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Critical Communications MENA: Paving the way for mission-critical LTE

This event made it clear that the focus has shifted from TETRA versus LTE to acceptance that mission-critical LTE is coming. But which network models will meet the needs of public safety users without breaking the bank? Sam Fenwick reports

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Lieutenant general Dhahi Khalfan Tamin, Dubai’s deputy chief of police and general security, officially opening the Critical Communications Middle East and North Africa event, accompanied by Mladen Vratonjic, TCCA chair and Phil Kidner, CEO of the TCCA 

Arriving in Dubai, it’s hard not to be impressed with the sheer pace of development. Skyscrapers and hotels seem to spring up like mushrooms. And this propensity to work at dizzying speed is not confined to construction. With Nedaa and Nokia working to roll out a 5G-ready mission-critical network that will support IoT and smart city services, and Bravo looking to migrate Saudi Arabia’s government agencies onto a single network, it’s not hard to be impressed with the region’s ambitions.

It was clear that the organiser’s brave decision to move the event’s venue from a hotel to a world-class exhibition centre was the right one. Everything felt less cramped and there is now more space for the event to grow. 

TCCA chair Mladen Vratonjić began both days’ sessions with an overview of TETRA, mission-critical LTE and the work of the TCCA. He highlighted IHS’ prediction that the TETRA installed base will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.2 per cent to nearly five million by the end of 2020. In addition, the size of the Middle East and Africa (MEA) market has doubled and now accounts for 29 per cent of global TETRA shipments. 

He also drew attention to the region’s role as an early adopter of LTE technology, citing the fact that Qatar has already built its own public safety LTE network with commercial equipment in the 800 MHz band, while maintaining its existing TETRA network for critical communications. This is on top of the UAE’s decision back in 2013 to reserve sections of the 700 and 800 MHz band for public safety broadband services.  

Vratonjić pointed out that the only application that has an absolute need for LTE-like bandwidths is video streaming, but predicted that as more bandwidth becomes available over time the more it will be used by future, as yet unimagined, applications. 

Yousif Al Ali, director of technical and IT affairs at Nedaa, gave an update on the operator’s work to roll out a dedicated LTE network in Dubai, saying that it is currently working to cover all of Dubai by the beginning of next year. Nedaa will perform network testing and complete phase one of the project in the first quarter of 2017, with services launching and ongoing development due to take place at the end of quarter two. Al Ali explained that Nedaa evaluated both the use of a commercial network and allowing government agencies to choose between their own networks, Nedaa’s or a commercial network, but decided that having all agencies using a dedicated network operated by Nedaa was the optimal solution, especially as utilising a commercial network would be very complicated and make it difficult to integrate all the agencies’ communications.  

Ali Raza, associate professor of networking and system administration at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Dubai, applauded the development of NB-IoT, saying that it will aid the use of IoT by public safety as it will mean that devices can operate on licensed spectrum, reducing issues with interference. However, he also drew attention to the distributed denial of service attack that took place on 21 October. Hackers used IoT devices as entry points and the attack caused major distruption to internet services. Raza sees this threat as a reason why an “intranet of things” would be preferable to the Internet of Things in a public safety context. 

“We’re looking at a very specific use case where you have devices that are being covered by the LTE network and then a group of these devices move out of that coverage,” he added. “With the development of D2D standardisation and LTE Direct coming in the pipeline there will be solutions. What we’re looking at right now is how can we provide these capabilities using Wi-Fi direct so that our authorised users can continue their mission-critical communications when they happen to move out of an LTE coverage area.”

Peter Clemons, founder and MD of Quixoticity, gave an overview of critical communications in Saudi Arabia, noting that the current arrangement (in which government agencies use isolated mission-critical TETRA networks) makes it hard for public safety stakeholders to co-ordinate during emergencies. This, combined with the need to keep capital expenditure down, is behind Bravo’s vision of a single nationwide mission-critical network. While speaking about the work to standardise mission-critical features for LTE he struck a cautionary note, saying: “Beware of pre-standards that smell like proprietary solutions.” 

Barbara Held, director of operations at BDBOS, the operator of the national German BOS digital radio network, says that it is seeing very good acceptance of the network among users and there are local ongoing projects on LTE. She adds that Germany doesn’t have a nationwide mission-critical LTE programme, but a political process is ongoing. It is unknown which hybrid model will be used at this time. Control rooms and how PPDR organisations will have to change, will be key areas of importance in her view, once Release 13/14 PPDR features are being used. Held highlighted the differences between TETRA’s Direct Mode Operation (DMO) and the LTE equivalent, proximity services (ProSe), with the main difference being the former’s shorter range. 

Antti Kauppinen, development manager at Suomen Erillisverkot said that Finland has auctioned off all of its spectrum in the 700 MHz band, and as such it will have to focus on using commercial networks for LTE. Similarly, Ged Griffin, visiting fellow at the Australian Institute of Police Management, explained Australia is unlikely to have a dedicated public safety LTE network because of the high cost of doing so and it is looking to use a commerical carrrier for public safety from 2020. He added that Australia is likely to continue using P25 for many years to come due to the large amount of capital the country has invested in the technology. Kauppinen added that the European PPDR market is becoming fragmented, which is a potential issue for the industry given the need for economies of scale. Tero Pesonen, chairman of the TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group, highlighted the role the TCCA can play in this area while Held said that BDBOS is talking with transport, utility and military organisations and that public safety network operators should look to unify their activities with those of other sectors. 

Dave Chater-Lea, vice chairman of 3GPP’s SA6 working group said that the stage three standards for Release 14 will be completed at the end of the first quarter in 2017 and this will add enhancements to mission-critical push to talk (MCPTT) and add mission-critical voice and data as well. “At the end of Release 14 we will have the start of a set of applications… mission-critical functionality, prioritisation, group communications and so on. And then as we go forward with the following release we’ll add enhancements to these. We intend to add in the ability to connect different PTT systems together so that users in one country can go to another country and provide mutual aid. Likely in Release 15, we’ll see the first specification that will allow a TETRA network to plug into an MCPTT network and provide full standardised communication between them.” 

He added that “ETSI is going to start a plug-test activity next year, which lets people bring along development hardware and software and start connecting to each other to see if the standard works, where the holes are… That’s a very encouraging step as we go forward.

“If 3GPP mission-critical services are going to talk to the TETRA network we need a standard in TETRA that will let it talk back to the mission-critical services. We’re developing a standard that will work in between the TETRA intersystem interface standards and the intersystem interface that’s being developed for MCPTT. We’ll develop a standard that allows this to be plugged together to allow this communication between the two technologies. We’re aiming at completion of technical specifications in 2018, which will be in parallel with the date we’ll get a specification in 3GPP…”

“Probably by about Release 15, we’ll have enough of a set of [mission-critical LTE] standards that work well enough with the fixes in place for people to start building for real users rather than deploying for demonstrations and controlled environments… We’ll probably see customer- and user-ready mission-critical standards being complete and starting to be deployed about 2020, and this seems to be the industry viewpoint from all different sides. Clearly there are projects out there earlier than that, but in many of those cases they’re not necessarily going on the standards-applied path immediately.”

He added that many of the things 5G will bring will be applicable to public safety, but as 5G development is at an early stage it’s difficult to identify specific functions of interest to public safety. “Many things will act as building blocks for the sort of services we need to build,” he said. “Because we’re inside the 3GPP tent… [it] means that mission-critical services are going to work on 5G in the same way that they worked on 4G.”

Phil Kidner, the TCCA’s CEO, expects that the Middle East will use LTE for mission-critical use cases as much as possible and finds it interesting that Bravo is looking to use TETRA in some areas, as opposed to solely relying on LTE. “I think that’s going to have quite a lot of impact in the region.” He added that he hasn’t seen anything like the UK’s ESN being proposed in the Middle East. “I would have thought that if there was the possibility to do it they would [be doing so].” 

Regarding the current struggle to obtain harmonised spectrum for PPDR mobile broadband use, he noted that while the TCCA can provide cogent arguments as to why that should be the case, ultimately it’s still up to the national regulators. Kidner confirmed that the TCCA is working to ensure that the work that has been done to introduce mission-critical features in 4G will be carried over into 5G. “ETSI’s point of view [is that it’s] unquestionable that mission-critical will be in 5G. Our role as the market representation partner is to make sure they deliver it.” 

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Critical Communications MENA’s show floor had a lot to offer, including a smart ambulance, demonstrations showing how control rooms and analytics can be used to resolve everyday situations more efficiently, and a potential way to counter rogue drones

From the exhibition
On the show floor there was plenty to see and do. Nokia representatives on the Nedaa stand were displaying their backpack-mounted LTE network, which is being trialled by EE. They mentioned that Nokia’s new group communications applications have been embedded into LTE handsets manufactured by Bittium, Cybertel Bridge and Nokia’s TD Tech, and that the applications are compatible with 3GPP Release 12. They also explained that Nokia is working to develop an umanned aerial vehicle traffic management system that will use LTE. It envisages that drones will be equipped with a LTE chop and SIM card, allowing users and those in charge of the system to automatically receive alerts should drones stray into no-fly zones, which can be defined on a permanent or temporary basis. Nokia is working with manufacturers to further integrate LTE so that it can be used to allow aviation authorities and other public safety organisations to seize control of rogue drones. Nokia was also showing a system analysing traffic CCTV footage from Russia in real time, producing a heat map of traffic density and automatically serving feeds showing anomalies to control room operators. 

Airbus Defence and Space was promoting its recently announced SmarTWISP app developer programme and Catalin Gheorghiu, product business manager at Airbus, demonstrated real-time push-to-video on the Tactilon Dabat smartphone/TETRA radio handset, using the ES Eyeview app. He said that both video streaming and facial recognition apps are currently under development as part of the programme. Gheorghiu explained that upon registering for the programme you receive all the development tools, along with the Android and TETRA application programming interfaces. He added that Airbus will perform “certification testing to make sure that everything installed on the device keeps it secure, the PMR functionality works, and there are no security holes”. 

One of Dubai Corporation of Ambulance’s smart ambulances was on display, which was equipped with a motorised stretcher, eliminating the need for paramedics to attempt to lift patients into the ambulance without assistance – important given that many long-serving paramedics end up with back problems. The vehicle has built-in cameras and telemetry coupled with a card-based driver ID system that allows control room operators to know its speed and location. The paramedics can also pull up patients’ details on a rugged tablet. 

Over at the Motorola Solutions stand, Solutions Architects Julian Martin and Terry Allen explained how the Command Central Aware system could be used to help find a missing child. They took me through a scenario, starting with a mother calling to say that her daughter should be home by now, she should be with her nanny and her nanny isn’t answering the phone. The logged incident pops up as an alert, then a photo of the child arrives from the mother (quickly thanks to the mother having plenty of them on her smartphone). There’s then the option to distribute that information and image to police on the ground via LTE or TETRA, which cuts out the need for a house call, saving precious time. 

The system tells the operator that there’s a camera near the child’s school. Winding back the footage they see the nanny and the child getting into a car with an unknown man. The car’s number plate is recorded and fed into a number plate recognition system, allowing all the cameras on the system to feed sightings of the vehicle back as alerts. The numberplate and nanny’s details are also fed into the Command Central Connections application, which performs link analysis, using a large amount of existing data to find relationships between points and people of interest. It retrieves call data records. In the scenario the force has already been doing some investigations into human trafficking and the application pulls up a number of suspects, one of which is connected to a friend of the nanny. In practice, this can be coloured coded to show the strength of connections between the various actors and the availability of information hinges on local regulations and the type of data. 

The suspect car then passes a camera, triggering an alert and the map then automatically centres on the position of the alert. A nearby officer is assigned to intercept the suspect and retrieve the child. If they were wearing a body-worn video camera or in a car, they could stream video back to the control centre to aid verification of the child’s identity. 

This year’s Critical Communications World had a very positive buzz due to the interest in mission-critical LTE, and it was reassuring to see this trend continuing at CCMENA. With operators in the region fully embracing the need for modern mission-critical networks and vendors increasingly focusing on applications that will be enabled by LTE and provide value to the end user, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a paradigm shift for public safety. 


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