Britain sets the benchmark for Australasia

By Paul Isaacs, Airwave Solutions Australia**
Tuesday, 30 March, 2010

The primary remit of public safety communications is to provide a safe and secure environment to allow people to go about their daily business. This goal is not something that changes with the country, although the approaches taken and solutions required will differ as the geographical area and population density varies from one market to another.

Airwave Solutions is a British-based company that has experience in building and operating nationwide radio networks for the professional public safety community. The network, launched in 2005, is, I believe, the most extensive and advanced TETRA network in the world today.

While there are obvious differences between the communications needs for the Australasian markets compared with British requirements, there are also many similarities where Britain’s experience can be shared. Asia-Pacific’s public safety communications networks today are strikingly similar to Britain’s before 2005, when every agency had an individual radio network and communication between counties and agencies was rarely possible.

The equipment then being used in Britain was outdated and unencrypted transmissions presented serious security issues. Most communications were easily overheard by anybody with a simple scanning receiver, allowing details about emergency services operations to be leaked into the public domain.

This is where Australasian public safety communication networks stood until recently. Still, with wide-area digital networks yet to be fully deployed, public safety professionals cannot rely on communications with their colleagues due to huge blackspots in the network’s coverage.

The effect is that decisions taken at the scene of an incident frequently have to be made without the benefit of information available to the control room staff.

The Australasian public safety communications networks would benefit from a business model similar to the one Airwave developed for Britain. Comprising the establishment of a single government agency to address the specific public safety communications requirements within a state, it would entail the development of a single state-wide radio network for use by the state’s agencies.

A single network would be more successful in attracting funding - especially private-sector investment - and would streamline project management requirements, leading to faster program delivery. Moreover, it would facilitate the adoption of up-to-the-minute technologies to adequately address security, reliability and coverage issues.

Operation by a single independent organisation would facilitate the professional running of this network away from the pressures of individual agencies.

One crucial lesson learnt in Britain is that modern networks cannot be built using old strategies if the benefits of modern technologies are to be enjoyed. A P25 or TETRA network is closer to a GSM network than to a conventional private mobile radio network and has to be designed and operated accordingly.

The creation of a single government agency to establish a single network run by one dedicated operator will create both risks and opportunities. The risks - financial, commercial and operational - can be mitigated by a careful choice of operator and financier and through stringent service level agreements.

There is arguably less risk in having one well-designed and professionally maintained network than there is in relying on a hotchpotch of legacy networks using obsolete technology.

The opportunities, on the other hand, are immense. Safe, secure, reliable communications can be established with unprecedented levels of availability, operated by a body whose sole purpose is to deliver and maintain radio communications. This will enable emergency services personnel to be in constant communication with their chain of command, allowing them to both feel safer and be safer.

The experience gained and lessons learned by Airwave in Britain could facilitate the timely and efficient development of quality public safety communication networks that are both responsive and adaptive enough to match the challenging environments found in Australia and New Zealand.

**Paul Isaacs joined Airwave Solutions Australia as head of engineering, after six and a half years with the British parent company. Before his role as head of technical design and innovation, he led the team of 50 engineers that delivered Britain's TETRA trunked radio network, which now serves more than 250 organisations across the whole country, including police, fire and ambulance.

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