Comms Connect Melbourne 2022: conference highlights

Comms Connect (WFevents)

By Lauren Davis
Tuesday, 08 November, 2022


Comms Connect Melbourne 2022: conference highlights

Comms Connect Melbourne has successfully bounced back from a three-year COVID-induced absence, with a two-day conference and exhibition on 19–20 October plus pre-conference workshops from the Australian Radio Communications Industry Association (ARCIA) and the Australasian Critical Communications Forum (ACCF) on 18 October. It was a triumphant return to form for the Southern Hemisphere’s premier critical communications event, with hundreds of visitors attending each day from across our region.

Geoff Hird, MD at WF Media and WF Events, was very pleased at the success of the event. “Clearly the industry was eager to get together in person again, and with such a high-quality conference program and some of the sector’s leading suppliers supporting the event, we had some great energy in the building from the moment the doors opened,” he said.

Public safety networks

The conference agenda gave attendees a chance to learn about different public safety networks around the world, in various stages of deployment, and the challenges they have faced along the way. Kylie De Courteney, Managing Director of the NSW Telco Authority, spoke about the Authority’s role in helping to develop a national Public Safety Mobile Broadband (PSMB) capability to provide the mission-critical levels of availability and coverage that our public safety agencies truly need, wherever they may go. From May 2021 to August 2022, the Authority managed a proof-of-concept trial to help develop and test technologies on behalf of all Australian states and territories, with the findings set to help shape the design of the national PSMB. According to De Courteney, the ideal network would include technologies including live video streaming, location tracking and telemetry, and flood and fire sensors — much of which exists already but now needs to be deployed in a public safety context.

The conference also heard from Neal Richardson, Strategy Manager for Next Generation Critical Communications (NGCC) — New Zealand’s leading adviser on delivering a public safety network. Richardson noted that his country’s existing LMR networks are nearing their end of life, and are in need of better coverage and resilience. Yet the journey towards a new network has had a few false starts, Richardson admitted — back in 2019 it was thought that PTT over cellular would be appropriate, but it was later deemed not robust enough for emergency services, so there was a shift in focus to digital LMR. He also noted that any new technology must be affordable enough that it won’t break the bank for charitable organisations (such as St John New Zealand and Wellington Free Ambulance), and should be rolled out fast enough that governments don’t need to keep investing in existing ageing infrastructure — with one option being to overlay critical communications on existing commercial networks.

Finally, attendees heard from Richard Reed, CTO of FirstNet USA — an independent agency contracted by the US Government to deploy a nationwide wireless broadband communications platform dedicated to first responders and public safety. FirstNet emerged from tragic circumstances, calling on Congress to fund and provide spectrum to solve critical communications challenges following the September 11 terrorist attacks. In 2012 Congress passed the Spectrum Act, setting aside 20 MHz of highly desirable spectrum in the 700 MHz frequency band, known as Band 14, which was to be reserved exclusively for emergency communications. Since then, FirstNet has been consulting with public safety agencies and working to build the network through a partnership with AT&T. Over 95% of the radio access network build has now been completed, at an impressive speed which Reed attributes to the fact that FirstNet was able to simply add Band 14 to existing AT&T towers covering 2.8 million square miles. No doubt New Zealand’s NGCC would approve of this strategy.

Resilience and natural disasters

So how do you ensure resilience in your network, particularly when faced by natural disasters? As noted by speaker Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of Resilience NSW, in the past three years his state has endured drought, bushfires, storms and floods — and while he does not personally believe this series of events qualifies as the “the new normal”, he did describe it as “the new extreme” and said that we need to plan for it.

Hamish Duff, Managing Director of Mastercom, added that you have to plan to fail when building comms networks, because LTE networks fail all the time and comms infrastructure can go down or be lost entirely during natural disasters; this has certainly been the case during the 2022 Lismore floods. He suggested the use of hybridised networks, with LTE complementing and adding broadband capability to LMR — so that if one system is down, users can just switch to the other. Indeed, Simoco CEO Peter Scarlata confirmed that many agencies are reluctant to jump entirely to LTE networks, more likely verging towards a hybrid of LMR, LTE and mesh.

Graham Tait, Mesh Solutions Lead at Hypha by Wireless Innovation, put forth vehicle-as-a-node (Vaan) technology as another option for improving resilience in remote areas — whereby a vehicle or other device (such as a boat, a trailer, an aircraft or even a backpack) can be used to act as a repeater when the user is beyond range of Wi-Fi and other connectivity types. Tait noted that satellite coverage is a key component of VaaN as it’s non-terrestrial, and so therefore not affected by disasters; emergency services organisations are thus already fitting their VaaN systems with satellite capability. Furthermore, mesh systems can be used to keep responders connected even when they’re away from the vehicle, or to connect multiple VaaN solutions together.

Satellites and drones

Further on the topic of satellite technology, Scott Leyonhjelm from consulting company Nova Systems helmed a panel outlining three different categories of satellite — geostationary (GEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO) and low Earth orbit (LEO) — as well as satellite-to-cellular connectivity. Leyonhjelm noted that the satellite industry is being revolutionised by the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, while other satellite operators are also starting to be a lot more proactive in creating an environment with lots of technology innovation; this is evident in the fact that the number of satellites in the sky is expected to increase 20-fold in the next five years, from 5000 to 100,000. And while this is good news in terms of coverage and connectivity, the audience did express some concern about the dangers of these future satellites potentially colliding with space debris — with the panel conceding that while there are strict regulations to prevent that sort of thing, issues could arise in the case of any bad actors who would seek to cause a deliberate collision.

Another emerging technology for mission-critical response is drones. Jackie Dujmovic, founder and CEO of Hover UAV, spoke about how the drones market is expanding significantly, particularly with public safety agencies in the US — an approach she is keen to see replicated in Australia, with potential applications including use by the police and for search and rescue operations at sea. Speaking on the latter, she said the mere sight of a drone is enough to assure a person in distress that help is coming, enabling them to relax rather than to waste energy panicking — and in critical situations, that could be the difference between life and death.

Michael Ryan, Principal Consultant at Titan ICT, added that another application for drone technology is in assessing telecommunication towers, thus replacing human riggers in what was previously a dangerous and time-consuming undertaking. By providing photos, videos and other data, Ryan said drones can enable towers to be maintained efficiently and effectively. Drones can thus be used to support other communications technologies, not just replace them.

Keen for more Comms Connect content? Fear not, as the event will return in 2023 with editions in Christchurch (June) and Melbourne (October). For further updates, keep an eye on https://www.comms-connect.com.au/.

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