The Critical Communications Europe stream at BAPCO/CCE 2019 covered many topics around public safety communications in great depth. Sam Fenwick dives into the details
The sessions at this year’s Critical Communications Europe event (which was co-located with the BAPCO Annual Conference and Exhibition) broke down into three broad topics: the work that European public safety operators are doing to ensure a successful transition to mission-critical broadband; the context in terms of cellular technology (both 5G and the availability of spectrum); and recent developments in supporting technologies such as AI and cloud.
Jarmo Vinkvist, CEO of Suomen Virveverkko (which is part of Erillisverkot Group), kicked off with a presentation on the transition of Virve, the Finnish nationwide public safety network, to broadband. He explained that the timing was opportune, given that this was his last opportunity to speak publicly on the subject, as the public procurement process for the broadband service (Virve 2.0) was to begin the day after (see the summary of RFI responses at https://bit.ly/2HtWc8g). He noted that the expected increase in situational awareness is probably the key benefit of moving to mission-critical broadband and highlighted the Finnish police’s use of drones, including during the visit by presidents Trump and Putin to Helsinki last summer.
Vinkvist added that negotiations with interested parties will take place in May/June and then the final procurement process will occur in August/September, so by October/November “we should have the final answers”. Erillisverkot will act as the service operator.
Vinkvist also noted that while all three of Finland’s commercial operators (Elisa, Telia and DNA) have ‘nationwide’ networks, their geographical coverage is around 80-85 per cent, so a “huge amount” of additional work will need to be done to expand the chosen commercial network, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the country where an extra 200 masts or so will need to be built where demand for commercial services is lacking.
He said the RFI for mission-critical apps will also be published this year and that in 2020 a mission-critical sim card will be available, but the extra geographical coverage and hardening of the network (which together are expected to cost €200m-€300m) will not have been achieved by that point.
The current plan is to start with 4G provided by one of the commercial operators and move to 5G over the years. The transition from TETRA will happen for the most part between 2022 and 2025, with railway users being the last to migrate. There will be national roaming (it was mandated by law in February). Vinkvist added that one problem Finland has is interference in the 700MHz band (which has been sold to commercial operators) from Russia’s TV broadcasting services, and this affects roughly more than half of the country.
Barbara Held, head of directorate – strategy and central management at the German Federal Agency for Public Safety Digital Radio (BDBOS), presented her organisation’s vision for broadband. She emphasised that BDBOS’s propositions have not been agreed at the political level. The German broadband strategy is still under discussion between the federal level and the 16 states. The current hybrid model the agency is proposing (as previously covered in our coverage of last year’s PMRExpo) consists of continuing to use the country’s TETRA network for voice for several more years, while also using a dedicated nationwide 4G/5G network operating in 450MHz to provide basic broadband data services. The “basic network” would reuse BDBOS’s existing assets where possible, but would also require new sites to be built. The mission-critical services of the future network would be supplemented with RAN sharing with commercial operators in 700MHz and national roaming with commercial partners.
She added that the hybrid model that BDBOS is favouring will “live or die with the spectrum question” and that BDBOS is filing for spectrum in the 450MHz band. Held said the German regulator is offering access to some spectrum in this band to BDBOS, but this requires sharing it with power utilities, so “BDBOS is fighting to get the entire [2 x 4.7MHz] slot… [and] the optimum we would like to get is 2 x 10MHz”. She added that the decision on the assignment of spectrum “should be [made] within this year [at the] latest”.
One new detail was the news that BDBOS will carry out a two-stage ‘Broadband Test’, which aims to obtain practical knowledge on the use and conceptualisation of the future hybrid broadband infrastructure for German PPDR. The first stage is planned to take place in the first half of 2019 – this will consist of developing the detailed concept, drafting and planning the test scenarios and then issuing a call to tender. The second stage, which will take place in the second half of 2019 and the first half of 2020, will implement the test scenarios, analyse and report on the results of the tests, together with considerations on the legal, organisational, and commercial aspects of this approach. Held added that it is “more of a comprehensive feasibility study than a simple test although there will also be technical testing on our testbeds and in Berlin with some real antennas.”
Held also said that “what we are going to test are exclusively hybrid solutions, we’re not going to consider [a] purely dedicated network or a purely commercial network. We’re going to test different versions of hybrid solutions, and the idea might be elaborated and might also change in the long run. Depending on what the outcome is we will then present recommendations on how to proceed to our supervisory board and our customers.” She explained that BDBOS “won’t become active for the time being in the area of applications… this is something our [federal] states and customers in the states are doing”.
Strength in unity
Turning to cellular technology, Adrian Scrase, ETSI’s CTO and 3GPP’s head of MCC, gave a presentation on critical communications standards. He explained that the second phase of 5G, which will come in Release 16, will complete “the ultra-reliable low-latency work in its first instance, together with massive Internet of Things”. He added that while it is scheduled to be complete in March 2020, “we’re trying to cram so much into Release 16 that it’s inevitable there will be some slight delay before that’s completed”, before noting that it has already slipped by three months. He said while the contents of Release 17 are not yet known, “a shopping list” for it is building and “we know that there are some things that should be in Release 16 that will slip, they will just topple over into Release 17”.
Scrase noted that in addition to the work on interoperability and interconnection standards, “we also have some quite interesting work on APIs where we will be able to expose the networks to external application providers, so there’s no limit to the imagination [as to what] you can do with that from a public safety point of view. We’re even going to expose the data/analytical components of the core network externally through APIs; so this concept of opening up the contents of our core network to external communities, rather than having this very closed approach, which is the current approach. You can also see even more work on mission-critical video and mission-critical data.”
However, Scrase was keen to highlight “some of the work we’re doing on maritime and railway[s]”. He explained that in Release 16, 3GPP will analyse these communities’ requirements and compare them with those of public safety, as “there is a view that says actually there’s not a lot of difference between the requirements from a performance point of view. If that’s true, if we can start to cluster these different user communities because they have very similar requirement[s]” then it will be possible to realise greater economies of scale, for example by having a common chipset for their devices.
Scrase concluded by discussing 5G satellite standardisation. He explained that 5G will be the first generation to have an integrated cellular component. This will allow 5G base stations and user devices to operate hundreds of metres in the air and in low Earth orbit. “The important thing is that it’s the same radio so you’re looking at seamless handover between terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks, which for certain things like asset tracking [it] really starts to get very interesting [in] a commercial sense. In the public safety sense, you can see a lot of reasons why this will be a sensible thing, maybe you have a disaster somewhere where you need a lot of radio coverage at short notice, you can stick a radio base station on a drone and you’ve got an instantaneous network.”
He added that while this “sounds great” there is the need to consider the potential effects of this approach in terms of radio planning and what it will do to your terrestrial network. To this end, exhaustive studies are being undertaken. “Once we understand the complexity, we will then in Release 17 move to standardising that, so by the time we get to Release 17, you will see the normative standards which define how you can have 5G non-terrestrial radio seamlessly attached to your terrestrial [radio].”
During a 5G panel discussion moderated by Hermitage Comms founder, partner and managing consultant Iain Ivory, Peter Curnow-Ford, managing partner at Viatec Associates, highlighted the way the 700MHz band is a prime candidate. This is because 5G splits the control plane from the user plane, which creates the desire to have access to as low a frequency band as possible so that the coverage is there for it to be easily controlled; and the fact that 5G allows a device to talk to multiple cell towers simultaneously means a device can access other reachable, higher frequency bands, eg, 1800MHz, 2.6GHz, 3.5GHz, for bandwidth.
In the same session, Martin Whitcroft, business development manager for private broadband solutions at Motorola Solutions, drew attention to 5G’s wider implications, bearing in mind V2X (vehicle to everything) communications – which will be enabled in Release 16 – with vehicles that will be collecting data around their speed and separation distances. “Who owns that data? If there’s an accident, can the police take that data from the vehicle?”
Curnow-Ford drew attention to the scale of the potential 5G public safety market, saying it is one of only eight distinct 5G use-cases “that make sense and [can be translated] into hard numbers”, and that it “represents 19 per cent of the commercial opportunity of a $1.3trn global business in 2026”. He also highlighted the way 5G enables a radio-agnostic approach, in which a 5G core and network slicing can be used to run a network composed of multiple radio access technologies, including IoT and Wi-Fi, “so there is the ability for public safety to not be strapped into or locked into one specific piece of technology”.
He also drew parallels between the fact that public safety operators are starting to work with commercial operators and the way in which military forces are changing their approach to telecoms procurement, given how “costs have been astronomical and they continue to rise”. He went on to say the defence sector has come to the realisation that it can’t use dedicated networks all the time. “At the moment, the UK army is actually using commercial satellites carrying military traffic because they know they can secure it end to end.”
During a session on spectrum, I asked whether MulteFire, an LTE-based technology that can operate in licence-exempt or shared spectrum, could be leveraged by public safety organisations, possibly for high-bandwidth applications such as video streaming. Noel Kirkaldy, head of technology, Middle East and Africa at Nokia Solutions and Networks, responded, noting the recent launch of a MulteFire service in Japan in 1.9GHz (Band 39), which is similar to the DECT band.
Although MulteFire is aimed at business-critical applications, he said “I’ve never met a MHz I didn’t like” and “it’s another string to our bow”. He explained that the next phase for MulteFire is its introduction in the 900MHz band in Region 2 (Americas) and the 800MHz short range device/ISM band in the EMEA region. Kirkaldy also told the audience to look out for 5G New Radio (NR) unlicensed, “and that’s something we’re just starting in Release 16”.
David Chater-Lea, fellow of the technical staff at Motorola Solutions, voiced his support for Kirkaldy’s comments and said: “An important area where you have something that is sharing frequencies in a standardised way is can we build in the hooks for prioritisation? So can we build a hook into the standard that gives you government-level priority and lets you take over half of that spectrum, two-thirds of that spectrum… and if you can do that in a way that builds a level of assurance and resilience into your grab of that spectrum in that situation, that helps reinforce using these techniques, which are designed for more light industrial capabilities; it puts another tool into the public safety toolbox, so those are the things that we should be bringing into the standards.”
Kirkaldy highlighted the momentum behind approaches such as licensed shared access (LSA), such as the use of CBRS in the US, “and we have similar applications and deployments in Europe, Middle East, Africa as well… it’s working very successfully”. However, he noted the work that is required when opening up spectrum for shared use, given it can involve “[bumping] some fairly sensitive organisations or refarming existing spectrum”. Kirkaldy also noted the UK spectrum regulator Ofcom’s recent consultation on sharing some spectrum in the 1,800MHz, 2,300MHz and 3.8-4.2GHz bands (see: https://bit.ly/2FlBzc5), describing it as “a fantastic benchmark that other markets can look towards”.
Curnow-Ford drew attention to the computationally intense nature of some approaches, saying a full-blown TV White Space approach with an active database in the 3.5GHz band would need a supercomputer on the scale of IBM Watson to do the calculations quickly enough. He suggested a more pragmatic approach would be to use 5G New Radio in unlicensed, shared spectrum access and a set of tools, including databases with an element of static allocation and pre-planning that is used to inform the creation of the static databases, which can also be adjusted over time in response to data on inference levels, along with licences that can be adapted to that regime. “That would give you a much more pragmatic, lower-cost, easier-to-implement solution.”
Staying on the topic of shared spectrum, Chater-Lea asked whether it is possible for public safety organisations to get priority access to it, adding “is there going to be enough of it?” given that spectrum regulatory administrations work to maximise the value of the spectrum that they control, “both in monetary terms and in terms of utilisation”. While he said using LSA to provide “spectrum for new industries to allow them to develop and bring value to a country’s economy is a good thing to do”, this still needs to be weighed against the value that can be realised by permanently allocating that spectrum to a commercial operator. In his view, “LSA is too new to know how that equation pans out”.
Keeping AI honest
Eric Davalo, head of strategic development at Airbus Secure Land Communications, discussed the role that artificial intelligence (AI) can play in public safety. He identified four main domains where it can play a role: automating administrative and routine tasks (such as transcribing legal hearings), video analytics, predictive policing and policing cyberspace. However, he said there is a “but” in that AI has to be trained for specific tasks, “so the way you define the operational conditions and what you want to get out of the system is extremely important, you cannot just take an image recognition solution, plug it into any CCTV camera and expect to get results – it doesn’t work, you need the [right] dataset and you need to be able to specify exactly what you [want to] get out of it”.
While he said it is too early to properly evaluate the efficacy of predictive policing, Davalo emphasised the dangers that can arise when training AI systems on biased datasets – giving an example of an image recognition system that was trained on pictures of people cooking in kitchens and ended up miscategorising men in images as women, due to the latter’s greater prevalence in the dataset. He also noted that there is no logical or mathematical proof that AI systems work and it is extremely hard to identify any errors they create and determine how they are caused, so public safety organisations have to carefully consider at which level of the decision-making process they are used. Davalo also emphasised the importance of transparency around how datasets are built and used, given public safety organisations’ need to maintain legitimacy and public trust.
As ICT giants such as Google are developing the algorithms that underpin AI and these are readily available, Davalo sees the underlying challenge as being “how do you build the dataset, define the task and make sure that the systems that you train deliver the task?”.
Building cloud confidence
During a session on the use of the cloud by public safety organisations, Yann Marston, head of strategic sales at Motorola Solutions, made a number of interesting points. He advocated a hybrid cloud approach and said it can’t be all or nothing. Marston added that “when we’re looking at our cloud solutions, [we work] back from the outcome that customers want to achieve, which parts of that solution can benefit from the economic scalability of [a] commercial cloud and which need to have private cloud or even [need to be] on-premise”.
He drew attention to the extent to which police officers use cloud services on an unofficial basis, such as using WhatsApp to share information. “Even if there is official resistance to the cloud, unofficially they’re adopting cloud technologies, so it is down to us to give [them] that ability, not for wholesale change necessarily but to migrate function by function into the cloud. They’re already becoming comfortable with it, it’s just the pace of that journey.”
Marston also said he and his colleagues have seen a dramatic increase in interest in cloud-based solutions. “We’re now seeing people asking for integrated solutions: ‘Tell me how this will connect and how you are going to connect to all of our systems and make use of the data in one place, make it easier for our operators rather than make them the human systems integrator, so give me something that is modular and integrated and show me your journey into the cloud.’ These are starting to become the three entry questions for any RFP for business transformation.”
Marston also noted that one point of resistance can come from IT managers’ fear that they are ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ given that they may see their job security coming from the need to manage and maintain on-premise systems. “The conversation that we’ve had with them that moves them into the cloud is that scarce technical resource needs to be looking at the complexity of what the force [is] trying to achieve in the next three or however many years. So, if you can get the ICT managers to think about their future careers and [how they will grow], they then realise that their time during the day is better [spent] looking at how they manage that cloud infrastructure and then develop it to achieve [their organisation’s goals].” He added that the second approach is to appeal to [chief officers] who care about the business outcomes, not the technology, and how it is delivered. In their case, the way cloud services bring no wastage in terms of paying for unused storage/processing/ICT resources allows them “to account for every single officer and what it takes for them to be equipped with the ICT they need”.
Best use of modern radios
During her presentation on the use of critical communications in airports, Dawn Griffiths, project manager at Sepura, highlighted the way modern TETRA systems allow different organisations to use the same network, with separation between them handled through the use of virtual private networks and encryption. She also noted that the capability for users to log in and have their own profiles on Sepura’s TETRA handsets facilitates a pooled approach to radio use, while the use of Bluetooth-enabled handsets and tags helps prevent radios and other valuable equipment from being lost – the tags can be worn by staff and the radios can be set so they will make a loud noise once they are a certain distance from their user’s tag.
She also highlighted the ability to distribute images via TETRA radios along with information about them – useful for finding a missing person. A key message was that “[in terms of data services] other than streaming video, there’s not much we can’t do”.
Her colleague Jon Cossins added that it is also possible to create talkgroups based on users’ proximity. He later explained that in practice there are probably quicker (ie, manual) ways to do this and that the most likely use-case for this kind of functionality involves configuring the radios to automatically change talkgroups based on certain (usually location-based) criteria. “If a team are arriving to support an incident at location X, as they approach or arrive at X the radios are switched automatically to the talkgroup that has been created to manage that incident.” This would require GPS data or a Bluetooth 4.0 beacon to be present at the location. As Bluetooth beacons have a maximum range of around 200 metres, they are only practical for small incidents or where there is no GPS signal.
Clearly, there was a great deal of interesting and topical discussion at CCE 2019. It was exciting to see both Finland and Germany are taking the first steps towards mission-critical broadband. At the same time, it’s clear that challenges around spectrum persist and that while new approaches around shared spectrum are of interest, public safety organisations need some level of priority access. 5G, AI and cloud have huge potential, but for this to be realised, a good understanding of their potential pitfalls and how best to manage the concerns of those who will be affected by them is required.
Author: Sam Fenwick