The scene is familiar from TV and movies: The hero flicks on his special-issue smartphone and instantly conjures up building schematics or a live video feed of the bad guys. Using this real-time information, he tracks his fellow team members, shimmies through the ventilation system using a map on his phone, and pops up in just the right place at just the right time to apprehend the suspects.
These capabilities exist on our personal smartphones today – parents use tracking apps to find their children and mapping applications to find their way, along with many other once-exotic abilities we now take for granted.
In law enforcement and other emergency services, though, these high-tech phone features remain mostly science fiction. First responders’ standard-issue wireless communications devices are for the most part indistinguishable from the walkie-talkies of decades ago.
Mission-critical voice communication is indispensable to modern first responders but it’s only a tiny fraction of what modern communications networks are capable of.
Imagine a public-safety broadband network that could transmit vital signs from a moving ambulance to waiting A&E staff after a trauma. Or personal protection equipment for firefighters that could send position, temperature and air-quality information back to an incident commander in real time, along with a video feed of what each firefighter is seeing inside a burning building.
These capabilities could save lives every day but one major obstacle to their widespread adoption and use is cost.
When a wireless carrier builds out a 4G network, it is hoping to spread the cost of that build across tens of millions of subscribers. Even so, in the UK, most of the carriers have banded together into alliances to share their 4G infrastructure while continuing to compete for customers on packages and service.
A dedicated wireless broadband network for first responders might have hundreds of thousands of users across the UK and not all of them would ever be using it at once. Yet to be fully effective, that network would have to cover even more territory than the commercial operators do. What’s more, it would need a level of resilience that is sadly lacking in most commercial networks – with effective failover power and resistance to extreme weather.
Taken together, this is a daunting bill for any government to fill. This is why the government has concluded that the only way to make a 4G emergency services network affordable is through a partnership with one or more wireless carriers.
For the carriers, this is a great deal – the government subsidises their 4G rollout and they get credit for helping out the blue-light services into the bargain. It’s less clear whether this is a good deal for the emergency services themselves, or for taxpayers.
Relying on commercial 4G networks for mission-critical emergency communications could seriously compromise public safety. As noted, those networks are generally not hardened to the degree that emergency services would and should expect and, often, commercial networks end up swamped with traffic at precisely the moments and locations that first responders need them most.
This will leave the commercial network operators in the impossible position of choosing between their commercial customers and emergency services. What’s more, the carriers currently lack the ability to pre-empt commercial traffic within milliseconds on their networks, even if they believed it was in their interest to do so. Yet the government seems determined to overlook these shortcomings as it seeks a modern emergency services network on the cheap.
The way forward is network sharing but with emergency services in the driver’s seat. When the blue-light services need capacity on the network in a particular location, pre-emption must be ruthless – within milliseconds – and invisible to those first responders.
As long as that condition can be met, then the rest of the time – which is most of the time – the emergency services can and should make its spare capacity available for sale to commercial users.
The revenue thus generated ought to be sufficient to pay for a truly world-class 4G wireless broadband network. This, in turn, will enable the deployment of the types of life-saving next-generation technologies that our first responders deserve and the public have a right to demand.
Rivada Networks’ patented Dynamic Spectrum Arbitrage technology can be incorporated into new and existing 4G LTE wireless networks. Its Dynamic Spectrum Controllers monitor network usage at each base station, providing continuous intelligence about the capacity available for sale and about the emergency services’ needs.
Combined with Rivada’s Tiered Priority Access, DSA ensures that first responders have the ruthless pre-emption they need, while maximising the value of the capacity that goes unused by emergency services.
This unused capacity can be sold in an electronic marketplace, in which wireless bandwidth is divided up into units of space, time and capacity. Thus it would be possible, for example, to bid on capacity in Trafalgar Square between 8am and 9am in the morning on weekdays, or Leicester Square from midnight to 1am on a Friday.
This marketplace, or Telecommunications Commodity Exchange, will serve as the clearing house for all available capacity. Bidders can aggregate grid squares to meet their needs, or bid on discrete blocks for particular uses.
This market, while similar in some ways to existing commodities markets for energy, is a radical departure in the wireless world. Ever since mobile phones were briefcase-size (and barely deserving of the ‘mobile’ moniker), governments have doled out wireless spectrum in long-term monopolies over particular frequencies.
That model served to get wireless up and running (and has served the shareholders of the wireless operators even better) but, as with the days of public-safety walkie-talkies, that model has run its course.
Technology available today allows us to do better – to make better use of radio spectrum, to allocate it more efficiently and competitively and to allow the general public to retain more of the value of this precious natural resource.
The network operators naturally enjoy their current position as the gatekeepers to our wireless world. They are only likely to adapt if they are forced to.
This gives public-safety communications an opportunity to show the way forward. By incorporating dynamic bandwidth sharing into a next-generation mission-critical communications network, we can help pay for that network. The government would not be forced to choose between world-class wireless emergency communications and making that spectrum available to the wider economy, as some seem to suppose.
Network sharing is the key to making that future affordable but it should be on the emergency services’ terms, on a network controlled by first responders. As citizens, we – and those who keep us safe – deserve no less.