Emergencies can happen anywhere, so those responding to incidents need to be able to communicate anywhere, anytime. But there are many first responders in the UK aside from fire, police and ambulance who do not have access to the current dedicated emergency services Airwave TETRA two-way radio network or its proposed replacement, the £1bn 4G LTE Emergency Services Network (ESN).
To meet this gap in the market, satellite provider Globalstar and mobile network operator Manx Telecom, supported by specialist technical consultancy firm Intelcomm, have joined forces to offer an integrated cellular and mobile satellite service called the Extended Mobile Network (EMN).
Announced in April 2016, EMN will initially be offered as FRAN (First Responder Auxiliary Network) enabling communications continuity across the UK for first responders. The solution combines Globalstar’s Low-Earth Orbit satellite constellation with Manx Telecom’s Smart SIM technology, which enables roaming across all four UK mobile network operators (MNOs), with the two services connected via the former’s satellite hotspot product Sat-Fi.
The great advantage of EMN is that it will allow customers to use their own mobile phones or smart device and also keep their own mobile number. When a user’s signal level begins to drop off due to the limited reach of the MNOs’ coverage or disappears due to a natural or man-made disaster, connectivity will be automatically handed over to another mobile network that is in range. If no terrestrial mobile network is available, network connectivity will be transferred onto Globalstar’s satellite system.
Manx Telecom and Globalstar are keen to emphasise that they are not looking to compete with ESN, which is due to begin service with the first users from September 2017. Rather, it should be seen as a complementary auxiliary service aimed at anyone else who is not a Category 1 front line first responder officer.
Mark O’Connell, Director, Sales and Business Operations – EMEA, Globalstar, says: ‘We are really offering mission critical voice at the moment. The central point of FRAN is that it opens our communications system up to first responders who are not covered by the new ESN system. In fact, it opens it out to everybody, even when priority has been given to ESN users. I think that is hugely important.
‘It can also be used by people who are not first responders, but who are working in remote locations and need access to head office, or to other personnel in the field. It is something that we are very excited about and we are working with Manx Telecom to develop this further.’
Previous attempts to meet the communication needs of first responders have included using satellites as ‘backhaul’ to deliver signals to terrestrial masts. However, unlike EMN’s approach, which connects users directly via satellite, a backhaul solution is still dependent on the reach and integrity of terrestrial infrastructure. This is not something that can be guaranteed, as became apparent during 2015 when severe weather in the UK damaged terrestrial infrastructure, impairing emergency services’ ability to operate.
But because it uses the satellite network directly, the EMN solution does not require the backhaul solution. Globalstar satellites orbit at just 1,400 km above the Earth, providing much lower latency than other satellite networks in higher orbits. In addition, there is high reliability in that there are one or more satellites visible from any given point.
Background to EMN
Explaining the background to EMN, Bob Buckle, director at Intelcomm, says: ‘Manx Telecom has a smart roaming SIM that allows you to go and grab the strongest mobile signal available, as the company had already negotiated a roaming deal with multiple UK mobile operators.
‘What didn’t happen,’ continues Buckle, ‘purely because of network competitivism, is the ability to make a soft handover between cellular networks, so it has to do a hard handover, dropping off one system and connecting to another.
‘However, when we created Globalstar’s Sat-Fi, we also developed a way to soft handover from satellite to terrestrial networks, so extending that to Manx Telecom’s roaming solution makes for a perfect synergy between what Manx Telecom has developed and the capability of Globalstar’s Sat-Fi offering, with its clever switching between different types of radio systems.
‘So, EMN/FRAN is primarily aimed at the average user or first responder who under normal circumstances could not justify having a standalone dedicated satellite communications device, but for whom it would be very helpful to have that capability on their mobile device,’ says Buckle.
‘The neat trick with this system,’ he continues, ‘is it allows you to operate a combined cellular and satellite service now based on the infrastructure that is already in place. It does not require new infrastructure to be installed beforehand. And as that infrastructure increases and evolves, this technology will allow you to take advantage of it, but you are not dependent on it.’
Simon Taylor, business development manager, Manx Telecom, adds: ‘The synergies that exist between us are very much aligned because we are both about providing critical connectivity. We target our Chameleon Smart SIM solution with its multi-operator roaming agreement at first responders in the blue light sector, lone workers, utility field staff, construction workers, veterinary services, business executives and other people who tend to move around a lot, work off-grid or in not-spots.
‘This was the whole premise for our Chameleon Direct product – the UK’s first multi-network “strongest signal” mobile service to be offered directly to end users. Both we and Globalstar were looking to further target people who want to be in touch anytime, anywhere. We could see the synergies and Bob and Intelcomm helped with the technical side to bring that all together.’
For Manx Telecom and Globalstar, the key attraction of EMN is that it extends both their footprints. A lot of Globalstar’s customers are currently maritime, while Manx Telecom’s customers are land based.
‘So, the two of us coming together benefits both parties in terms of extending our reach to new customers, markets and segments, which we can now address, whereas previously our individual solutions may have been unsuitable or not quite complete enough,’ explains Taylor.
He adds that both firms are being careful to protect their existing businesses and not cannibalise them. ’The service needs to be unique and it’s not for those who simply need an affordable satellite handset – as you can get that service from Globalstar already.’
O’Connell agrees: ‘The commercial fishing industry is very much solely a satellite service and that will continue to work that way. What EMN and FRAN offers terrestrial customers, who may have a satellite requirement, is a very accessible satellite option that remains within their existing telecoms bill,’ says O’Connell.
‘The object of the exercise is to bundle the services in a way that ensures it is not excessively expensive, because it is in our interest to have as many users as possible,’ notes Buckle.
The Sat-Fi unit
The key bit of kit required for FRAN is the already mentioned Sat-Fi product, developed by Globalstar and Intelcomm. Sat-Fi is a VoIP to satellite bridge or gateway that turns a smartphone or other wireless device into a satellite phone.
Users download and install the Sat-Fi App to their phone and connect it to the Sat-Fi gateway via a Wi-Fi connection. The Sat-Fi then links the phone to the Globalstar low-earth orbit satellite network, enabling both voice and data connectivity.
The Sat-Fi is designed for both vehicle-based and fixed locations. It allows for multiple simultaneous user connections. While only one satellite call can be made at a time, up to eight users may connect to a single Sat-Fi sharing its satellite data connection.
A user can pick up a rented vehicle and install a Sat-Fi unit within 5-10 minutes on a mag mount and it will provide a bubble of connectivity around the vehicle. According to Buckle, the antenna on the Sat-Fi unit will provide a coverage range of about 100m, but with an external antenna, that can be increased to about a kilometre and a half.
‘Within that range you have a neat box of interconnectivity between anyone connected to it. It acts as a mini-hub for device-to-device connectivity completely off-grid. Device-to-device on a mobile phone using the Sat-Fi unit is a pretty neat trick in itself – an inbound call will just route straight through to you.
‘It is also intelligent in as much as users can deploy two or three Sat-Fi gateways and mesh them together to provide a totally dynamic off-the-grid network,’ says Buckle, who adds that another aspect of the service is that it supports push-to-talk (PTT) applications familiar to first responders and PMR users.
So, how will EMN/FRAN be taken to market? Manx Telecom’s Simon Taylor says: ‘Our route to market plan is to go through channel re-sellers as we already do. We will promote the service, undertake business development, identify target markets and utilise our existing relationships.
‘For example, we already supply some first responders with our Chameleon Direct product – a self-service Manx Telecom SIM you can buy on a contract through our portal. Private ambulance services already have a convenient multi-network SIM through us.
‘But this new EMN service is much more suited to value-added re-sellers and solutions providers, as no two solutions or requirements are likely to be the same. You can just plug-and-play the service into your vehicle, but we have also lined up a professional installations company too, as some users will want a permanent installation,’ says Taylor.
Manx Telecom already has 60 partners for its Smart SIM solutions; travel SIM’s, M2M/IoT solutions and so on, and Taylor says some of those partners have already expressed interest in being a channel partner for EMN/FRAN.
Buckle says: ‘The thing is to try and bring it to market in the most straightforward way possible, and I don’t mean that technically. The challenge commercially is to market FRAN in a way that makes the proposition easy to understand. We need to ensure that we remove the threat of bill shock for those not familiar with using satellite services.’
In terms of what the commercial packages might look like, the team is looking at a bundle or series of bundles (although not too many). The team’s job is to make sure users grasp the simple fact that they can take their own device, port their existing number, connect to the service, and not worry about whether they are on terrestrial or satellite.
‘They will have a single supplier, a single bill, a single integrated network and the necessary visibility of what they are using and when,’ says Taylor.
‘The beauty of the system is that it will work wherever the customer wants it, when they want it and we will take care of everything behind the scenes in terms of the commercials. It would be similar to buying any mobile bundle from an MNO, like 500 minutes a month.’
Buckle adds a proviso: ‘That said; there will be users or organisations that will spend a disproportionate amount of their time in remote areas of the UK like Scotland or parts of Yorkshire, for example.
‘For those kinds of users, because of where they are going to use this service, it may be in their best interest and ours that we both know there will be a higher than average usage of satellite. So, we may have alternative bundles for people who want a higher than average percentage of out of cellular coverage usage - and knowingly so.’
‘That’s why the trials this summer are so important,’ interjects Globalstar’s O’Connell, ‘as it will allow us to make these kinds of assessments and develop appropriate bundles.’
Taylor says that they are looking to sign up organisations for trials right now to work with them to understand their requirements and help shape the commercial tariffs. ‘We are beta testing in June/July and we are looking at commercial availability a month or two after that – so probably Q3 commercially, when we will be able to say: here’s the price list.’
O’Connell sums up: ‘The core point of our FRAN announcement is that this is a first responder offering, but by that we mean all kinds of first responders. ESN will take care of the primary first responders in police, fire and ambulance.
‘What FRAN will do is ensure that other responders will also have communications anywhere and that is the important point behind the Globalstar alliance with Manx Telecom – it brings satellite and cellular together and offers a very good solution for first responders and others who work remotely.’