Finding the way forward: critical communications during COVID-19


Philip Mason talks to chair of TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group Tero Pesonen about decisions made during its recent plenary, Virve 2.0 progress, and the likely impact of Coronavirus on critical comms.

The Critical Communications Broadband Group recently held its first online plenary session. How did it go?
It worked out very well – we had something like 70 attendees across the course of one and a half days. The ‘physical’ plenary would have taken place in Northern Italy in April, but obviously that wasn’t feasible.
One of the good things about these meetings taking place online is that people can come and go, so they’re quite convenient in that sense. We also had participants who would not have arrived in person under different circumstances – from Australia, Japan and North America.
We have always carried out a degree of our work through online collaboration and this is something we’ll continue, although we are looking forward to hopefully meeting together properly in the Autumn. There will likely be a considerable ‘e presence’ there as well.
What were the core outcomes of the plenary?
A key development was the setting up of two new taskforces. The first of these will look specifically at critical broadband applications, mapping all the steps and elements which are involved in their creation.
This is a very complex issue, something which is not necessarily self-evident on first sight. What exactly is the landscape that needs to be mastered in order to reach application criticality?
The second new taskforce is centred on spectrum. We are seeing more activities on the 400 MHz band, and on 450 there’s 2x5 MHz available in some environments. These are traditional, narrowband PMR bands and we need to be able to give guidance to the marketplace about options, and what to do with those capabilities.
What are the plans for the group going forward?
There are a couple of other taskforces which are likely to come online. One of these is related to mission critical devices, and what should be the model when it comes to procurement.
The traditional model for, say, TETRA devices, has been that you ask a provider to bring you a sample. You then test what they bring you, negotiate prices, and whoever wins gets to deliver those products for several years.

Broadband is going to be slightly different, in that the components and the operating system version have a much shorter life cycle. That means if you test the device across several months, by the time it lands with the users, it may be already obsolete.
This being the case, we need to find ways to do procurement that minimise the potential impact of these short life cycles. In terms of the taskforce, we want contributions from industry, but also from the user and procurement side, and public safety operators.
What are the current technical solutions being looked at to reduce complexity and cost in critical broadband services?
One current area of discussion revolves around decoupling the hardware from the MCX client, in order to be able to operate on different life cycles between devices and applications.

That would enable greater MCX competition, alongside application portability. Most of all, from a public safety operator point of view, it would also reduce the amount of effort in continuous testing, something which would be extremely significant.
The matrix is likely to grow hugely in the information-centric, application hungry broadband, environment. So it’s important that we address these issues as soon as possible. Managing compatibility in the field was complicated enough with TETRA, but the number of moving parts are going to be much higher moving forward, as is the potential cost.
I doubt that anyone in the UK - for instance – would like to look back in five years’ time and think that Airwave actually was a cheap service.
Changing the subject slightly, could you give me an update on the current situation with Virve 2.0 in Finland?
The most important news is that the first phase of procurement has been finalised, and the contracts issued. The core network will be provided by Ericsson, with the Radio Access Service going to Elisa. The complaint period is over, so this is final. We’re moving forward.
By this time next year, we’ll be expecting to have a dedicated core in place. We’ll also have connection to the RAN, with the mission critical data service, also including priority and pre-emption.
In parallel to this, we are also running the MCX services procurement process, specifically in relation to mission critical push-to-talk, video and data. Procurement is likely to start officially in the latter part of the year, with the intention that we’ll be able to offer the full service by 2023.
This will allow agencies to start migrating. The aim is that the majority - if not all - will have shifted over by 2025.
What are the biggest obstacles to roll-out at this point?
While I certainly wouldn’t say it’s an obstacle, we strongly recognise that the user organisations have to have very deep trust in the technology and the overall setup. They are in the driver’s seat, and it’s up to the public safety operator to take all the measures they can to build that trust.
From the user side, a major responsibility is for them to re-write their standard operating procedures, and they’re being encouraged to do that now. The last time we went through this, in the move to TETRA, for two years agencies were saying that they couldn’t use the system because they were orientated towards analogue.
For a young engineer like me at the time, it was rather frustrating. There is no need for that to happen again.
Going back to the plenary, what other impact do you think COVID-19 will have on the critical communications sector going forward? What about the standardisation effort?
Obviously, Coronavirus is impacting all meetings at the moment, which includes things like 3GPP and the ETSI Plugtests, something which is likely to continue for a while yet.

Because these are environments where everyone meets from across the world it would be unfair to start physical meetings again, even if some countries are ‘clear’ of the virus. My prediction is that these things will continue online for the whole of this year, which will certainly cause a delay in standardisation.
Regarding the wider certification piece, important developments are also happening, with a joint taskforce - set up by TCCA and the Global Certification Forum - looking at mission critical interoperability. That’s currently in the process of gathering use cases and writing corresponding test cases, bringing in new participants from the telecom sector to work on mission critical communications.
COVID-19 has been very much a ‘black swan’ type of event. Despite the fact that it’s been mentioned as a probability for a decade or so, no one expected it to have quite this level of impact. It has catalysed the use of a lot of technology, and many administrative and procedural hurdles have been overcome.
I believe we are mentally now much closer to information-centric critical communications operations. I hope that it will help all the decision-making layers to take preparedness seriously, as well as embrace the capabilities technology offers for the safety of our societies.
How we view our critical communications – making sure they actually work – will be a common factor in our path out of this.

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Media contact

Philip Mason
Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216