Public Safety’s Future Involves Networks of Networks

1st Jul 2019

Monday, July 01, 2019

By Andreas Gegenfurtner

Our most important challenge is the future of critical communications and our public-safety networks. I am not talking about only tomorrow and the network modernizations ongoing in many countries. I am also talking about the future beyond tomorrow.

Experience shapes our ideas. Those of us who have already set up nationwide networks know this effort takes many years — much longer than we thought it would take. We all have a responsibility to plan far ahead to ensure we continue to meet the expectations and needs of our critical users.

As public operator of the largest TETRA-based public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) network in the world, BDBOS strongly believes public-safety and disaster relief forces should be equipped with the best possible communications technology. I am convinced this belief is shared among all our peers worldwide. It drives the adoption of the most advanced technologies by public-safety operators all around the globe.

In recent years, we have observed how the frequency, magnitude and nature of the threats to public safety have evolved. From global warming to terrorism, security challenges have changed in character and scale. Disasters can strike us everywhere from metropolitan to rural areas. It is in those situations, when lives are at stake, that reliable and secure communications become of paramount importance. Communications can save the lives that our first responders are risking for us. I know what I am talking about; I am a police officer and the head of a national PPDR network. I know the responsibility, and experience shapes your ideas.

We want to provide the best technology to our people: today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. That is why BDBOS is modernizing the German PPDR network with the next step in mind — the migration of data and voice to broadband.

In doing so, we envision a change of paradigm for the traditionally safe and closed narrowband environment of public safety. Our future network will be completely different. It will necessarily integrate dedicated, commercial and third-party infrastructures, and it will rely on heterogeneous technologies to meet the public-safety requirements anywhere, anytime and at a reasonable cost. The future public-safety network will inevitably be a network of networks.

Like all public-safety operators, BDBOS knows by experience that the greatest reliability and security are achieved by a dedicated network especially designed and dimensioned to meet the high requirements of public safety. For example, the monthly average network availability of the German PPDR network is 99.98% — far above that which any commercial operator can deliver.

In other words, some kind of dedicated infrastructure will be part of the next generation of public-safety networks. It will deliver the basic services that should never fail. That means investing a lot of taxpayers’ money to set up and maintain a hardened infrastructure. And yes, public-safety operators will need dedicated spectrum for delivering these services.

However, the basic services, indispensable in extreme situations, will not suffice in daily duties. Our users rightfully need the best communications technology has to offer, such as real-time data transfer, multimedia, virtual reality and artificial intelligence — the best tools to help them in their critical work.

That means that the dedicated basic PPDR communications infrastructure will have to be complemented by commercial networks to boost capacity and functionalities for first responders. Hybrid networks will be the scenarios of the future. This also means that our traditional technological fences become shaky; we will have to rethink security. In this new paradigm, network reliability becomes a security priority. We have to ensure first that we can trust the different parts of our next-generation public-safety networks. That is only possible if we work with reliable and trustworthy partners in the realization of this future.

The challenge for the public-safety operators is creating a communications platform that delivers standardized, seamless and reliable services to our users over a hybrid network. Prioritization, pre-emption, quality of service and network slicing are some of the tools to achieve these goals.

To ensure radio coverage and network availability everywhere at any time, we will rely on deployable ad-hoc networks that bring additional radio coverage when and where needed — solutions for instance based on drone and satellite coverage.

It is common sense that regional and local private networks will be widely spread once the implementation of 5G gains momentum. Using very high frequency bands in the gigahertz area, those private networks will consist of a patchwork of small cells. Thus, our future networks will integrate private networks such as those of airports, harbors and transport companies. And we, the public-safety operators will have to contribute to this patchwork infrastructure by offering our resources. We will not own our network anymore; we will be part of the network. The network is (also) us.

What about the famous white spots without radio coverage because of a lack of a business case? New access technologies such as low orbit satellite communications already offer solutions. Because of their reduced vulnerability to physical attacks and their capability to cover every single spot on earth, new low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite systems are already the focus of companies such as Google, Tesla and Amazon. The reduced latency and cost compared with traditional geostationary satellites make LEO satellites also attractive for PPDR. They might complement the patchwork infrastructure of private networks.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that all questions are solved yet; on the contrary. In the heterogeneous scenarios, the number of networks to be managed and orchestrated increases dramatically. Nevertheless, public-safety operators must have full control of the hybrid environments and must be able to monitor, manage and secure their communications, subscribers and devices.

That means governance is an issue. Legal problems will arise. We might have to change laws and negotiate many contracts with other players in the field. Budgets will also be a challenge. And last, but by no means least, our technological fences will be gone; we will have to rethink security.

It is my belief that we as national operators need to coordinate and consult among peers to solve these questions. The new International Governmental Operators’ Forum (IGOF) will be a platform to support this. The members of the kick-off meeting earlier this year agreed that security issues in broadband networks and future technologies are the most important and urgent matters. On behalf of BDBOS, acting as IGOF secretary, I invite international operators and their partners to join these discussions in search for the best solutions.

Public-safety operators have to create a next generation of critical communications that relies on networks of networks. We have to make sure that their heterogeneous components interoperate to deliver mission-critical services to first responders everywhere and at any time. We must guarantee that these hybrid networks provide seamless connectivity and secure communications services to all public-safety users. We must aim for a holistic design that can easily integrate and take advantage of the innovations to come. We can reach these goals — together as public operators and in cooperation with our partners in the industry.


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