ASTRID, the specialist TETRA network operator for the Belgian emergency and security services, has today (29 April 2014) launched a world first in Blue Light Mobile – a priority mobile broadband data service for police, fire and ambulance services, which uses three Belgian commercial mobile phone networks via a single SIM card.
In a society in which smartphones and other mobile media have become the norm, mobile data communications have also become a necessary tool for the emergency and security services. The TETRA-technology on which the ASTRID radio network is based has been developed principally for voice communications and light data applications.
ASTRID predicts, however, a strong growth in data applications and has responded to this by launching a mobile broadband data service that is tailored to the specific needs of the emergency and security services.
One unique SIM card
Blue Light Mobile enables the emergency and security services in Belgium to utilise the commercial 3G networks. A single SIM card gives priority access within a secure environment to three Belgian operators, as well as eleven operators in four neighbouring countries.
This gives the service provider the best coverage in Belgium and in the border regions (there are 49 police zones along Belgium’s borders). In locations where the coverage of one network is too low, the user’s tablet or laptop will automatically switch to a network with greater coverage.
Furthermore, ASTRID users have priority over other users, meaning that even when data traffic is heavy, the connection is still guaranteed. On top of this, ASTRID has built in additional guarantees with regard to the network’s data security.
Broadband technology is bringing many new applications within our grasp. Photos or video images can be sent directly from security cameras to mobile media. Police officers can be alerted if a motorway camera identifies a stolen car. And searches of databases can be done more quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, teams in the field can log on to their service’s intranet, thus allowing them to deal with some administrative tasks away from the office.
The SIM card gives access to the emergency and security services’ private cloud, via which they can access their own applications within a secure environment, as well as access shared applications utilised within a multidisciplinary environment. Bringing the various emergency and security services onto one shared platform promotes the exchange of data between the disciplines.
Greater safety for the public, and for the service provider
‘Blue Light Mobile means that the police, fire services, and ambulance teams will be able to work more efficiently’, said Daniel Haché, ASTRID’s External Relations director. ‘Ultimately, this benefits society, public safety, and the safety of the service provider.
‘Ambulance teams will receive data about the patient faster, even as they are travelling to the scene. The police will have a photo of a missing or wanted person more quickly at hand. In other words, the work performed by the emergency and security services will get better.’
With Blue Light Mobile, ASTRID becomes in part a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), supplying services via third-party networks. ‘We are the first in the world to use this formula’, says Christian Mouraux, project leader for Blue Light Mobile. ‘Already quite a few experts from abroad have been contacting us with an interest in creating a similar service. In the 1990s, ASTRID was involved at the birth of digital radio networks. With Blue Light Mobile it once again leads the way forward.’
Over recent months Blue Light Mobile has been thoroughly tested within around ten police zones and fire services. The police zone for Beveren in the province of Oost-Vlaanderen was the first of these pilots. Experiences have so far proved very positive, according to Niko Lardenoit, functional and technical manager for the Beveren police zone.
‘Our police zone lies right along the border with the Netherlands and covers a large port area, which affects available coverage. However, our teams in the field report that data communications via Blue Light Mobile are even faster than via a fixed computer back at the station.’
Lardenoit continued: ‘Beveren conducted tests involving, for example, data from ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras, and searches of the police databank during football matches with heightened risks of supporter violence. The big advantage of Blue Light Mobile is simply that it enables you to work faster.
‘You no longer need to make a call to dispatching – you can search the database directly in the field. This reduces incidences of mistake. For an outsider this may not seem like a revolutionary development, but in some situations it can save lives. And for our staff, this is a really big motivating factor,’ said Lardenoit.
Alternative to UK approach
The Belgian approach to providing their emergency services with access to broadband services and applications is in marked contrast to the UK. The Belgians are retaining their TETRA network for mission critical voice, but have come up with a solution to provide best effort broadband data for public safety.
In the UK, the plan is to completely replace the current mission critical voice and data TETRA network run by Airwave, with 4G broadband services hosted by a commercial mobile operator. This is despite the fact that mission critical voice and data standards do not yet exist in the LTE standard. Proprietary, or pre-standard, solutions will have to be used.
However, the UK Government’s most radical proposal for the new Emergency Services Network is to entrust all mission critical communication services to commercial mobile network operators, despite the fact that their networks lack the high levels of robustness, availability, security and resilience found in dedicated mission critical networks. No other country has, as yet, proposed to follow this path.