Where next for public services radio?

As the timetable for the introduction of 4G services in the UK becomes clearer, Dr Dave Sloggett explores the impact its arrival will have on the public emergency services radio system

Where next for public services radio?

The timing of the terrorist attack in London on the day after the city had been awarded the Olympic Games was, in all likelihood, unplanned. However, it left behind a legacy that was to permeate all the subsequent planning for the Olympics.

First and foremost, the XXXth Olympiad had to be safe and secure. It would cost the UK Government an estimated £500 million to ensure that outcome.

Over the ensuing years, many lessons were to emerge from the terrible events of 7 July 2005. Improvements were made to the infrastructure being implemented to provide a new generation of emergency services radio systems, which was installed across Great Britain by Airwave. Close attention was paid to ensuring that radio systems could work on the London Underground where specific issues had arisen.

Olympic opportunities

For Airwave, which operates the TETRA emergency services radio network for the UK, the Olympics brought opportunities and challenges. Additional network capacity was rolled out across London in the form of the Apollo Network. It was maintained as a wholly separate network from Airwave. The early arrival of that additional capacity, however, did help the authorities as rioting broke out across England in the summer of 2011.

While early reports suggested that the network had experienced difficulties, as the riots developed these were quickly shown to be completely unfounded.

In fact, the network barely noticed the deployment of an additional 16,000 police officers on the ground in the London area. Had that additional capacity not been available, the situation may have been more difficult and there is a debate to be had over whether or not that capacity should be retained in the future. Common sense says it should.

As the memories of the London Olympic Games fade it is time to draw breath and think about where the public services radio capabilities should head in the future. Over the past seven years the emphasis has been on stability and ensuring that nothing caused a disruption in the service levels provided by Airwave to the emergency services.

Coverage has also steadily grown and the benefits of secure communications, the utility of talk-groups and the out-of-area capabilities of Airwave are widely appreciated by its user community. Airwave also deployed a number of simple applications that made few demands on the capacity of the existing networks but delivered important business benefits.

After a hesitant start, Airwave is now integrated into the day-to-day operations of the police service and their emergency services colleagues. Multi-agency responses to the terrible events witnessed in New York and Washington in 2001 could now be coordinated. It was a huge step forward. But is that the end of it?

Airwave’s contract ends in 2016 and the Home Office has begun the process of finding its successor under the title of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme, which is due to go out to tender in the second quarter of 2013.

As the bidding process gets underway in the coming years to market test Airwave and its services, should new technologies be a part of a new evolution of public services radio solutions?

New services

The pace of innovation in the wireless industry is extraordinary but does that mean the existing TETRA networks should be upgraded to provide for new services to be delivered to the public services network? What new capabilities arise from 4G that might fundamentally change the way the emergency services operate?

Or in times of austerity, is it better to realise the benefits of the considerable investment that has already gone into the network? Another important question lies in the longevity of the current technologies used in the networks. Are they about to be replaced, essentially forcing the public services networks to move to new technologies?

If developments that were announced at the recent TETRA World Congress are to be believed there is life in the technology for many years to come. The private sector is not known for its largesse and its investments are based on TETRA being around for at least another decade.

With such confidence being expressed in TETRA some might argue that it would be foolish to adopt a new technology and have to invest in new infrastructure. But it may be possible to have a hybrid solution, one that offers the best of both worlds.

This would be a solution that offers the resilience and security of TETRA while overlaying the new capabilities that emerge from the development of Long Term Evolution (LTE) technologies. However, there are issues over the availability of spectrum to operate such a service. Recent announcements from Airwave suggest they are also seeking to explore new ideas and are not wedded to a purely TETRA-based solution. Running costs of the network will remain a crucial area of concern.

With budgets being held on very tight reins for several years to come, any decision to introduce new technologies into the public services radio systems arena would have to be carefully justified.

As far as the general public is concerned, broadband digital services that support access to a range of live media, news sources and social networking sites while on the move are fast becoming an essential part of their daily lives. The rise in bandwidth use is clear as more data and imagery is being routed around networks. But are such services essential for the emergency services?

Critical decisions

Commanders responding to major public incidents know that time is their enemy. Camera teams from media outlets will quickly pick up on events and deploy to incidents where often the first few hours of a response can be difficult and sometimes chaotic. Decision making in this early stage can be critical for the way the incident unfolds.

For senior commanders deployed away from the scene, images from broadcast media arrive on their televisions instantly. But these images are determined by the producer at the scene and fail to provide the kind of perspective senior commanders need to tackle a major incident such as a fire, a major flood or even a gun attack. Having control over the source of images is important for decision makers at all levels of command.

That ability to stream video across TETRA networks requires some adaptation of their existing capabilities. Companies such as Alcatel-Lucent, Cassidian, Motorola Solutions and Ericsson have realised the potential for such services to improve the response of the emergency services in critical situations.

But their ideas rely on fundamental changes to the existing infrastructure and spectrum availability that would represent quite a risk to the current services.

The crucial question is can they persuade organisations of the need to deploy such technologies without adding significant incremental costs to existing services? If that business model can be developed then the next generation of public service networks might well see entirely new applications and capabilities made readily available to the emergency services.

That will enable them to operate even more effectively in the future should they be confronted by the kind of events that occur across the world on a daily basis.

Dr Dave Sloggett is an independent academic, author and freelance writer specialising in irregular warfare with over 20 years of experience in communications systems

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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