Critical Communications Today reports from Coventry on BAPCO 2018, which this year delivered a comprehensive update on the progress of the Emergency Services Network

This year’s BAPCO Annual Conference & Exhibition had a marked sense of confidence and camaraderie.

Although the UK’s emergency services will have to wait until July for the new Emergency Services Network roll-out date, recent messaging around an incremental approach to delivery, reduced fears about the prospect of a hard or forced transition, and increased communication and openness from the Home Office, all contributed to making the relationship between the programme and the emergency services feel far less adversarial and more aligned than in previous years.

The likes of FirstNet and SafeNet – as well as ESN – are proving (if proof were necessary at this point) that broadband is the future of critical communications across the globe. The question now is likely only one of timescale, as well as which delivery models will be adopted by individual nation states.

The conference programme reflected this, including several ESN progress updates delivered across the course of the two days (as well as the first live demonstration of the network for non-users). International content included presentations from the likes of Mike Poth, FirstNet’s CEO, and David Lund, co-ordinator of broadband procurement project BroadMap.

From plan A to plan B
The first ESN presentation of the conference was delivered by the Home Office’s director of law enforcement Stephen Webb (pictured below), who spoke instead of the (now former) programme director Gordon Shipley. Possibly best known to the BAPCO audience as an ESMCP witness during multiple Public Accounts Committee ESN hearings, Webb gave a solid update on the programme in what can only be imagined as potentially trying circumstances.

Speaking of current progress – including potential access to some public safety organisations before eventual full roll-out – he said: “The programme is entering the delivery phase. Up until now, we’ve looked at a kind of ‘big bang’ approach where we had to be completely ready before any of the users went, or we even started trial and transition. That was the old plan A.”

Continuing on the theme, he said: “It makes sense if you’re under attack to go at the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy, but in other circumstances – with the number of users we have – a more efficient approach is to let people go at their own pace. Plan B is going to allow a more agile, nuanced and iterative approach.”

The Home Office's Stephen Webb gave an update on the Emergency Services Network

According to Webb, plan B – which is also known as ‘incremental delivery’ – will primarily involve the potential use of data and non-critical voice, with some services available by the end of this year. This, he said, would mirror the original roll-out of Airwave, which was a “journey” that ultimately took around a decade to fully complete.

Progress which has allowed the programme to consider incremental delivery includes successful testing on the first software drop BSR1 (thereby facilitating the testing of BSR4 in April), alongside completion of the core network build. According to Webb, EE’s coverage has also now reached 90 per cent, which could be augmented with temporary solutions if any network user decided to go early.

Moving on from the ways in which users can begin to take advantage of the network, he discussed the reason for shifting timescales; placing the blame on gaps in planning, traceable back to the beginning of the project.

“The overall challenge of ESMCP is a large logistical one,” he said. “There is the complexity of the sheer number of user organisations involved, bringing with it a wide variety of needs as well as [differing] target operating models, legacy systems and local governance arrangements.”

He continued: “We adopted quite a complex procurement route, reflecting the government policy of disaggregation – splitting things up to get the best possible supplier in every area. We pushed that very hard, possibly underestimating the challenge that would bring in regards to integration.

“On reflection, it probably would have been better if we’d allowed suppliers more time talking to each other so they understood each other’s solutions as they worked out their bids. In some areas people turned up with slightly different technical assumptions, which required a bit of rework. There are lessons learned.”

Other potential issues according to Webb included an initial underestimation in the number of software drops which would ultimately be required (three).

Moving at a different pace
Following Webb, the ESN theme continued with a panel session chaired by Richard Morris, business change lead for the UK police.

Speaking about the implementation of the network, Michelle Williams, business change lead, Wales, said that in her country the emergency services are taking a collaborative approach to delivering ESN. She added that Wales has merged its police and fire control rooms and that this will allow the two services to share some of the expensive equipment such as the ICCS (Integrated Communication Control Systems) and DNSP (Direct Network Service Provider).

Damien Smethurst, North-West regional programme director, Cheshire Police, noted that ESN cannot be considered in a vacuum. “We’ve all got alliances, collaborations and legal agreements that are close border,” he said. “My home force of Cheshire has a firearms alliance and joint teams with North Wales, so whatever we do in the North-West has to be impacted and assessed against what Wales does.”

Smethurst added that a huge amount of work is being done across the emergency services to assess the impact of ESN in terms of business change, and the processes that will need to be altered.

He said: “Because it [the timetable for transition to ESN] has moved slightly to the right, that actually gives us a better opportunity to plan. Some forces are much further along the pathway for digitisation than others. Therefore how they come onto ESN is going to be fundamentally different.”

He noted that one potential issue with the incremental delivery programme is the time it takes the emergency services to implement any change. He therefore highlighted the need to know the timetable between the BSR4 (partial ESN functionality) and BSR7 (full functionality) software drops.

“To put a programme of change within a police force often takes 12 months plus, because we have to maintain business as usual for the public. So when we’re planning business change it’s essential to know what the timescales are. That’s where there might be some frustration, because that might impact on what we can take practically and financially. The quicker we have those timescales around when functionality will come, the quicker we can identify what business change we can achieve and what value for money we will get from it.”

From standard to silicon
Following the conclusion of the first portion of ESN-related content, the conference programme started to introduce a more international flavour, beginning with TCCA chief executive Tony Gray. He began his presentation – which looked at mobile broadband communications standards and solutions across the globe – with an overview of the work being carried out by his own organisation.

“We support open standards,” he said, “which means anything created in an international body, including ETSI, 3GPP and so on. Through the use of standards – and through our TETRA heritage – we’ve found that this seriously catalyses competition and creates multi-vendor markets.”

Discussing the progress of the standards, focusing in particular on 3GPP, he said: “The process takes place in the form of ‘releases’, with Release 15 planned to be finished by the end of the third quarter of this year.

“Release 16 will be started in the same phased process. These are worked on in overlapping stages, beginning with general specification, before moving on to protocols, and finally the development of standards for devices and core networks.”

He continued: “Release 14 – which is probably the most critical for a lot of what people would want to do with mission-critical broadband today – is actually there. The challenge is getting all of the work items in a particular release finished in the final stage. There’s inevitably an overflow into the following release.”

Gray said that while a standard itself might be fully developed, the time it takes to move from that standard to silicon is still a factor, with between 18 months and two years the typical period for interoperability and conformance testing before any technology actually becomes available. This is apparent, he said, in the current situation with Release 13, which actually existed as a standard in the first quarter of 2016.

Addressing the question of potential ESN obsolescence due to it being based on Release 12, Gray said this would not be an issue as long as “you don’t have to have all things for all people” on day one. “If there’s a commitment to standards as they become available,” he said, “it’s reasonable that some people will have applications which they can use more or less right now, while others will add the missing bits as they come through.”

The first day also included presentations on the police use of drones, Peter Clemons discussing “global best practice” and a fascinating fire and rescue service commander’s eye view of the response to a serious incident at a British theme park.

One-year anniversary
One thing that made this year’s event stand out from its predecessors was a greater focus on the work being done by other countries’ public safety organisations. Arguably the most anticipated example of this was the presentation by FirstNet’s Poth (shown below).

“We just passed our one-year anniversary of the contract award,” he said. “AT&T has met all of the scheduled requirements, all the deliverables.” He added that FirstNet’s dedicated core network was very close to completion as AT&T was finalising its testing and that it will support end-to-end encryption for public safety data (see our story on this for more details).

Poth went on to say: “AT&T has a contractual requirement to get FirstNet completely built out in five years, but it’s targeting to have it done within about three years. When it has done this, the wireless 4G network will cover 95 per cent of the US population and about 90 per cent of US geography.”

He continued: “One of the requirements that we put in there is that every time [AT&T builds] out, it has to do it in the rural areas also. We are taking it into non-economic areas where ordinarily, as a commercial carrier, it would not have gone. We knew that was important for public safety and AT&T is rising to the challenge.”

Poth explained that AT&T will be able to use FirstNet’s spectrum for commercial purposes and that the carrier is deploying an additional 40MHz of new spectrum, which will be available to public safety users. Because of this, FirstNet is “very comfortable and confident that public safety throughout the US and all 56 states and territories in times of crisis and in times when it’s normal will have more than enough spectrum”.

He added that FirstNet isn’t taking a position on when transition from LMR to LTE should take place, adding that it is up to public safety agencies to decide when they can “retire one system and move onto the next”. Similarly, in response to a question around interoperability between AT&T and Verizon, he noted that Verizon chose not to bid for the FirstNet contract. “We’re not going to take a position and try to compel any commercial provider to work with another commercial provider,” he said.

Poth also gave some examples of where FirstNet is already being used, such as in Texas, where within its first month on the network, video footage of an armed robbery was streamed from two parked police vehicles.

Worn on the stab vest
The focus on nationwide public safety LTE networks continued following Poth, with a presentation by Samsung Electronics UK’s head of public safety, Nick Ross (shown below). Speaking in the light of his company being awarded the first contract to supply ESN handheld devices, he gave a history of Samsung’s involvement in public safety as well as how frontline operational requirements have changed in line with technology.

“Five years ago, the vast majority of police officers out of the station used a paper notebook [as opposed to current smart device applications such as Pronto],” he said. “I would estimate now that around 80 per cent of what a police officer can do on their desktop, they can also carry out on their mobile device.”

He continued that following the contract award, Samsung now had to sit down as a partner with the emergency services to discuss strategies in regard to cyber-enabled crime, child sexual exploitation and so on. This was a process, he said, which had already begun via relationships which the company has already established with forces around the country as part of individual smart device roll-outs.

Discussing the technology itself, he said: “All the work which has already been done with police forces will transition over to a single device, which is a massive efficiency. The IP68 ruggedised version is going through testing at the moment, with the working title of Samsung Galaxy ESN. For those not wanting the ‘frontline’ rugged experience, the Galaxy S8 will also be ESN compatible.”

Potential issues addressed during the design process include button positioning, as well as the ability to use the touchscreen while wearing PPE, something which has been solved via a software development kit allowing users to change the sensitivity of the glass. The device can be worn upfront on the stab vest or kept in a user’s pocket, with control provided via a Bluetooth remote speaker mic.

Other presentations on day two included a discussion of the WannaCry cyberattack on the NHS, presentations on emergency alerting apps and a second case study, focusing on the Grenfell Tower disaster.

From the exhibition floor
Red Box Recorders has supplemented its voice recording offering with automatic speech recognition technology provided by Speechmatics. Speaking of this, Paul Long, Red Box Recorders’ technical design authority, said that one of the biggest use-cases for this in a public safety context is searching for keywords in logged calls post-incident.

Alex Robson, the company’s marketing executive, added that it could also be used to help prove that public safety officials had managed an incident correctly, for instance in response to complaints from the public.

David Robinson, business development manager at Motorola Solutions, demonstrated the use of a fingerprint-reading peripheral, in combination with a mobile device and the company’s Pronto mobile working platform. The system allows for fingerprints to be read and then searched for on both police and immigration databases, with information from the databases then used during a number of business processes.

Robinson explained that the peripheral is required because smartphones’ native fingerprint readers are not yet at the necessary quality. He added that West Yorkshire Police are currently using it – among other things – to identify unconscious victims. “There was a case where they were able to identify a person who was unconscious via the Biometrics Services Gateway. They were then able to notify the family members.”

He explained that those police forces using the system aren’t doing so to capture fingerprints, only checking to see if a person’s fingerprints are already on the system.

Simon Hall, CEO of Coeus Software, walked us through his company’s Quvo Workforce Mobility Platform and its public safety version, PoliceBox. Like Motorola Solutions’ Pronto, these are designed to allow users to perform business processes on the move. The system uses Microsoft Azure as part of a hybrid software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, and because of the company’s “very anti-consultancy” approach, has been designed to allow customers to easily add new business processes – “they take just a few days to build” – without incurring additional costs.

With ESN now beginning to focus on delivery, we are looking forward to next year’s event and hearing more from the user organisations about how they will manage the transition. In the longer term, it will be interesting to see the use-cases that will be discovered once the technology starts to be deployed on a large scale.

Author: Critical Communications Today