Comms Connect review: collaboration key for critical comms agencies

By Andrew Hooker*
Wednesday, 01 November, 2023

Comms Connect review: collaboration key for critical comms agencies

As agencies on both sides of the Tasman lead the drive to deliver critical communications for public safety in our countries, collective learning is one of our greatest assets. That was a key takeaway for me attending October’s Comms Connect in Melbourne, representing Next Generation Critical Communications (NGCC) Aotearoa New Zealand.

It was an inspiring and collegial event that highlighted how us agencies involved in building ‘once in a generation’ replacement critical communications networks are tackling many of the same challenges — and that networking is key to accelerating delivery of communications services that save lives.

We all have a strong willingness and drive to get these critical public safety networks solutions in place. Talking to my colleagues across Australia reinforced the fact that building these networks is hard, including because it is not a BAU practice for many of our network suppliers to build large — in New Zealand’s case, national — networks across complex geographies. Finding out from others what’s worked or not is key and immensely beneficial.

For example, Tasmania is getting good results thanks to bringing utility providers into their radio network project as founding partners. This assists with both site acquisition and the all-important access to power — which are the most challenging things to get in place. Indeed, getting a site acquisition team in as early as possible and front-footing the design is standard for mobile network operators, to help avoid delays down the track.

It was great for NGCC to be able to share our experience of getting our new national Public Safety Network cellular roaming service live in July this year on schedule and budget.

What was our approach and what can others learn? Well, we took a simple route but one that asked for — and received — great collaboration from our national commercial cellular providers. Rather than building a new cellular core network, our Public Safety Network uses the existing Spark and One NZ cellular RAN and CORE infrastructure, improving coverage reliability and resilience through a multi-network solution.

This required the creation of Hourua, a joint venture between our two major cellular carriers, and a single SIM, to provide access to both of their networks for the emergency services. Next year, NGCC will launch a quality, priority and pre-emption (QPP) cellular service which will mean emergency communications take priority over other mobile users on cellular networks when the networks are congested or degraded.

Comms Connect also provides an inspiring opportunity to see new communications capabilities becoming available to the sector, such as private LTE and drones, which have been used by other industries but are now coming onboard for our work. Capability such as the 3GPP MCX InterWorking Function (IWF) is now becoming mainstream to enable mission-critical push-to-talk services over LTE, providing seamless interconnectivity across land, mobile and cellular networks. It’s great to see this new capability being offered by vendors as we think about evolving to meet the changing needs of emergency responder organisations.

I was excited to see the NSW Telco Authority has implemented a tool for what I would call ‘unified network visibility’. By combining cellular coverage with LMR coverage, the Authority can show a unified view of available communication services. This provides a great capability for multiple agencies at major incidents, supporting planning ahead of dispatching emergency teams.

Ultimately, this is an exciting and transformational time harnessing technologies to save lives and help keep responders safe. Comms Connect highlighted that with the collective nature of our work and our challenges, keeping up communications will ensure we’re not reinventing the wheel and are learning from each other for the good of our emergency services and, ultimately, our communities.

*Andrew Hooker is Chief Technical Director at Next Generation Critical Communications Poutama Whai Tikanga Pāpāho, New Zealand.

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