Emergency services broadband: looking for answers

Following the recent Virve 2.0 device RFI, Philip Mason talks to Finnish operator Erillisverkot, as well as Samsung, about functionality, user requirements and obsolescence

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There are currently three countries already well under way with the roll-out of mission-critical broadband to their emergency services, including the UK, the US and South Korea. All three nations are in the advanced stages of infrastructure build-out, something which in turn has led to users being able to take advantage of a variety of functionalities.

As important as these trailblazers are, however, it is possible that it is only with the imminent second wave – as represented by the likes of Norway, Finland and France – that the process may start to become more refined.

After all, these latter programmes will have had the chance to absorb whatever learning has come out of the experience of FirstNet, SafeNet and the Emergency Services Network. Likewise, the technology itself will also have had a greater chance to mature and develop, with the twin holy grails of MCPTT and ProSe (proximity services) now starting to move towards full viability.

One of the furthest-advanced of these latter projects is Finland, which has taken any number of steps forward over the past 12 months, not least in the decision to bring Elisa and Ericsson on board to help construct the new network (aka Virve 2.0). In typically proactive fashion, meanwhile, Finnish operator Erillisverkot also recently put out a request for information (RFI) around devices.

According to a statement published at the time, the RFI went out in order to gather information about “the types of devices that users want or expect to use, and the type of devices that manufacturers intend to provide”. Naturally enough, those questioned included both users as well as the market itself.

Discussing engagement with the emergency services – as well as elaborating on the reasons for carrying out the RFI in the first place – Erillisverkot development manager Ari Toivonen says: “The rationale for putting out the RFI was simply to get a decent overview of what was available when it came to the market.

“Other programmes have obviously gone with different models, which is fair enough. But we came from the point of view that we didn’t want to miss anything, so we opted for a public RFI instead of discussions with some limited set of suppliers only.

“At the same time, we also needed to get a decent idea of the needs of our public safety agencies at a comparatively early stage. Users are often extremely demanding in terms of what they want from a device, and we needed a comprehensive view of their expectations.”

He continues: “In terms of the results from the RFI, we wanted to be incredibly open about what we found, and share the information with anyone who could potentially find it useful. That feeds into the other reason for putting out the RFI, which was to make users and manufacturers more aware of one another; to illustrate the existence of a potentially thriving market.”

Going back to the user consultation in particular, Toivonen says the core aim was to develop a clear understanding of everyday usage, focusing on a variety of different operational areas. This information was gathered using service design methods, including – for instance – a series of workshops, with each containing between 10 and half a dozen participants.

According to him, key themes to come out of this work included the need for ruggedised equipment (“because things break”), as well as the importance of simplicity when operating the device in the field. Another important requirement clarified by the process was the overwhelming user desire to carry as few devices as possible.

Elaborating on this, Toivonen says: “The holy grail is ultimately just to have one device, but as with everything else, it’s a matter of figuring out whether this could actually work. According to the IT departments we spoke to, at the

moment, some users carry a couple of radios as well as multiple smartphones. We’ve heard about people carrying something like eight devices.

“We’re obviously at an early stage, but one potential model we’re looking at is the use of a single smart device as a kind of hub inside a vehicle, with others linked via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.”

As difficult as it clearly is to decide upon a device for what might be termed general usage, perhaps even more challenging are those destined to be rolled out within specific – often unique – operational contexts. Regarding Finland in particular, it probably won’t be a surprise to learn these often involve extreme cold, as well as vast, often deserted, areas of remote terrain.

Outlining the specific requirements of those charged with patrolling the country’s wilderness and border areas during the harsh winter months, Toivonen says: “Emergency services personnel operating in these more remote places may have to travel using a type of snow mobile, known also as a ski-doo. During the colder parts of the winter, temperatures in the northern parts of Finland can drop down to minus 30, or even lower.

“These users obviously have a very specific set of requirements when it comes to communications equipment. For instance, the devices clearly have to be able to survive extreme drops in temperature. At the same time, they also need to be operable while on the move, and while the rider still has their gloves on.”

He continues: “Another potential issue – again – is the number of different devices that might be needed in the field. This could include a fixed radio on the ski-doo, but also a personal one for when you jump off the vehicle. We then need to figure out a way to keep the control room informed of exactly what you’re doing and where you are.

“This is a perfect illustration of why it’s so important to facilitate contact between users and manufacturers. We had a session where one of our users asked about temperature range, and the response was, yes, the device works all the way down to zero degrees. That’s great, but what about the Finnish winter? If it doesn’t work in or below freezer temperatures, we can’t sell it to anyone.”

The other big question to ask users, of course, is how they actually feel about losing the incumbent Virve system. Do they have any misgivings about replacing something as ultra-reliable as TETRA with a broadband network, potentially based on a commercial offering? How is Erillisverkot working to reassure them?

“While not part of the RFI, user assurance is of course something that we’ve had to address,” says Toivonen, “and, to be fair, there has been a certain amount of trepidation.”

He continues: “Users want to know the details around the technology, which includes devices, applications and so on. That’s perfectly understandable, of course, but at this moment in time, it really has to be understood as a work
in progress.

“At the same time, there’s also discussions around budgeting, a big focus of which is the lifespan of the technology. Again, the users want to know what they need to put in their budgets now in order to buy devices, perhaps a year or more later. However, there’s a fair chance that any device we can name now will be obsolete, either by the time you buy it or soon afterwards. None of this is easy.”

Commercial potential

As discussed above, a big part of the Finnish RFI has involved in-depth consultation with a range of emergency services users. At the same time, however, Erillisverkot has also invited the manufacturers themselves into the conversation, in order – at least in part – to facilitate dialogue with potential customers.

According to Toivonen, though, there was another reason for getting technology companies involved, with the operator also seeing the request for information as an opportunity to shine a light upon the commercial potential of the sector.

One company which is already heavily involved in the critical communications sector, however, is Samsung, which in 2017 won the contract to provide devices and accessories to the UK’s Emergency Services Network. According to its UK head of public safety, Nick Ross, meanwhile, it also already provides a vast number of – non-mission-critical – smart devices to UK police forces.

Discussing the current market conditions, as well as the reasons why Samsung has been so enthusiastic when it comes to engaging with the sector, Ross says: “Critical communications is indeed a niche industry, but it is also a vitally important one. ESN is obviously very high-profile in terms of the contract, but we’ve also been involved in SafeNet in South Korea, as well as FirstNet in the US.”

He continues: “I’ve often been asked why Samsung are in the space, because, obviously, we’re not known as a player when it comes to digital radios. The first reason is the experience we have with national procurement, both with the projects I mentioned and via Samsung divisions such as Techwin, which supplies major defence contracts.

“The other factor is that we’ve already seen how useful broadband communication can be when deployed within the public safety sector. For us, that began with the South Korean Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, after which we were called upon to build a device for use by the Korean emergency services.”

According to Ross, the latter experience illustrated not only how useful the technology could be when deployed on the frontline, but also that the critical comms sector was viable as a business proposition. This was likewise previously borne out in the UK, when the company got involved with the – now ubiquitous – police mobile working app Pronto, in collaboration with original developer Kelvin Connect.

Speaking of this, he says: “I first joined the business around 2012, at which point we were just starting to discover the potential opportunities around mobile devices for business applications. Kelvin Connect – who were really a start-up from Glasgow University – started working with some early adopters, and I saw the opportunity there.

“Eight years down the line, and the ‘workflow’ business case is now well and truly exploited. By the time we’d won the contract for the Emergency Services Network, I’d estimate that around 80 per cent of police officers in the
UK were already using a Samsung device as part of their daily operations.”

As Ross tells it, it is apparent that two fundamental things are required for broadband device manufacturers to make a go of it in a sector such as emergency services communications.

The first of these is the capacity – not to mention the will – to deliver at scale, despite a potentially limited customer base (at least compared with the literally billions of devices sold to the general public every year). Just as important, however, is the desire to actually invest in the development of the technology itself, for instance in relation to specific functionalities such as mission-critical push-to-talk and ProSe.

For Ross, this is illustrated by the company’s ESN offering, which is based on the company’s premium rugged series of consumer devices. Elaborating on this, he says: “Under the hood, they’re essentially our highest grade of consumer devices. The chipsets and architecture are taken from our premium range, which are much more powerful than any bespoke radio equipment that you could find on the market.

“In terms of specific use by the emergency services, they’re obviously ruggedised, with bespoke casing, removeable battery and so on. The Galaxy XCover FieldPro – which is the official title for our emergency services device – will obviously also support MCPTT and ProSe, functionality which is continuing to develop as we speak.”

He continues: “The advantage I would say that we have over other manufacturers is our ability to build everything in-house, including the architecture of the devices themselves. This is why we’ve been able to advance to this point, with perhaps less dialogue with [global chipset manufacturer] Qualcomm than other vendors might have to engage in.

“It really is a question of scale for the industry at this point. Even with ESN and FirstNet well on the way to being rolled out, it’s still very challenging for national governments to really exert pressure on [other] suppliers to take mission-critical broadband seriously as a viable market.”

Lingering questions

As indicated by the above, Samsung would appear to have an advantage within the critical comms industry, by virtue of the apparent scale and diversity of its manufacturing and development operation.

That being the case, however, you can’t help but wonder what the real-world situation might be for emergency services users on the ground when it comes to the market as a whole.

How close are public safety users to being considered a truly ‘influential’ voice, for instance, despite the disparity with the consumer market? How exactly will something such as obsolescence be addressed, particularly at a time when public safety organisations are already massively
short of cash?

For Toivonen, the solution to the latter question still remains to be found. He does admit, though, that it would be helpful if the industry were able to commit to individual devices for longer periods of time. This would not only mitigate any potential extra cost, but also insulate individual IT departments from the possibility of continual change.

For Ross, meanwhile, the answer lies in the fact that emergency services are rolling out smart devices already, pretty much across the board. Speaking of this, he says: “It’s true that a broadband device is going to be a much more expensive piece of glass than a TETRA radio. It’s also true that the former is going to be impossible to keep current in the same way, due to updates coming from Google Android rather than device manufacturers themselves. Functionality is the name of the game, and with Android there is often a hard cut-off point for security reasons.

“With that in mind, we need to make sure that we’re supporting the new devices for as long as possible, which is something which is already happening with ESN. And we are also working with Google themselves and the AER [Android Enterprise Recommended] programme.”

He continues: “Going back to the question of cost, we believe that the capabilities of these devices will balance out the money which is being spent. We’re taking users on a journey far beyond what they can currently do with Airwave.

“The key point from our work with Pronto is that the business case allows the devices ultimately to pay for themselves. We already know that police are willing to spend, say, £900 – including the device, accessories and management tools – every three years just to do applications, so programmes like the Emergency Services Network are really just an extension of that. The onus is ultimately on the user to exploit the technology to its full potential.”

The coming year will likely see huge developments in the ongoing roll-out of mission-critical broadband across nation states. Keep reading Critical Communications Todayfor all the latest updates.

Philip Mason

Managing Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio, Mark Allen Exhibitions

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