Comms Connect Melbourne 2023: conference highlights

Comms Connect (WFevents)

By Lauren Davis
Wednesday, 08 November, 2023


Comms Connect Melbourne 2023: conference highlights

The Southern Hemisphere’s premier critical communications event, Comms Connect, returned to Melbourne last month with a two-day conference and exhibition on 18–19 October, plus preconference workshops from ARCIA and the ACCF on 17 October. The event felt very timely given recent milestones, including the launch of the Australian Public Safety Mobile Broadband (PSMB) Taskforce, the Tasmanian Government Radio Network (TasGRN) and the first service delivered on New Zealand’s Public Safety Network (PSN), all of which were discussed in depth at the show.

Attendance was also particularly strong this year, with more visitors on day one than any previous day in the history of the event and more expo-only attendees than at any previous event. This contributed to a buzzing expo floor throughout the two days, as well as good turnouts across all three of the conference streams.

Public Safety Mobile Broadband

Several presentations were based around the journey towards an Australian PSMB capability, with the conference taking place just weeks after the federal government established a PSMB Taskforce to help lay the groundwork for Australia’s long-term public safety communications infrastructure. Kylie De Courteney, the Managing Director of the NSW Telco Authority, said she was thankful for the creation of the taskforce, but also that the Authority would be continuing its own work to narrow the digital divide — including by conducting technology tests in its 5G innovation lab; by making constant improvements to the NSW Public Safety Network (PSN), which it runs; and by rolling out broadband deployables including cell-on-wheels (COWs) and vehicle-as-a-node (VaaN) devices in situations where they are needed. The Authority is also keen to share any data with other bodies around the country, to assist those without the resources to conduct their own tests.

So other states may be able to learn from the NSW Telco Authority, but what can Australia learn from other countries with PSMB? Perhaps the most well-known example of PSMB is the USA’s FirstNet network, led by Executive Director Joe Wassel, which seeks to provide the best possible capability for first responders across the United States and its associated territories. According to Wassel, the “secret sauce” to the program’s success is its use of dedicated spectrum, with the US Government setting aside Band 14 spectrum specifically for public safety, serving as a sort of VIP lane that is available only to first responders on FirstNet. FirstNet has also begun rolling out 5G connectivity, which it will use in tandem with LTE.

But is dedicated spectrum truly essential for PSMB? James Pickens, CTO of the NSW Telco Authority, argued that it is possible to have PSMB without dedicated spectrum, so long as there is support from the major carriers. Jason Johur, Broadband Industry Group Chair of TCCA, agreed that spectrum does not need to be dedicated so long as the commercial PSMB carrier has sufficient assets that can be allocated. Phil Crnko, Director of Engineering at PSBN Innovation Alliance Canada, noted that Canada uses a hybrid model — both dedicated and open access — and is also planning non-terrestrial networks (NTN) as a backup. Hypha CEO Neil Jamieson said he can’t imagine Australian terrestrial networks being sufficient on their own in the face of natural disasters, with Pickens agreeing that future PSMB should include low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite connectivity.

Satellite and other infrastructure-free comms

As explained by Peter Scarlata, CEO of Simoco Australia, part of the reason that Australia will need infrastructure-free solutions such as LEO satellites, as well as mesh networks and radio over LTE, is the fact that it is simply not financially viable to install physical infrastructure in the country’s most isolated areas — particularly when such infrastructure could easily be destroyed by natural disasters. Ashley Hunter, an Intelligent Network Automation Executive at Telstra, remarked that Western Australia recently announced world-first plans to integrate LEO satellite technology into the police communications network — only a quarter of the state currently has mobile coverage, he noted — with WA Police’s Brett Pearson confirming that Starlink has performed well in recent satellite technology trials, including during April’s Total Solar Eclipse event in the coastal town of Exmouth.

Scarlata explained that LEO satellites offer coverage in non-existent signal areas, broadband capability and easy accessibility, with infrastructure-free solutions in general being cheaper to install with lower power costs, no site rental costs, no backhaul costs and no spectrum costs — though there are higher operational and maintenance costs. Hunter went so far as to claim that we can expect LEO direct-to-handset services around 2024–25 — a prediction that ended up being surprisingly accurate, with Starlink announcing just days after the conference its plan to roll out Direct to Cell text services in 2024, followed by voice, data and IoT connectivity in 2025.

Daniel Field, MD of startup company Skysite, meanwhile spoke of the emerging field of HAPS, or high-altitude platform stations, designed to provide observation or communication services from the stratosphere. He said the stratosphere provides new opportunities for aircraft without needing to send them into LEO or higher, although there are challenges to overcome: the air is very thin and very cold, so any aircraft would have to be lightweight and could not be made of conventional materials. The field is, however, currently ripe for R&D and entry-level testing, Field said, with recent developments in balloon-type, fixed-wing and airship HAPS — each of which has its advantages and disadvantages — from companies such as Skysite. Indeed, he said the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) developed its own fixed-wing HAPS as a research project 10 years ago and has recently resurrected it due to burgeoning commercial interest, indicating that a wider rollout of this technology could be closer than we think.

Where to with P25?

As critical comms technology continues to evolve, with the move into 5G and even 6G, there is the question of whether older standards such as P25 will continue to be relevant. Cheryl Giggetts, from the Project 25 Technology Interest Group, acknowledged that P25 equipment can be high in cost, but said it has the advantage of being proven to work — so you know what you’re getting, regardless of which vendor or device you use — and that the standard is being continually adapted to meet the changing technology ecosystem, with new capabilities including security updates, GPS location and user IDs.

Indeed, P25 is key to the newly launched TasGRN — a partnership between eight organisations comprising over 7500 users — with Tim Rutherford from Tasmania’s Department of Police, Fire & Emergency Management saying the LMR network, which doubled the state’s radio coverage, was designed to be the “last network standing”. Dylan Earle, Business Solutions Manager at Tait Communications, added that the resilience of LMR has very much been demonstrated in New Zealand, with the network staying up even in the face of cyclones and floods. He concluded that we should expect P25 to be around for a long time yet — as it is reliable, robust and mission critical — and that we should ultimately aim for an interoperable network that accommodates P25 as well as other tools and standards. No doubt the discussion will continue when Comms Connect returns in 2024 — with events currently planned for New Zealand in June and Melbourne in October — so keep an eye out for updates at https://www.comms-connect.com.au/.

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