Critical communications at a critical point on the digital broadband frontier

UK Emergency Service Network © EE

UK Emergency Service Network © EE

  • Commercial MNOs becoming involved in critical comms systems and solutions
  • Can appreciate new commercial potential in the sector
  • TCCA the honest broker enabling change 
  • Several MNO-led 'Pathfinder Projects' underway around the world

Critical Communications Services can be either Mission Critical, Business Critical or, in some cases, can be in both categories at the same time. Among those organisations deemed to be "Mission Critical" are police forces and fire, rescue and ambulance services. Meanwhile, those in the Business Critical camp include public utilities and the oil, gas and transportation sectors.

Hitherto, critical comms services have been centred and reliant on specialist, dedicated technologies, networks and spectrum. Moreover, the service providers of mission critical communications are usually nationally-based and state controlled although some countries do allow varying aspects and degrees of business critical use of the mission critical network.

There are a variety of digital technologies currently in use in critical communications networks including TETRA, Tetrapol, P25 and DMR. There are is also a considerable number of legacy analogue systems still in use. One of the major drawbacks of existing systems is that they are all narrowband while the commercial communications world is now almost entirely broadband.

While systems like TETRA are not yet near the end of their useful life and can be tweaked to continue to provide  services for years to come, there is no denying that broadband critical comms networks and services running on 4G and 5G technologies and encompassing 3GPP open standards would do the job more effectively and that, in the long run, the shift to broadband will have to be effected. The question is, "just how long is the long run?" It might be closer than expected.

Much of the world is living through a time of economic and political uncertainty and, during a period of extended austerity and budgetary cutbacks, few governments or administrations have the financial wherewithal or political will to spend big money on major upgrades to critical communications infrastructure that still work tolerably well despite the fact that the technology that drives them will become obsolete sooner or later. Nonetheless, it is generally (and often reluctantly) accepted that change is getting increasingly necessary. What is at issue is the little matter of who is going to pay for it. 

Mission Possible

Enter TCCA (The Critical Communications Association) with a mission to convince commercial mobile network operators (MNOs) that they need to become much more involved in next generation critical communications systems and solutions. Of course, commercial mobile broadband service providers are all about making money and profits and thus TCCA is trying to persuade MNOs (amongst whom Adam Smith's "hidden hand of self-interest" isn't hidden at all but blatantly obvious for all to see) by focusing on the potential business benefits of investing in, what is to them, the brand new 'vertical' market  of critical comms.

At first glance and given the intense commercial imperative that drives commercial MNOs, TCCA might seem to be facing a daunting task. But apparently that is not necessarily the case. The fact that MNOs can and will play a major part, probably THE major part, in next generation critical comms networks is already being demonstrated in three current national "Pathfinder Projects' in the Netherlands, the US, the UK and South Korea. (respectively with KPN for the Dutch railways, AT&T with First Net, EE and the Home Office with the Emergency Services Network in the UK and SafeNet in the Republic of Korea) What's more other projects are being discussed and planned in other countries, including several more in Europe.

Part of the reason is that the old model of using only dedicated critical comms networks no longer holds true in the broadband era. The fact is that the existing infrastructure of commercial MNOs can be leveraged to provide next generation critical comms coverage provided it can be guaranteed that the vital critical comms requirements of availability, reliability, functionality and security are addressed. To that end, significant additions have been made to the 3GPP 4G/5G standards to ensure that such critical-specific features are available to be implemented along with the whole suite of 3GPP standards.

Another driver of change is the lack of dedicated frequency bands for broadband critical communications, (this is especially true in Europe) and it seems increasingly likely that spectrum sharing will be an economically feasible solution for broadband critical communications users.

Market access and making money

Of course, market access is essential for MNOs if they are to enter into the critical communications sector. In the mission critical segment, the easiest way will be for an MNO is to collaborate with an existing mission critical service operator while, in the business critical segment, various options will be available depending on factors such as the vertical segment, country and customer being addressed. MNOs can choose between direct and indirect marketing and collaboration with channel partners such as existing players within specific vertical markets.

However, if existing commercial MNO networks are to be extended and enhanced to provide mission critical and business critical services, it will be necessary to 'harden' them. Mission critical users need guaranteed total and continuous service, automatic network priority, extreme network and data security and resilience and protection from hacking. This can be provided but it will be expensive and additional investment will be required. 

One solution here might be some sort of state-financing or long-term, low interest loans to help defray some of the immediate high costs of rolling out what would necessarily (and at last) be genuine 100 per cent network coverage of an entire nation or nations. And it is high time that total countrywide mobile broadband coverage be provided across all nations as a matter of course. When that happens, as it will have to if MNOs are going to provide critical communications coverage, their networks will be all the more attractive to existing subscribers, enterprise and consumer alike.

TCCA represents all standard mobile critical communications technologies and complementary applications with members being drawn, worldwide, from amongst end users, operators and the global industry. It facilitates dialogue between different parties and prides itself on being a forum for open discussion and looks to communicate with MNOs that are seeking new business opportunities in the critical comms market.

The primary route on offer is for MNOs (and other interested organisations) to join TCCA and participate in the Association's many activities including events, working groups and specific operator meetings. For example, Critical Communications Middle East and Africa takes place in Dubai in the UAE between September 23 and 25 whilst Critical Communications Europe will be held in Coventry in the UK in March 2019.

Speaking exclusively to TelecomTV, TCCA Chief Executive Tony Gray said, “TCCA is delighted to be leading this initiative to bring our critical communications operator members together with their commercial counterparts. We are pleased to note that several commercial MNOs have become TCCA members in order to pursue this engagement and learning between the different parties." He added, "This is a new market for commercial operators willing to invest in realising its potential. TCCA members have the experience and expertise in terms of delivering critical user requirements, and we are ready and willing to share that knowledge with the commercial operator community.” It's a policy and strategy that is evidently working.

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