Thales approaches the delivery of mission critical communications solutions a little differently from its peers in the industry, according to Marc Darmon, executive vice president and managing director, Secure Communications and Information Systems (pictured below).
Speaking to Wireless at Critical Communications World in Amsterdam earlier this year, he says: ‘Our position from the beginning was to not develop specific hardware even when TETRA was being developed. We were completely technology agnostic. We developed WiMAX, which wasn’t much used, but when LTE appeared it was very easy for us to develop solutions based on that technology.’
In fact, Thales was the first company to present mission critical 4G LTE solutions in the shape of its Nexium Wireless LTE network offering, launched at CCW 2013 in Paris. It was developed in conjunction with Cisco and Nokia, but capable of running on 4G hardware from other manufacturers. It also introduced TeSquad, one of the first ruggedized push-to-talk Android smartphones, at the same time.
‘The point is we weren’t tied into hardware,’ says Darmon, ‘but these changes are very costly for people building mission critical communications hardware. We were lucky in that regard as we are fully dedicated to architecture, cyber security by design, the concept of operations and apps that deliver the services. What we are not doing is designing what has already been developed by the commercial telecommunications industry.’
Thales has continued to develop its all-IP architecture for 4G/LTE PMR solutions, so mission critical communications users can access real-time voice, high speed data, instant location and video services.
Mission critical network business models
Darmon explains that Thales now has three levels of offering: a dedicated 4G LTE PMR private network; a secured mobile virtual network operator (S-MVNO) with mission critical services running on top of public infrastructure (usually a commercial MNO); and what it calls a federation of both – hybrid networks mixing elements of PMR narrowband and LTE broadband. All of these are secured by Thales’ cyber security offering.
‘We can offer networks as a service, or services on existing services, or a hybrid mix of both, so this is the new world we are in now,’ says Darmon. ‘That is why the older mission critical communications players have been bypassed a little. They had no interest in this as they can command a very high prices for a P25, TETRA or Tetrapol terminal, so they want to protect that market and they did their utmost to resist this change.’
For dedicated mission critical LTE network, Darmon says the Thales offering is very simple. ‘Some customer will still want their own proprietary and closed networks, especially in areas where there is no existing 4G infrastructure. What we present is an extension for PMR customers of what we already do for securing public 4G commercial networks. It is the same solution and architecture we use for them, but we can now also provide it to private networks.
‘Alternatively, we can offer PMR-type mission critical resilient telecommunications services on top of an existing LTE public operator’s network as a kind of secure MVNO (S-MVNO). We can offer customers telecom services with SIM cards, which can have a lot of special functionalities, such as multi-operator and multi-roaming.’
Thales calls its S-MVNO service EIJI. It provides wide-area coverage and better voice and data connectivity and a national and international roaming service to keep users connected to mobile operators, with backup connectivity provided by satellite communications.
Greater resilience and optimal performance can be provided with the EIJI Box vehicle terminal for uninterrupted access to the best available network while on the move.
‘This means services will still work even if part of the main network provider’s infrastructure is down, or when you are in a coverage hole of one particular operator, as you get 95-97% coverage by roaming across all available networks,’ says Darmon.
‘It is like a mobile ad hoc network (MANET), but it is smarter as it has more resilient and self-healing capabilities, and it is multi-operator too, so you always have the best coverage and you keep your network in mobility.’
He continues: ‘We can also provide extensions to existing networks. For example, we have deployed some TETRA networks in places like Jordan, Oman and Kazakhstan, but we extend them with LTE coverage areas to form hybrid networks, but those are not based on existing LTE networks,’ says Darmon.
He adds that mobile or temporary LTE networks are another alternative, especially in regions like Africa where existing infrastructure is very weak, or where infrastructure has been taken out by natural disasters.
Just ahead of CCW, Thales announced that it is to head up a 36-month French initiative called the Fed4PMR project, which aims to create a laboratory for future secure high-data-rate 4G/LTE radio communications to meet the requirements of security agencies and emergency services. One of the aims is to allow images, videos and data to be shared securely.
The Fed4PMR project is part of the telecom sovereignty component of France’s new industrial regeneration policy. It is partly funded by the French authorities through the Public Investment Bank (BPI) and the PIA investments for the future programme.
The goal of the Fed4PMR project is to define a unified broadband PMR system spanning everything from user terminals to network operation. The proposed solution will combine multiple types of access networks (dedicated networks, virtual mobile networks, temporary networks) in a single infrastructure.
This infrastructure will be used to deliver multimedia-enabled PMR services, including real-time transmission of pictures and video, database lookups and other professional applications, to meet the needs of users conducting critical missions in difficult situations.
Thales has formed a consortium with seven SMEs (Air-Lynx, Archos, Eolane Douarnenez, Expway, Ibelem, Silicom and Sysoco) and researchers at Pierre et Marie Curie University in Paris to develop the key technological building blocks for a demonstrator. This demonstrator will be officially unveiled at the end of the 36-month collaboration.
As project leader, Thales is in charge of integrating the various technologies to form a resilient and secure solution. It is also providing the multimedia-enabled PMR services to meet the requirements of mission-critical applications, such as group call and push-to-talk functionality. To prepare for future evolutions, researchers at Pierre et Marie Curie University will ensure that studies incorporate future 5G concepts.
In a statement released at the time of the announcement in May 2016, Darmon, said: ‘The key players in this market in the future will be those who successfully integrate the offerings of telecom equipment suppliers, telephony operators and innovation driven start-ups.’
He explains that Fed4PMR is one of a number of French Government sponsored initiative designed to sustain a real French national industry in security and communications technology, as well as in aerospace and space.
Darmon is also chairman of an organisation called Conseil des Industries de la Confiance et de la Sécurité (CICS). ‘The Fed4PMR demonstrator is a proof of concept. It is part of a list of demonstrators we launched in France covering a lot of security subjects. CICS includes a group of security companies in France with large groups like Thales and Airbus, but also a lot of SMEs too.
Thales is involved in two demonstrators, the afore-mentioned Fed4PMR and one for Smart Buildings. Darmon explains there are two, rather than one, communications studies based on what LTE can bring to security forces, as Airbus wants to prove that LTE can improve the data and bit rates in the existing Tetrapol frequency bands, whereas Thales wants to prove that commercial LTE bands can be used by mission critical users.
‘We probably need both,’ he says, ‘but they are orientated differently. We use commercial bands and commercial infrastructure, so that is why we are partnering with French mobile operator SFR to demonstrate how we can bring the benefits of 4G/LTE technology to PMR users, but without them having to change anything.
‘They should be able to use commercial off the shelf equipment without changing the baseband and radio gateways. That way they can buy equipment off anybody in the commercial world, but with some new specific services added – that is what we want to show,’ says Darmon.
He explains that the value and output will be twofold: first, end users will discover the value of services such as high definition video as a group call, or high data rate transmissions for analysis of suspects. Second, industry will get a better understanding of how end users will use these new services.
‘They will orientate us by telling us what works and what does not and by steering us towards new solutions. That way, we get feedback on what the end users really need, and that give us what we need to move forward. Things are too complex now; we need to understand what is actually required for mission critical operations,’ argues Darmon.
The migration of critical communications users to the open standard 4G broadband world does, however, expose them to new cyber threats and potential attacks in a number of different areas including: mobile equipment, radio access networks, the Internet, application networks, and roaming partner networks – those of both commercial operators and other mission critical networks or organisations.
This plays to a particular Thales strength as it is one of the leading cyber security companies in the world, partly thanks to its history in the defence industry where security is a paramount concern.
‘Defence is a key market for Thales,’ says Darmon, ‘but connections to security applications in cities and for critical sites are important as well. My team is lucky to be involved in the safety and security of the most advanced airports in the world like Dubai, Oman and Islamabad, for example.
‘We also integrate all the security systems for the largest port in the world in Doha. Critical communications is part of that, but also smart video analytics, machine learning to detect abnormal behaviour, integration of cameras and gunshot detectors – this is also part of it.’
In Darmon’s view, Thales has an advantage in the evolving critical communications world as its solutions are influenced by having a team of real security integrators who know exactly what the operational procedures of security forces and people in charge of the security of a city.
He argues that the whole smart cities concept requires a more holistic approach where nothing added into the Smart City must compromise overall security. ‘When I put some PMR into a smart city programme we cannot afford it to be the weak link in the system. That puts a lot of demand on the team for it to be a proven, secure and resilient system,’ he says.
Thales leads Fed4PMR project to create 4G professional mobile radio
Thales and SFR partner to bring 4G to Professional Mobile Radio users