Uniting to secure critical communications' future

Tero Pesonen, chairman of the TCCA's Critical Communications Broadband Group, discusses its current work and shares his thoughts on the future use of broadband applications by end-users

Tero Pesonen, chairman of the TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group, discusses its current work and shares his thoughts on the future use of broadband applications by end-users


Tero Pesonen, chairman of the TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group

TT: There’s plenty of talk about 5G at the moment. What are its implications for the critical communications sector? 

TP: It depends what you mean by 5G. If you look at any country apart from the UK, the expectation is that broadband as the only mission-critical service is likely to be achieved with 3GPP Release 15 or higher, so in that sense everyone will be in the 5G era. 

The other question is which air interface technology will be used – LTE, New Radio or a combination. That remains to be seen. It’s a question of the end-user equipment – can they handle it with the coverage in place? I expect services will be available on multiple bands and they could easily involve multiple radio access technologies, so I’m not worried about that. I would encourage every country and agency to harness all the technological capabilities that are available. Some very important parts of 3GPP Release 14 drifted into Release 15, particularly in stage 3. That is something we need to work on and put more resources in place for. I’m calling on the community so we can make sure the standards are finalised in 3GPP stage 3 so that they are available for implementation. 

Further down the road, the development of Releases 18, 19 and perhaps 20 will take place at a time when critical broadband will have been in use in a number of countries for a few years. I expect at that point, the community will have a better idea of the things we could do if only we had the post-5G technology to support it – those use cases are currently beyond our comprehension, but as we gain more experience in information-centric operations, we can start identifying them. 

An interesting question for commercial operators to consider is how society’s expectation of the availability of communication services might evolve. The more we move into the 5G era and ultra-reliable networks, the more society becomes digitised and automated, and as more verticals use 5G for their mission- and business-critical communications, the more likely we are to end up in a situation in which society demands the availability currently required by today’s critical communication users.  

TT: Are we any closer to having an idea of which mission-critical broadband applications will deliver the most value to public safety users?

TP: It depends on the timeframe. Broadband networks must be trusted by first-responders just as much as their narrowband equivalents if they’re going to be truly mission-critical, and they are well on track to do so. Once that level of trust has been reached, we can start looking at the operational benefits. In the short term, you can’t revolutionise working practices, but the most advanced narrowband data services give us a hint of what’s to come – situational awareness, relevant data being constantly available, greater use of sensors and remote monitoring that then develops into decision and guidance systems. 

In the longer term, when societies have fully embraced digitisation and automation, the duties of public safety and critical communication users will be different from today. 

Initially, I expect there to be a huge rise in M2M communication, configured to prevent incidents (crime, disasters, etc) and, if something happens, the sending of incident data will be much more prevalent. For example, if a fire alarm goes off in a house, the house automation system will inform the fire brigade, telling them in which room the alarm is coming from and providing additional details.  

TT: Do you see a need for a unified critical communications ecosystem for applications?

TP: If you were to ask any authority if they prefer an open application market with interoperability between devices and networks, their answer would probably be yes, but if you then ask what are they doing about it, they’re far less vocal. That’s okay for now, as everyone needs to deal with the issues at hand. This is exactly why the TCCA is addressing these topics, arranging events and laying the groundwork for the things we will need further down the road.  

TT: What are your thoughts on where the processing should take place for public safety applications – in the cloud or on devices?

TP: That is a question of bandwidth. I, with my background in narrowband communication, tend to think that every bit is sacred, in the sense that every bit we don’t need to transfer and every bit we can save is worth saving – when congestion hits, for whatever reason, we are better off. Where the processing takes place is very application- or service-dependent and also very situational. If it’s local data then processing it locally makes a lot of sense, and you just send a summary upstream. 

There will probably be some back and forth. When and where there is an sufficient amount of spectrum and our bottlenecks are somewhere else, then we will focus on solving those bottlenecks until the bitstream pipe becomes a bottleneck, then we focus on that and optimise it and once that’s done, the bottleneck is somewhere else and we focus on that. Bottleneck-driven development is quite normal and I would be surprised if we didn’t follow it.  

TT: What have been the most interesting lessons learned from what the forerunners in public safety have been doing, such as FirstNet in the US?

TP: FirstNet is remarkable – it is doing a very good job of managing expectations about the services it will deliver in the first phase and how it is going to evolve over time. I’m a big believer in trust. Trust and expectations are closely linked. If someone delivers what you were expecting them to, it builds trust.  

TT: How about other countries?

TP: We should pay more attention to Sweden. It has decided to take time out in relation to spectrum allocation
in 700MHz, and it looks like PPDR will be allocated dedicated spectrum within the 700MHz commercial band, with the justification that it might be the most cost-effective solution. At the same time some other countries have been saying their most cost-efficient approach is completely different. It makes sense to take a while and see which statements are locally correct.

TT: What has the CCBG being doing recently and what are its priorities?

TP: Its main goal is unchanged: to drive the development and operation of common mobile and broadband standards and solutions for public safety and all the other critical communications groups. Our focus is on broadband and the transition from narrowband technologies into one common 3GPP standard broadband solution. 

In the last CCBG plenary, we created a number of taskforces. Just to mention a couple of examples, one of them will work to improve commercial operators’ understanding of critical communications and its requirements. We have a feeling that some of them think critical communications are very easy. Some think it is very difficult and almost impossible – it’s not that either, it’s somewhere in between. 

We also have a taskforce working on TETRA interworking and migration, which are very standards-based. Once full mission-critical broadband standards are available, there’s a whole lot of operational and legal issues and practicalities that will need to be addressed. So, we’re trying to set up a group with other like-minded organisations to identify the legal restrictions that might prevent the optimal use of broadband services. 

We need to identify these issues early on if we are to have enough time to address them. If it turns out that there is a problem with a EU directive, then it might take close to a decade before such regulations are changed. 

TT: What was your main take-home from CCW?

TP: It was quite important, as the event took place in Asia, to highlight to those who traditionally trust their own technology variants, such as China and Japan, how important it is that the critical communications community sticks to open common standards globally. Compared with consumers, there aren’t many critical communications end-users, and it would be an awful shame if we deliberately fragment the market. We are all better off if we’re focused on one common standard. That message was conveyed fairly strongly at CCW.

Also, it was good to see the event cover the use of applications over narrowband networks to increase operational efficiency, and there’s a lot more that can be done with this than there has been to date. At the same time, broadband services are bringing other possibilities, perhaps at first complementing narrowband with high-data-bandwidth-demanding services.  

TT: What’s next on the agenda for the CCBG?

TP: The TCCA has arranged an application-related workshop in Copenhagen on 12 October mostly targeting the PPDR community with a focus on the shift from voice-centric to data-centric operations. The next CCBG plenary will take place on 26 October in Helsinki and, on the previous day, the host country, Finland, is sharing its view on broadband solutions and operations. We’re also holding a half-day operator workshop on the 27th. We’re looking forward to seeing all stakeholders with an interest in broadband there. Success comes through co-operation.