New opportunities await operators willing to invest in critical networks

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Tero Pesonen, Chair, TCCA Critical Communications Broadband Working Group (CCBG) offers an overview of the crit comms market.

For consumers, mobile networks need to be reliable. Yet if quality of service is an issue, users usually look to switch their service provider. For users for whom communications are critical – as in the difference between life and death – the networks as well as the services they provide need to be exemplary.

Users of critical communications services are termed either mission critical, business critical, or both. Mission critical organisations are, for example, police forces, fire and rescue and emergency medical services, generically referred to as Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR). Examples of business critical user sectors include public utilities, oil & gas and transportation organisations, but there are many more areas where critical communications are essential.

Within the mission critical segment the key driver is the safety and security of civil society. In the business critical segment the focus is typically on continuity of service of critical infrastructure, and significant environmental protection and economic values are usually at stake. In both segments, operational efficiency and effectiveness are also important considerations.

To date, critical communications services have been based on dedicated designed-for-purpose technologies, dedicated networks and dedicated spectrum. The service operators are typically government-controlled, serving only mission critical organisations such as PPDR and related agencies, and business critical users if legislation allows.  These highly-specified digital technologies include TETRA, Tetrapol, P25 and DMR, and legacy analogue technologies are also still widely used. However, these are all narrowband, and their capabilities for data applications are limited.

Technological and ecosystem evolution is changing the critical communications landscape, and opening up new business opportunities to commercial network operators.  The next generation of critical communications solutions will be based on 4G/5G technologies and open standards defined by 3GPP. The model of using dedicated networks is being challenged and commercial networks represent a new option for the provision of critical communications services.

The lack of dedicated frequency bands for broadband critical communications also makes commercial operators favourable partners for delivering critical broadband services.  Spectrum is a scarce resource and the trend, at least in Europe, is to auction spectrum to the commercial sector, although some countries will grant some dedicated spectrum for broadband critical communications. Hence it seems that sharing with consumers may be the best way to find an economically feasible solution for broadband critical communications users.

There are already significant next generation critical communications projects ongoing in which commercial operators are playing a central role. Examples include the Emergency Services Network in the UK, FirstNet in the US, SafeNet in South Korea, and in The Netherlands for railways.

Existing commercial networks can be utilised for the provision of mission critical and business critical services, provided crucial requirements around coverage, quality of service, availability, reliability, functionality and security are met. Mission critical services are needed on a nationwide basis – a major event can occur anywhere. Wildfires, plane crashes and terrorist attacks do not confine themselves to areas that have a good mobile signal – hence comprehensive radio coverage is a prerequisite for mission critical users.

In most countries, for nationwide service achieving 99+% coverage requires the extension of existing commercial networks. In addition, mission critical users expect 100% service continuity during major incidents, extreme weather conditions or other crisis scenarios. Higher levels of data security and protection against malicious attacks are also required. Altogether, this means that ‘hardening’ of the commercial networks is necessary. An obvious upside for the operator is that by upgrading the network to serve critical users, it becomes a differentiator; more attractive for commercial users.

Business critical users often look for solutions that balance performance and price and hence their requirements can be less stringent, although within this sector there are very demanding users. Railways for example are likely to have very strict requirements when they seek to include train control functions. In addition, business critical coverage requirements are typically more concentrated depending on the location – for example, to serve an airport, only local coverage is necessary.

There are many projects either already ongoing, or planned, in which established PPDR service operators are looking to complement their narrowband services with mobile broadband offerings. Often, especially in Europe, the preferred option is to seek collaboration with commercial operators, which opens a natural avenue for the commercial sector to enter the critical communications service market. PPDR service operators have the knowledge of critical users’ needs, manage the customer interface and operate within the necessary contractual framework ensuring compliance with operational and legislative requirements. The commercial operators bring economies of scale and knowledge of 4G/5G technology deployment.

This is a huge opportunity and requires a major change in thinking compared to the existing operators’ businesses, which is clearly dominated by services to consumers. One of the operators’ future options is to combine several new services to create added value for new customer segments. Critical communications could be complemented with resilient Internet of Things (IoT), smart city and smart building services, etc. – thereby increasing operators’ business potential.

There is plenty of work going on behind the scenes to ensure that critical users have the adequate level of service from 4G networks to perform their tasks efficiently and safely. It is likely that the requirements for critical data services will be fulfilled first, whilst critical voice services in large scale will stay on the purpose-designed nationwide networks in parallel for quite some time. Standardisation of critical features is ongoing in 3GPP, and there is much testing and certification of infrastructure and devices to be undertaken before a network based on 4G can be classed as truly mission critical. But opportunities are emerging, and commercial operators need to build their knowledge and become active to step by step to realise the potential.

 

Tero PesonenTero Pesonen has some two decades of experience in critical communications, with responsibilities that have ranged from very technical assignments in global standards creation to understanding the field operational procedures of key players in critical communications. A Board member of TCCA and of one of the founding members in TCCA’s Technical Forum, Tero began his PMR career with Nokia, moving to EADS/Cassidian (now Airbus). Since 2013 he has been an independent critical communications professional and has chaired TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Working Group (CCBG) since 2014, sponsored by VIRVE, the Finnish nationwide authority public safety network.