Sam Fenwick looks at the work of the BroadWay project, which seeks to develop a prototype that will enable Europe’s first-responders to seamlessly communicate with each other

In the age of mobile broadband, one of the most important factors that shapes a region’s telecommunications sector is the extent to which it is split up into smaller countries, each with their own mobile network operators. This has long been cited as one of the reasons 5G is expected to come to Europe late, as its patchwork quilt of nations means individual MNOs don’t have the same economies of scale as their counterparts in, say, the US or China.

From the perspective of public safety, there is another consequence. With many land borders, the Schengen Agreement that abolished passport and all other types of border control across 26 European states, and the tight-knit nature of the euro area economies, there is much greater need for public safety operatives to move from one country to another to give mutual aid or break up criminal operations, which creates the (and as yet unmet) requirement for them to be able to easily communicate with their counterparts.

It’s worth noting that the need for seamless roaming between countries isn’t just a requirement of police and customs teams. Luc Dermine, ASTRID’s chief financial officer, says the recent summer months have highlighted the importance of forest firefighting resources and how mobile they need to be. He adds that both firefighting and civil security services must be able to collaborate for the purposes of tackling widespread fires.

Regular readers will be aware of the work that has been going on in Norway, Sweden and Finland to allow public safety end-users to seamlessly roam from one country to another using their TETRA networks. But with the growing importance of mobile broadband (and the hope that it could one day replace today’s PMR networks), there is a need to provide Europe’s public safety users with something similar that will run over cellular networks rather than TETRA.

Enter the BroadWay initiative, which was created by the public safety agencies from 11 European countries (which together provide mobile communication services to roughly 1.4 million responders) and is operating under the framework of the European Horizon 2020 programme. It aims to establish interoperability between, and operational mobility of, public emergency and security services.

The three key initiating actors for the project are the European Commission, which has provided the basic outline of the project and the majority of the funding, Public Safety Communications Europe (PSCE), which is co-ordinating the project, and ASTRID, the Belgian critical communications network operator; the latter is acting as the central contracting authority at the request of its partners, given that 70 per cent of the project relates to pre-commercial procurement. The European Commission is providing €11.8m, and this will be supplemented with contributions from the 11 partners.

ASTRID has developed Blue Light Mobile, a broadband-based priority voice and data communications system that runs over commercial operators’ networks. Blue Light Mobile is yet to offer the push-to-talk functionality that TETRA provides and is only available to Belgium’s security services operating within the regions they cover.

There are some parallels between BroadWay and the TETRA ISI projects in Norway, Sweden and Finland. In the case of the latter, one of the biggest challenges is the harmonisation and alignment of operational procedures and vocabulary. It therefore follows that BroadWay will face a similar challenge. David Lund, project co-ordinator, says there is a “chicken and egg problem” in that “responders will only be able to determine their new procedures when the capability of the new technology is understood. The challenge of BroadWay is primarily of a technical nature. However, we are interacting with standards, not only at the technical level but at the operational and vocabulary level.” He adds that responder practitioners are involved throughout BroadWay so they can learn about the new capabilities that it will enable and give their feedback on what will or won’t work.

Lund adds the BroadWay prototypes and pilot system “will be evaluated by responder practitioners, allowing them to understand the future possibilities for improved collaboration and to help steer their consideration for aligned operations. We have an initial 49 responder organisations expressing interest to be involved, which we expect to become a strong forum for discussion regarding use of the technology, including aligned operations.”

Discussing the next steps, Lund says: “We are running a pre-commercial procurement (PCP) process which aims to engage innovative suppliers, resulting in a Technology Readiness Level 8 (TRL8) pan-European pilot system in the 2021 timeframe. Future initiatives, indicatively named as BroadNet, will then jointly procure the final TRL9 solution and put the system into operation.”

He adds: “PCP shares the risk to develop the solutions that we need, such that large-scale Europe-wide investment (tens to hundreds billions of euros) is invested wisely. We will finally procure only standardised and qualified technologies to the satisfaction of those who will use them.” Lund also says the “PCP will allow innovative suppliers, including mobile operators, to learn about what our national government and agencies will procure for the final live system”. He indicates that there are roughly 70 representatives from more than 50 supplying organisations that are interested in contributing.

Dermine hopes the project will encourage the industry to develop solutions that may lack immediate commercial profitability and that it will gain a greater understanding of its impact on the players in worldwide communications.

What’s next?
The prior information notice of procurement was published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 4 July. The definitive notice is due for publication in December, following a market consultation process in September. According to Dermine, this will result in an open shortlist of suppliers, and those that put forward the most promising proposal will have the opportunity to create an operational prototype. He adds that this will probably be followed by at least two pan-European pilot projects and that the BroadWay project will run until 2022. It will then be followed by the deployment of the BroadNet system, which will be able to be used around 2025.

BroadWay follows on from the BroadMap initiative, a survey of Europe’s public safety services that took place between 2015 and 2018 to identify their specific requirements for broadband communications. One of the big work items to carry over from BroadMap to BroadWay is the Standardised PPDR Interoperable Communication Service for Europe (SpiceNet) Architecture Reference. The SpiceNet model proposes a reference architecture for harmonised pan-European PPDR mission-critical broadband services with three layers: harmonisation, interoperability and governance, and networks.

Speaking of governance, during the BroadWay project its participants will seek to create a European Grouping of Territorial Co-operation (EGTC), with the aim of initiating an appropriate governance structure for the sustainability of European broadband for public safety, after completion of the BroadWay PCP.

Lund says that how BroadNet will be implemented and governed as an instantiation of the SpiceNet architecture has yet to be defined and this is part of the pre-commercial challenge. “There could be several different solutions to SpiceNet, which is a combined technical and business architecture. We are currently asking suppliers to join the discussion to help shape the solution to our challenge, and help us to develop the best solutions within BroadWay. The best solution is expected to be procured after BroadWay, as BroadNet, following a sustainable model which will also be defined during BroadWay.”

As previously stated, the intention is for the BroadNet participants to only use fully standardised products. “As we are following 3GPP standards, and considering the shared use of commercial mobile services, we do not expect, nor wish for, bespoke devices,” says Lund. “We can already see the terminal ecosystem developing as a result of US FirstNet, UK ESN and other projects around the world. We are discussing with these other projects around the globe to share lessons and make sure our economy of scale remains global to avoid bespoke solutions and vendor lock situations. We hosted a global wireless leaders forum along with FirstNet earlier this year to continue this discussion.”

Clearly, there is much work still to be done, but the scale of industry interest and the backing the project has from public safety organisations and operators is impressive and seems to be commensurate with the size of the task ahead. It is also pleasing to see the same logic of the critical communications sector’s decision to embrace the wider telecommunications industry (greater economies of scale) being applied to the procurement of a system that could make it much easier for Europe’s first-responders to work together.

David Lund will discuss the BroadWay project and its progress at the ASTRID User Days in Brussels on 4 October.

Author: Sam Fenwick