Update on mission-critical technology developments

Australasian Critical Communications Forum
By Jonathan Nally
Monday, 19 October, 2020

Update on mission-critical technology developments

Work is proceeding on the steps needed to move the mission-critical sector into a mobile broadband future.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought disruption to societies and industry sectors across the globe in 2020, work has nonetheless proceeded on a range of technological and organisational developments in the mission-critical communications sphere… particularly for that of the public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) sector.

More countries are deploying or moving closer to deploying PSMB networks, and new technologies such as 5G are promising to make their way into the mix of solutions that will become available.

To get an update on progress in various mission-critical communications matters that have been ongoing throughout the year, we conducted the following Q&A with Tony Gray, CEO of The Critical Communications Association (TCCA), and Anton Abrahams, Chairman of the Australasian Critical Communications Forum (ACCF).


What has been the impact of the pandemic on ACCF/TCCA activities?

As with all organisations, with the cancellation and postponement of in-person events, the pandemic has significantly altered the way TCCA and the ACCF work. However, with the vast majority of the work taking place online, projects have continued largely uninterrupted and we continue to provide a platform for the exchange of information and experience between members globally, to work with global standardisation organisation such as ETSI and 3GPP, and to drive the evolution of critical communications worldwide.

We postponed our major Critical Communications World Conference and Exhibition live event to June 2021 in Madrid and replaced it with an online virtual conference and exhibition Critical Communications Week 2020 in the first week of November. TCCA has also been hosting a number of webinars, supported by ETSI, ETSI TC-TCCE, MCS-TaaSting, the Global Certification Forum, Leeds University Business School, BAPCO, Omdia and a number of European government operators.

After Comms Connect cancelled its face-to-face conferences and exhibitions for 2020, ACCF was invited to use the Comms Connect online platform for an August webinar where it provided an update on ETSI and 3GPP activities and on ‘Unifying MC communications — how and what’s next’.

ACCF will further support the Comms Connect Virtual Series in November with a keynote presentation on ‘Digital LMR powering ahead — how and why’.

What’s the latest in standardisation news within the different comms technologies?

TCCA continues to work with global standardisation bodies ETSI and 3GPP to drive the evolution of critical communications worldwide and stay across the rollout of various national mission-critical (MC) broadband networks such as FirstNet (USA), SafeNet (S-Korea), ESN (UK), Virve 2.0 (Finland) and others.

The migration to MC broadband and the concept of broadband interworking with current narrowband systems such as TETRA and P25 is of importance to public safety and other vertical markets moving towards either hybrid networks or migrating over time entirely to MC broadband.

With TCCA’s continuous support and involvement as the 3GPP Market Representation Partner (MRP) for critical communications, the 3GPP standards developments are ongoing. Currently work is focused on 3GPP Release 17. Support has been provided to the utilities sector — mainly via E-UTC — as well as railways via the UIC for Release 18 initial content.

3GPP LTE Release 16 has been completed, including MC work items such as Enhanced MC Communication Interworking with LMR Systems. However, since all work in working groups since March has been virtual, a delay of at least a quarter can be expected leading the completion towards the end of 2021.

3GPP Release 16 includes:

  • Mission-critical services over 5G
  • Enhancements for railway communication
  • Content and media servers, file distribution
  • IOPS – Isolated E-UTRAN for public safety
  • Common features with other 5G services
  • Satellite 5G access
  • Drones
  • Multicast, unicast, broadcast
  • Device2Device/Sidelink
  • Open Service APIs
  • Generic API platform for all services

How is the certification process responding to user needs?

The public safety and mission-critical user community has a strong requirement for interoperability certification and multi-vendor supply of MC broadband solutions that are capable of very high degrees of availability, priority, pre-emption, trusted security and extensive coverage.

The Global Certification Forum (GCF) and TCCA initially combined their expertise to establish a Joint Task Force for mission-critical product certification. The task force worked from January until June 2020 and assessed the possibilities for a certification scheme, conducting a gap analysis in terms of frequency bands and MC functionalities compared with current available processes in GCF. Subsequently, a jointly run Mission Critical Agreement Group (MCAG) has been established under GCF auspices to progress testing and certification for mission-critical products.

As a working example, the TETRA world has a very successful and established interoperability process (IOP) managed by TCCA in which all major TETRA manufacturers participate. This is what many future MC broadband users are also expecting and require for 3GPP standardised MC Broadband solutions — notwithstanding that the IOP environment for MC broadband will be quite different as, unlike TETRA IOP, hardware and software are separated both on the infrastructure and on devices, resulting in different business models.

From the TETRA IOP experience, a multi-vendor market gives benefits both to the users in terms of the broadest product portfolio of compatible equipment and interoperability, competitive pricing and rapid entry of new product models; and to the industry in terms of a wider accessible market, faster market take-up and better directed investment in new product developments.

In order to meet the MC broadband interoperability objectives, similarly as was done for TETRA IOP, various testing initiatives such as the ETSI MCX Plugtests, conformance testing and software and product interoperability testing were needed to ensure that products conform to the standard, and to procure functions and features in a multi-vendor business environment where products are interoperable.

The ETSI MCX Plugtests supported by TCCA were implemented in 2017, where vendors test their 3GPP MCPTT/MCX implementations with each other. These Plugtests have continued successfully with more and more participants.

The fifth MCX Plugtests (MCX#5) took place remotely at the end of September and beginning of October 2020. The ACCF participated in the MCX#5 Plugtests observer program, providing an overview on the ANZ critical broadband landscape.

When do you think 5G will be able to fit in with mission-critical users?

5G only started commercially during the first half of 2019, by providing enhanced mobile broadband services with higher data rates and more capacity compared to those offered by LTE networks. The next phases will include enhancements in network reliability and latency suitable for critical industry applications.

5G will also bring network slicing capability so that different end-to-end, separate virtual networks with their own individual requirements can be provided and operated independently for each customer.

As critical broadband matures — with first deployments already in place around the world to enhance first responders’ situational awareness and operations — it’s not too early for mission-critical operators and public safety agencies to start considering when and how they will take advantage of 5G capabilities. In Release 16 (this year) 3GPP has been working on ‘Mission Critical services over 5G’.

5G will enable rapid deployment of new supply chains and logistic modes, connecting manufacturers with their suppliers faster and more directly, and help to aggregate vast amounts of data from multiple, dispersed sources for better insight into operational status.

It will also enable new levels of supply chain visibility and transparency — an attribute that could prove highly valuable, for example in pandemic track and trace. Urban areas, with their high population densities, have proven to be the epicentre of COVID-19 outbreaks and 5G could bring new ways to inform citizens, connect services and therefore enhance public safety.

5G-enabled data transfer and analytics can be applied to information about transport and public services in a dynamic way in real time.

Much is already predicted for 5G’s impact on healthcare, with HD-quality telemedicine and mobile health destined for major advances. But there are technologies currently in use that could potentially transform with 5G such as thermal cameras already in use at airports as a preliminary diagnostic tool.

Do you think enough is being done to address the problem of cybersecurity?

Moving from the traditional LMR systems to MC broadband will increase efficiency and capability, but the transition also sees the end of the highly secure and controllable ecosystems of the past, posing cybersecurity challenges.

One of the greatest issues is that public safety, emergency and essential services network operators may not own or control the entire system. And some assets may be shared with or even owned by others such as telecom operators/mobile network operators (MNO).

The cyber-attack surface is rapidly expanding in the move to IP networks. The simpler legacy LMR voice systems were designed without IP data protocols —the ‘attack surface’, therefore, was a much narrower interface. But when we move to heterogeneous IP-based networks, there are many paths through which data can travel, so the perimeter needs to be secure.

A number of MC Broadband vendors are developing products with cybersecurity in mind and/or working with organisations to overcome certain threats. As mobile devices perform everyday public safety and enterprise tasks, they regularly process, modify and store sensitive data.

While the diversity and complexity of the mobile ecosystem and the rapid pace of change offer challenges to selection, integration, and management of mobile technologies into a public safety enterprise IT environment, there will be a need that — before designing and deploying mobile device solutions — organisations conduct a threat assessment for managing and using mobile devices and mobile apps to access and process sensitive data.

For example, in the USA general security recommendations for any IT technology are provided by NIST in Special Publication (SP) 800-53, Security and Privacy Controls for U.S. Federal Information Systems and Organizations.

And in Europe, the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) issued the report Protecting Industrial Control System Recommendations for Europe and Member States, which contains practical recommendations to enhance co-operation and information sharing, and developing new measures and good practices.

Are your members concerned by technology tensions between the US and China?

All our members work to the common goal of enhancing critical communications. TCCA member organisations which would elsewhere be considered competitors collaborate successfully in several of TCCA’s Working Groups to achieve advancements that benefit the sector as a whole.

Has COVID-19 has caused any problems with the fulfilment of comms contracts?

As far as Australia is concerned, our members have seen delays in shipment and deliveries because of international flight restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, whilst the shipping costs almost doubled.

This also restricted the support of factory specialists needed for certain projects. Due to internal Australian border closures, it has been difficult for installation crews to attend to the implementation of LMR systems in various states.

However, there was some ongoing run rate in the resources sector with new mines being rolled out, along with local government and utilities developments in some states. We expect market improvements once COVID-19 restrictions ease.

Ongoing refresh of subscriber products is expected and there are opportunities from private rail and mining projects planned in various parts of Australia. While interest in and demand for private LTE is growing in the resources sector, there seems to be acceptance now that LMR/PMR for critical communications — operating in tandem with broadband for data — is a way forward.

What developments do you expect to see in 2021? What would you like to see?

During the pandemic, telemedicine, videoconferencing and cloud-based solutions are demonstrating their value, with all levels of the public safety community benefiting from that broadband capability.

So, MC broadband is no longer just an option. We believe that public safety agencies and mission-critical users are undergoing a process of reinvention due to COVID-19. They need the ability to send and receive mission-critical information securely and reliably in emergency situations, be it voice or data or video.

MC broadband transforms traditional mission-critical (first responder) communications and digitisation of communication and collaboration platforms. High-quality and reliable data transfers improve operational workflows and break down data silos, enabling informed real-time decisions to be made for public safety and mission-critical operations.

TCCA’s main goal globally is unchanged: to drive the development and operation of common mobile and broadband standards and solutions for public safety and all the other critical communications groups, while ensuring the enhancement of the TETRA standard to safeguard users through to 2035 and beyond.

The ACCF will continue to focus on critical broadband and our region’s transition from critical narrowband technologies into one common 3GPP standard for mission-critical broadband.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/jijomathai

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