The case for harmonised and dedicated mobile broadband spectrum for critical comms users

The TCCA and Wireless got together a number of experts to discuss whether dedicated, harmonised broadband spectrum can be found for PPDR (public protection and disaster relief) and other critical communication end users such as utilities and transportation. Read a summary of the debate here

The case for harmonised and dedicated mobile broadband spectrum for critical comms users

Public safety organisations and potentially other users of narrowband critical communications are expected to migrate to broadband technologies such as 4G LTE in the future. The question as to whether public safety organisations in particular should have their own dedicated spectrum, harmonised worldwide, or at least at a European level, is hotly debated.

But finding available spectrum, especially in Europe, is no easy task. However, the ITU WRC-15 (World Radio Congress 2015) in November 2015 does offer an opportunity as it is very likely to approve the reallocation of 700MHz spectrum in ITU Region 1 – Europe (excluding Russia), Africa and Middle East – for mobile services. However, the decision to reserve spectrum for PPDR will rest with individual countries.

Setting the scene for the discussion, Thomas Lynch at research analyst IHS outlined the scale of opportunity for manufacturers and service providers if the PPDR community migrates from predominantly voice-based specialist narrowband radio technology such as TETRA, Tetrapol and P25 to 4G LTE technology, which will give it access to a far wider range of data applications.

According to IHS’ research there are an estimated 28 million PPDR radio users globally with around 20 million radios in use (the difference is down to volunteer forces who share radios). The figure includes both portable and mobile radios.

In Europe there are currently a little over nine million PPDR personnel and about 3.5 million radio users. However, if other critical communications users in transport and utilities are included, then that accounts for an additional 10 million radio users globally just for those verticals – with Europe accounting for two million (including Russia).

In IHS’s view, this is a large enough niche to interest mainstream 4G LTE product and service suppliers, even if LTE does require some specialist enhancements to ensure it is ‘mission critical’.

The Panel

Hans Borgonjen – Vice chair TCCA and National Police Netherlands

Tim Cull – Head of business radio, Federation of Communication Services

Simon Forge – Director, SCF Associates (co-author of EC Report: Perspectives on the Value of Shared Spectrum Access)

Mike Goddard – International spectrum policy advisor, Real Wireless and chairman of Public Sector Spectrum Policy Group

Sue Lampard – President, British APCO

Keith Turner – former Chief Constable of Gwent Police and non-exec of Airwave

Additional comments post-event from Phil Kidner, CEO, TCCA

Thomas Lynch – Director of critical communications, IHS Technology – Host


James Atkinson – Editor, Wireless magazine – Chair 


The Discussion

James Atkinson: Is dedicated and harmonised spectrum for broadband services a necessity for public safety and other critical communications users?

Mike Goddard: WRC 15 in November will certainly confirm the provisional decision from the last conference and add mobile allocation in the 700MHz band. But ITU only sets a framework to enable mobile use in 700MHz; it won’t go into technologies or channel plans, those are all national regulatory decisions afterwards.

The European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) ECC Report 218: Harmonised conditions and spectrum bands for the implementation of future European broadband PPDR systems, which is now out for draft public consultation, certainly contains the familiar bands and 700MHz possibilities. There are a number of options (Options A to F), but WRC is not taking decisions on PPDR spectrum.

Phil Kidner: The TCCA is convinced that the best possible service that PPDR organisations can deliver to society is based on dedicated spectrum and dedicated solutions. Harmonisation is needed to make that available at the best possible price, as harmonisation is about creating a mass market globally; ideally one that will attract more industry and more competition and innovation. Dedicated spectrum is needed to deliver the quality of service we expect emergency services to provide to us as individuals.

Tim Cull: The FCS represents a whole range of critical communications radio activities, not just PPDR. There is a wide variety of different services currently used by different mission critical comms users, some of which can be found on a mobile cellular service, others will be more challenging. The required services will also change in the future. Some mission critical services can be transmitted across public commercial networks, but I find it difficult to believe that all mission critical services can be delivered across public networks.

Sue Lampard: The various national APCO organisations are taking a pragmatic approach to the question and are waiting to see how the world goes. We always go back to the user perspective. We can be spectrum agnostic, but have a view about whether a dedicated service will do something or not. The user needs the ability to access the kit when they need to use it. How that is delivered is for the technical people to answer, but that said we recognise that spectrum is finite and a very expensive and valuable resource, so there has got to be some practical approach as to what gets delivered.

Hans Borgonjen: I’m also representing the EU’s Law Enforcement Working Party (LEWP), which was tasked by EU ministers with finding a long-term solution based on using mission critical data capabilities, but it has already said that it doubts commercial mobile networks will be able to deliver this. With TETRA we had two goals: use harmonised frequency bands standardised across Europe in 380-400MHz; and use the same technology. So, we went to ETSI and developed TETRA, and now most EU countries use it and on the same frequency bands.

The aim is to do the same thing with mission critical broadband data. But contrary to 15 years ago when there was no technology available, this time 4G LTE offers almost all of what we want, so we can base the technology on that and be part of that much larger ecosystem. But there are some things missing in the LTE standard, so we are working with 3GPP to get those extra things added. That leaves open the question of whether there will be a joint frequency solution.

Keith Turner: There is no doubt that LTE is the future. The question for me is: how long is it before we have the appropriate standard suitable for PPDR that meets the operational requirements of all the emergency services? The fact is that around 20-plus UK police forces have access to mission critical voice and business critical data already.

I’m not against moving to a commercial environment once the standards are there and once it can be proven to be delivered properly in a pre-emption environment. But you have to have pre-emption and that is not available today in LTE. The emergency services will be much the poorer if we go down the route of the solution the UK is advocating with the proposed Emergency Services Network.

Simon Forge: I would say there are alternatives, although they may not be ideal. One has to look at what money is available to governments in Europe following the recession. Some countries will have to move to a commercial mobile operator solution. Others will hang on to dedicated solutions whatever, because of their culture.

The SCF Associates report for the EC – Perspectives on the value of shared spectrum access (2012) – argues that the business model of the operators has to change and if they cannot change then you cannot trust them. And if you cannot trust them, then you cannot put the safety of lives in their hands. Nobody does anything unless you force them. That’s why we need a much stronger regulator to protect the safety of life.

JA: Turning to the 700MHz band (694-790MHz), can we reconcile the differing demands of broadcasters, MNOs and public safety professionals?

Phil Kidner: One possible option on the table, although it’s not the preferred one by the emergency services users, is to have 2 x 10MHz in the MFCN (mobile/fixed communication network) band. This is in ECC Report 218 and it doesn’t take anything away from anybody.

This option is challenged by TV broadcasters because they think it gets too close to their spectrum, but it isn’t that big a problem. There is an opportunity to harmonise across Europe and that would fit in to WRC for world harmonisation – that is the best option. It is 2 x 5MHz and maybe 2 x 3MHz at the other end of the MFCN band. France has already said that it will adopt this following the Charlie Hebdo attack.

It is a difficult question and difficult questions are political. How do you spend limited resources? It is a purely political decision and PPDR tends to come higher up the political agenda when big disasters happen and that is a fact.

Mike Goddard: The UK broadcasters have absolutely dug their heels in over having some protection between mobile and broadcasting. Technically you can overcome it, but for a community that feels they have been squeezed already in having to give up the 800MHz band, now they are being asked to give up the 700MHz band, but they have won that significant guard band in the UK – it’s a red line for the broadcasters. The Government has accepted that and I can’t see that changing as a lot of blood has been spilt over it.

Hans Borgonjen: I could understand their position if it was an extension of the MFCN band, so that the normal commercial users using the 5MHz beneath the MFCN band coming closer to Channel 48 might be affected. But if PPDR is using 5MHz the risk to anyone watching a DTT service is only there when an active PPDR unit is within 50m of a DTT receiver. How often has there been an ambulance or police car within 50m of your house transmitting when you or your children are using Channel 48?

Mike Goddard: Yes, it is a political, not technical issue.

Hans Borgonjen: Exactly, so what is more important? Enabling the police, fire and ambulance do to their work or you watching the TV without flickering? So, we are not giving up hope here!

Simon Forge: You are right, but is 2x5MHz and 2x3MHz enough? The bandwidth may be sufficient for technology today, but it will be very inadequate in 10 years’ time.

JA: What about non-PPDR critical communications users? Will 700MHz help here?

Tim Cull: Some of them have pretty heavy-duty mission critical communication needs, and more and more applications will be viewed as mission critical. Whether you can host all these apps on today’s mobile networks is debatable. You can do a lot of regular stuff, maybe using two logical, not necessarily separate systems.

The really heavy-duty stuff goes onto something that will always work and you off-board the less critical stuff onto some other system where a few delays are acceptable. But at the critical moment how do we choose which system it goes on? How do you switch between the two?

What is the decision-making process anyway? These are very sophisticated questions and policy makers need to stand back and look at this.

Hans Borgonjen: Coming back to the dedicated vs. commercial network choice, the majority of public safety users in Europe think hybrid networks are the future. A dedicated LTE network for public safety is too costly and if they did want to do everything with their own dedicated network then even 2 x 10 MHz won’t be enough in the long term. But with the exception of the UK, most European countries with TETRA networks have said they do not want to be totally dependent on commercial networks.

Mike Goddard: I’m not privy to the ESMCP discussions on ESN, but the way I think we are going in the UK is for the Government to place contractual obligations on MNOs to provide the required services and not do this via an Ofcom licence.

If the operator itself decides it needs to guarantee some bandwidth in order to meet its obligations for reliability or resilience to public safety organisations, then effectively you have dedicated spectrum.

Sue Lampard: But someone has to put those assurances in place; it doesn’t matter whether it is the regulator or the Government.

Simon Forge: If the contract is well supported then fine. If you want a model that works, it is far better for Europe as a whole and the UK to sign up to common directives. But you don’t leave it up to the operator. It is better from the end user’s perception and trust in the MNOs that there is an iron fist in the glove.

Mike Goddard: That can be done. If the Government decides the contract obligations are not sufficient and they want an MNO’s licence modified there is a perfectly strong mechanism for government to instruct Ofcom, and Ofcom is not subject to legal liability.

Keith Turner: As far as the UK is concerned, the big question for me is who is going to be the brave person to turn the TETRA network off? ESN is supposed to deliver voice and data via LTE. Ministers are telling PCCs that they are in discussions with Airwave about extensions and they most definitely are not.

Mike Goddard: Are they discussing extensions beyond 2016 or 2020? There’s a crucial difference.

Keith Turner: The point is there are no discussions happening at all! TETRA is there and it delivers to a degree and it will be there until LTE proves itself. But if finance dictates you move to LTE on a wing and a prayer in terms of the contractual conditions, then things like suspension of payment if the LTE service doesn’t work is not enough.

Phil Kidner: Does the Government have a health and safety responsibility for its staff too?

Keith Turner: You’d like to think so and you don’t want to stymie your anti-terrorism efforts either. How are the anti-terror units or firearms operations going to continue with the sort of technology they are talking about in the first instance? It is not just police officers lives at risk, it is the public too.

JA: Some countries are upgrading their TETRA networks and adding ‘best effort’ broadband services via MVNOs. That’s a good first step, but what’s next?

Hans Borgonjen: Each time we discuss this we still come to the same conclusion: mission critical voice stays on TETRA, Tetrapol or P25 for the next 10 to 15 years; we then start with commercial networks to access broadband technology at first, because that is the only option to get mobile data. Then, as soon as the frequencies are available and the 4G mission critical standards are written we can either build a dedicated LTE network for public safety on top of the commercial operator’s network or a completely dedicated public safety LTE service.

Simon Forge: If you use all the MNOs you get diversity of signal choice for any emergency service user. We are speaking mostly about PPDR, but telecare, utilities and transportation could all be included. The amount about to be spent on GSM-R dwarves what is being spent on PPDR. Then you have things such as eCall, and a lot of new applications that extend far beyond PPDR that need to be catered for.

JA: How can we get the wider critical comms community to unite and influence national governments and regulators for spectrum?

Sue Lampard: At BAPCO we tried to get a consolidated view in terms of the spectrum requirements from both the end user and commercial communities. On the commercial side, you have the likes of Motorola and Airwave that want dedicated solutions, and then you have the likes of EE and Vodafone that have a completely different view. Then you have the emergency services end users who weren’t really prepared to stick their heads above the parapet.

Hans Borgonjen: There are two preferred options to find frequency for PPDR outlined in ECC Report 218. We have 31 supporter organisations signed up to support allocation of harmonised spectrum for PPDR. So, if you say what can the critical communications community do to lobby for spectrum, then I think we have made a major step in getting all these end users together.

JA: What about the 400MHz band (410-430 MHz and/or 450-470 MHz)?

Hans Borgonjen: It is not possible to use 400MHz band in every country, but it can be used as additional frequency in some countries.

Mike Goddard: There is a lot of emotion around the word dedicated. In fact, no spectrum is dedicated except the maritime safety band. If we move to get some 700MHz spectrum identified for PPDR, that would go a long way as many would follow that route; ‘identified, but not exclusively reserved for’, gets the UK off the hook.

JA: Will defining what ‘mission critical’ is help the argument with government and regulators?

Phil Kidner: LEWP came up with a top-level definition including resilience, availability, coverage and so on, and all 28 EU countries have signed up to that.

Tim Cull: Someone has to sit down and translate exactly what mission criticality means in the context of LTE Release 13 back into standard industry parlance, so we can see whether it means the right things.

I think there is room for doubt here because it is a standardised protocol being stretched from a commercial environment into a mission critical environment, and some of those mission critical requirements are incompatible with the commercial world.

Simon Forge: 3GPP and ETSI seem to have very good intentions and are trying to understand the public safety world.

Phil Kidner: There is a balance between what the commercial world has as its priorities and what mission critical users need. They are very polite to public safety and PPDR, but do they understand it? No. We bring in people that try to teach them but it is a constant battle.

Nevertheless, group calling, standalone eNodeB that can operate without the network and proximity services are coming into the LTE standard. Will it ever have the level of functionality for voice that TETRA has? I doubt it.

Simon Forge: My view is if there is a large enough market you’ll get enough money behind it to drive it.

Phil Kidner: That is why harmonisation is so important!

Hans Borgonjen: We don’t have any alternative anyway. It is ridiculous to go to ETSI with a niche mission critical broadband standard; that will never happen. In LEWP we agreed we must take advantage of the mass 4G LTE ecosystem, but yes it does have some limitations for mission critical communications. So, we went 3GPP and we now have the SA6 Mission Critical Applications group and that makes me quite positive.

Tim Cull: No one is suggesting developing a new standard, but if you add up all the people wondering about the future of professional communications it comes to a lot more than just the PPDR community and it is getting bigger. In the UK alone there are half a million people who use top-end communications for security purposes; they totally dwarf the PPDR community.

JA: How do we get these kinds of people on board to lobby for spectrum?

Sue Lampard: It is hard to corral all those other communities of critical communications people, but presumably it will be like what happened with TETRA. They will follow the PPDR community. The products will be developed; mission critical LTE will be what it will be in the early years, and then the other communities will join in once it is developed.

Simon Forge: I go back to the pragmatic view that the MNOs have to be involved. They have enormous resources; if they realise that there is a market in mission critical communications that they are going to be forced to participate in, then they should support 3GPP as they normally do.

Hans Borgonjen: Maybe the MNOs can go towards PPDR’s needs, but I still think we need a dedicated network of some sort in case of major incidents. We calculated that the cost of the German 700MHz auction per person over 15 years was just 27 cents. What is more important then: for the state to get that 27 cents extra or set aside 2 x 10MHz for PPDR to provide more safety and security?

Sue Lampard: Whatever way we go we have no choice but to be involved with the commercial sector and MNOs in particular. I think MNOs are now beginning to understand what mission critical voice and data is and how PPDR works. We need to find a way to make potential PPDR contracts more attractive to them and this is where all the arguments for harmonised spectrum and standardisation come in, as PPDR contracts can then become a bigger proportion of MNOs’ business and therefore it is more viable for them to do it. But more governance needs to be put around them, so someone needs to mandate some key service requirements.

Tim Cull: I recognise the great advantage of having a standard that encompasses every one of the requirements of all the different communities, but it worries me that it might take a while to get to. If so, it would be unfortunate if new initiatives such as 5G defocus the regulators away from that goal and the hopes of the PPDR community don’t receive the necessary support going forward.

It also takes years to deploy these systems and that needs to be factored in by the user community itself. If anyone is expecting a rapid changeover from Airwave in 2016 through to 2020 they are going to be sadly disappointed – there isn’t enough time.

Hans Borgonjen: Finland, The Netherlands and Belgium are renewing their TETRA systems for exactly those reasons.

Phil Kidner: People who put their lives at stake, such as police and firemen, are difficult, challenging customers. They will not put new technology into use that they do not trust and have not tested. The change from TETRA to LTE – replacing it totally – will only happen when LTE has 97-98% coverage and so on. That takes time when you are dealing with a very conservative user group, so it will take longer than people think. My final point: spectrum saves lives; market forces do not.

Mike Goddard: We are moving towards LTE with standards having to be enhanced to meet public safety requirements. I think there is a lot of scope for commercial provision of services and a lot of additional broadband services will be used anyway. It is a question of whether everything will move over to LTE.

I take Tim’s point about timing; the UK does not seem to have a plan B and it has a very ambitious timescale given the standards are not in place or the products available and accepted by the end users. But even if we were to go down the dedicated route using 700MHz, which the UK Government does not favour, that spectrum will not be available in the UK until 2022, so there is a mismatch there.

The Wireless roundtable was conducted in association with and support from the TCCA (TETRA + Critical Communications Association)

Venue provided courtesy of IHS Technology

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