used to track employees when in a potentially hazardous working environment. 

Qatar prepares for 2022
Qatar has its own public safety LTE network with commercial LTE equipment in the 800MHz band, while maintaining its existing TETRA network for critical communications. 

The Qatar Ministry of Interior (MOI) awarded Nokia the contract for the first phase of the network, which went live in 2012 with 24 sites in Doha. The network is primarily used for multimedia and video transmissions from incident locations to the ministry’s command centre.

Immediately prior to Critical Communications World, the MOI began end-user trials of the TETRA group communication functionality over LTE that it has developed in partnership with Airbus. The trials include the use of Airbus’s hybrid terminal, the Tactilon Dabat, and the MOI has started to deploy the technology one organisation at a time. The project allows seamless interoperability of users across the MOI’s existing TETRA and LTE networks and the complete re-use of all MOI assets – networks, control room dispatching and resource location applications. Users will have access to TETRA features such as individual call, group call, SDS and status messages over LTE and will only need to carry a single communications device to talk over both networks. 

Speaking with TETRA Today at CCW, after receiving an award from Airbus for the MOI’s collaboration with the company, Brigadier General Ali Salem Al-Henzab, director of the Telecommunications Department in the MOI, said that one of its main requirements is the use of open standards, so that it won’t be limited to using a single vendor going forward. 

His colleague, Rashed Al Mohannadi, captain engineer, said that the MOI has continually upgraded its TETRA network with new versions, and he expects to upgrade the LTE network with future releases. The MOI has been using TETRA since 2006 and has a pool of 19,000 TETRA radios. Al Mohannadi added that one of the first challenges that had to be addressed was security as part of the shift from a prototype to a larger deployment, “making sure that the integration between the TETRA and LTE networks was up to standard and up to the security measures and policies that we follow in the department”.

Separate to this project, Qatar’s police have 124 vehicles that are each equipped with four cameras that continually stream video back to a command centre, over just 0.5Mbps of bandwidth per vehicle. This high efficiency is achieved through the use of middleware. 

Al Henzab said that part of the driver for the ministry’s investment in the technology is Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup in 2022. “We are preparing to make sure that everything will go well for the event, that is why we are investing in video, in TETRA, in LTE… anything that can make a country safe [and enable us] to do our job in the best way.” 


L-R: Ali Salem Al-Henzab accepting an award from Olivier Koczan, Airbus’s head of Secure Land Communications

Moving away from Qatar, Gonzalez finds it hard to envisage large-scale private/hybrid LTE deployments in those countries in the region that are less vocal about their critical comms, such as Kuwait and Bahrain. However, he notes small-scale projects and trials could be happening but there is little information in the public domain. 

IHS Markit’s Darrand says that the Royal Omani Police and Ambulance service uses TETRA, and Sepura and Frequentis were the major suppliers. He adds that TETRA is also used in the country outside of the public safety sector, in airports such as Salalah International airport.

Clemons adds that smaller markets in the region such as Bahrain and Kuwait could be a good test-bed for innovative solutions, as they have a small amount of land mass to cover and small populations. 

Conversely, because the UAE and Saudi Arabia have larger territories, with vast, sparsely populated areas and mega cities, “there’s a need to keep TETRA for longer for coverage and security reasons”. 

The need for control 
So far, we’ve focused (for the most part) on the infrastructure and terminal deployments to give first-responders the ability to communicate with each other and control rooms, but what about the control rooms?

IHS Markit’s Richardson’s sense is that most of the bigger cities in the Middle East that have widespread surveillance infrastructure are developing or will soon develop more sophisticated video analytics, “because it isn’t feasible to have an operator watching vast amounts of video continuously”. By way of example, he says that Nairobi, Kenya has built a unified communications system (call-taking and dispatch), a GIS system, installed surveillance cameras and ANPR and plans to add video analytics within the next few years, having spent about $150m on this project since 2014.

Richardson says that Jerusalem is developing a video analysis system for its Mabat 200 project, and MER won this project back in 2016. He adds: “There is a system in Israel that is working on enhancing video analytics because of the tremendous number of incidents that arise automatically. It’s being tailored currently, but in future it will identify abnormal behaviour based on people’s movements or certain statistics. Currently it can count the number of cars, people in cars or in a certain area, identify suspicious packages, etc.” 

He adds that Tel Aviv is “fairly advanced” from a safe city perspective, having carried out a project, which involved the installation of 700 CCTV cameras, a communications network, 900 radio panic buttons, Wi-Fi, PSIM and a command and control centre, multimedia video and data sharing, and interconnection of the existing surveillance system.

The Middle East is embracing digital radio technologies with great enthusiasm thanks in part to its oil wealth and the needs of its police and security forces. As the critical communications sector continues to look towards public safety LTE, it will be interesting to see how the region develops in this regard and what news comes out of CCMENA. If you’re attending the event, I hope this article has served as a taste of what’s to come and that you have an interesting and productive time in Dubai.