Despite the obvious difficulties engendered by COVID-19, 2020 has still been an important year in the development of critical communications technology.
In terms of standardisation, for instance, just last month we witnessed the latest ETSI MCX Plugtests, albeit with proceedings taking place entirely online. In July, meanwhile, the 3GPP Radio Access Network Group announced that it had frozen ASN.1 of Release 16, paving the way for planned final sign-off later this year.
As well as the standardisation effort, however, things also continued to pick up speed when it came to the roll-out of national projects aimed at providing emergency services with mission-critical broadband. Elsewhere in this issue you will read of the continued expansion of FirstNet, for example, while the UK’s Emergency Services Network also continues to progress in terms of both coverage and services such as Air-to-Ground.
With that in mind, one part of the world starting to generate real interest in this realm is Northern Europe, with the likes of Erillisverkot in Finland having recently announced a number of important milestones in regard to its burgeoning Virve 2.0 network.
Meanwhile, Norway – the subject of this article – is just starting on its own journey, with potential options for the next iteration of Nødnett currently being scrutinised by the country’s government, following a recent concept study.
History of Nødnett
Nødnett was established in Norway as a TETRA-based replacement for the disparate analogue radio systems previously being used by its emergency services. It was rolled out across the country over a nine-year period starting in 2007, with initial sites including Oslo, Akershus, Ostfold and southern Buskerud.
The network covers the entirety of mainland Norway, boasting a current user base of around 60,000, the majority of whom operate as part of the country’s emergency services. The roll-out was initially delivered by Nokia Siemens Networks, with Motorola Solutions taking over the project in 2012.
Going into more detail about the initial deployment, deputy head of department at the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB), Nina Myren, says: “The initial Nødnett project took place over quite a few years, with work actually beginning in 1995 [the first project pilot was established in Trondheim in 2001].
“The network currently consists of more than 2,000 base stations, which is the number required to cover the whole of Norway. Close to 1,000 different organisations are using it at the moment, with the number of users equating to more than one per cent of the people living in Norway. When it comes to population, we are not a large country.”
She continues: “Nødnett is state-owned, and was rolled out in two steps. The first of these was in the area around Oslo, after which parliament decided to continue the project across the rest of the country. The public safety agencies are all now on the network, with other users such as municipalities continuing to come on it as well.”
As with other parallel European TETRA projects, Nødnett functionality is now considered integral to the country’s mission-critical operations, following years of issues with the previous technology, particularly around interoperability and security.
At the same time – as in many other countries around the globe – the potential benefits to be derived from critical broadband are proving impossible for the Norwegian government to ignore.
A variety of models
As mentioned, the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection has recently been involved in the drafting of a formal concept study, examining a range of potential models for the delivery of mission-critical broadband. Work on the document began in early autumn last year, prior to being completed and delivered to the Norwegian government in early summer.
While unable to discuss the contents of the document in too much detail at this stage, Myren was able to talk about the context within which the new network is being planned and delivered. This not only includes financial and political considerations, but also – crucially – the ongoing programme of cross-border co-operation taking place between Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish emergency services.
Going into more detail about the concept study, Myren says: “The document was put together by the DSB in collaboration with the regulator Nkom [the Norwegian Communications Authority]. It’s now sitting with the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation, undergoing a quality assurance process. This will be the first of two.
“There will subsequently be another report produced by the end of this year, which will ultimately provide the basis for the government’s decision. The second quality assurance will take place afterwards in order to look at procurement strategy, costs and so on.”
She continues: “The study is focused on issues around standardisation, as well as the availability of the technology itself. We also need to examine the viability of using commercial networks, and the availability of suitable devices. One thing we know for certain is that we will not have dedicated spectrum, and that the network has to be based on standardised technology end-to-end.
“It’s clear that we’re currently in a learning phase, alongside the rest of the world. We now have to decide how to move forward, understand if our plans hold water, as well as looking at contract strategy and any potential regulatory changes.”
Another key decision will relate to the technical and commercial model on which the network is going to be built. According to Myren, several potential alternatives have been assessed in the study, with the hypothetical alternatives running from ‘leave everything to the market’ to the state itself becoming the service provider.
Another alternative, meanwhile, is to just do nothing, something which Myren refers to as the “zero option”. With the current Nødnett contract running out at the end of 2026, this latter choice appears – at least from the outside – more or less untenable.
As anyone with an interest in the sector will know, the questions outlined above are not necessarily easy to answer, not least given the sheer number of moving parts when it comes to projects of this scale and complexity. The potential pitfalls are also massive if things go wrong, something which has already been amply demonstrated by the UK Home Office and its initial attempt to base ESN on non-standardised technology.
As well as questions around budget, technology and political expediency, however, there are other – perhaps even more important – considerations, centred in particular around the user organisations themselves. Do they actually want the exciting new functionality that is being promised to them, or would they prefer to stay with technology they can already rely on? If the latter, how do you win them over?
Discussing this aspect of the current project, Myren says: “When you have a nationwide TETRA network which is working very well, as we do in Norway, it is a real challenge to suggest moving away from that. The use-cases are obvious, though – emergency services need to be able to leverage mission-critical data or they risk being left behind.”
She continues: “We’ve made absolutely sure that we’ve involved the users from the very earliest days of the broadband project, and we included their input in the current study. Most of them are actually taking advantage of LTE already [via individual MNO contracts], so it’s obvious that they can see the potential value of the technology.
“It’s my impression that the users fully understand that this is the future, and therefore the direction we’re likely going to have to travel in. We’re already beginning to leverage Motorola’s [PTT-over-Cellular solution] Kodiak as part of Nødnett, which strongly indicates how things are becoming more integrated. Obviously, that’s an over-the-top service on the commercial networks, but it’s another step through which we learn about mission-critical broadband.”
As mentioned above, one particular pain point for users could relate to the cross-border interoperability currently established between Nødnett (Norway), Virve (Finland) and Rakel (Sweden). This enables all three countries’ emergency services to share talk groups using their respective TETRA networks, via the use of a standardised Inter-System Interface.
Addressing this, Myren says: “Our countries have long borders, and as such it has been necessary to find a way for us to support each other across what is often an incredibly sparsely populated landscape. Clearly, it’s important for the countries to maintain that going forward, and we’ve already signed a letter of intent to that effect.
“Broadband will obviously provide the advantages of a more data-rich environment when it comes to cross-border working, but the users themselves will have to decide what that actually means for them. For instance, how is the data collected, and how is it shared?
“Again, that’s something which will have to be addressed as we move forward, with obvious issues also existing around legislation, training, as well as establishing common procedures. We will have to put common plans in place, even though each country is moving at a different pace when it comes to mission-critical broadband.”
She continues: “In Norway we talk about the ‘Nødnett effect’, which is the positive impact it’s had on our ability – and willingness – to co-operate and provide a common picture in the field. I believe that also extends across the region as a whole, where we have developed what you might call a ‘culture of co-operation’.”
Learning from the past
The roll-out of any national communications system is far too big a topic to comprehensively cover in the space of just three pages. We have barely touched on potential legislative challenges, for instance, let alone issues around funding, political context and so on, all of which will undoubtedly prove just as impactful as the availability of the technology.
For proof of the latter, we only have to look at the first Nødnett roll-out, a process which took the best part of 20 years before the network was able to come to full fruition. With the interview coming to a close, it would be remiss not to ask how the current process is likely to compare to the previous one. What needs to be done differently this time around, and what needs to be retained as an example of best practice?
“It is true that it took a long time to establish the nationwide TETRA network for blue-light services in Norway,” says Myren. “This was mainly due to the length of the decision process.
“Going back 20 years, there was a lot of focus on technology in the media, but little discussion on why the users – and society – needed nationwide, digital radio services. Even at that time, we had some ‘experts’ stating that TETRA already was an outdated technology, and that we should use commercial networks.
“The upshot of that was it took quite a long time for the initial procurement, which ultimately meant that we had to roll out the network in two steps. There was another evaluation and a decision made by parliament between steps one and two.”
Myren’s belief is that the smooth running of the current project will likewise depend on both the government and the population’s faith in the technology (although she hopes for a different outcome when it comes to timescale). For her, this has to be instilled by comprehensively documenting the different options, before subsequently developing a cast-iron strategy through which to move forward.
She continues: “Another point of difference this time will be the need to work with the mobile network operators. When we purchased Nødnett, we owned the frequencies, something which, as I mentioned, is not a situation that we find ourselves in this time. That being the case, we will also have to look very carefully at how the different potential models affect competition between commercial operators. None of this is straightforward.”
For Myren, the deployment of national public safety broadband networks requires the sector to learn “a whole new language”, in which co-operation is as important as innovation. Keep reading Critical Communications Todayfor the latest on how that language is continuing to evolve.
Managing Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
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