Public safety communications in the post-COVID era
Having started our engagement with 3GPP back in 2012 — during Release 12 — with the creation of TCCA’s Broadband Group, it would be fair to say that the progress made by the European public safety communications community towards fully functional and deployable next-generation solutions has not been as rapid or as smooth as we would have liked.
Although significant progress has been made in the UK with the ESN, Finland with VIRVE 2.0 and France with RRF, only a few countries had even reached the pilot phase by the end of 2020 and there are still no fully operational networks on a significant scale.
As the wider world begins its move to 5G technology, the European public safety community is still depending on those narrowband stalwarts, TETRA and TETRAPOL, for its mission-critical communications needs.
2020 will forever be remembered as the year when our increasingly interconnected and interdependent modern world was struck a devastating blow by a truly global pandemic. Europe has been particularly badly hit over the past 12 months and there is still some way to go before we will get the all clear and be able to focus on rebuilding fractured societies and economies.
For major recovery programs to be truly successful, care and attention — and a considerable number of euros — will need to be dedicated by governments and public safety agencies in order to complete the full 3GPP-based digital transformation journey that we began almost a decade ago.
The travel and social distancing restrictions put in place across Europe and around the world during 2020 (and continuing into 2021) have slowed down progress within 3GPP on the latest Release 17 — although fortunately Release 16 was concluded during 2020, including important LTE-P25/TETRA interworking procedures. During 2020, Finland’s Erillisverkot also chose its suppliers for VIRVE 2.0 and the French Ministry of Interior launched the tender process for its ambitious RRF program.
There is still not enough prime spectrum for mission-critical services, forcing public safety agencies to partner with mobile operators to deliver more advanced services. But this is perhaps not such a negative development, as it means that both public and private players need to work closely together to make sure shared RAN networks are robust enough to deal with emergency situations. There is also a strong trend towards separate, dedicated, public safety core networks.
As numerous nationwide initiatives move forward, the European Commission and PSC Europe continue working with public safety agencies from 11 nations and three multidisciplinary consortia led by Airbus, Leonardo and Frequentis to deliver the BroadWay program, promising cross-border operable mobility based on 3GPP communications standards. PSC Europe has also just started a closely related BroadGNSS program, looking at incorporating Galileo-based satellite services into the public safety communications mix.
LTE/5G technology also continues to evolve further as more vertical industries — Industry 4.0, automotive, railways, utilities, etc — bring their requirements to 3GPP through a growing number of partner associations (such as 5G-ACIA, 5GAA, UIC/ERA, EUTC), building on the initial mission-critical work carried out by the public safety community within 3GPP SA6.
Work on non-public networks, satellite, common API frameworks, sidelink/D2D, multicast, time-sensitive networking, and the full range of mMTC and URLLC capabilities of full 5G systems will undoubtedly bring major future benefits to the public safety community over the next 5–10 years.
We are right in the middle of a major, global paradigm shift moving us away from the wasteful, destructive, resource-intensive economies of the recent past towards more service-based, human-centric, climate-friendly ones. 5G era technologies — including AI/ML; SDN/virtualisation/cloud-native architectures; multi-access edge computing; open RAN, transport and core; end-to-end network slicing; multi-domain orchestration and closed-loop automation — will transform the telecommunications sector, providing powerful new tools for first responders, who must no longer be forced to play catch-up with the commercial sector regarding advanced technology.
Just as Europe’s exit from COVID can only be secured by guaranteeing vaccines for the whole world, so European public safety agencies must work closely with their global counterparts to make sure there is one common global standard for next-generation critical communications. Such collaborative attitudes will provide the basic framework and underlying conditions for societies to build back better, smarter and safer in line with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
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