Finland's plans for PPDR mobile broadband

By Jonathan Nally
Thursday, 04 April, 2019

Finland's plans for PPDR mobile broadband

Finland is served by a national TETRA public safety radio network called VIRVE, which is used by a variety of public agencies — the Emergency Response Centre Agency, fire and rescue services, police, social services, the defence forces, border guards, customs, railway operators and vital businesses such as the energy sector. VIRVE is operated by Suomen Erillisverkot Group, a non-profit company owned by the Finnish government. The system has 41,000 subscribers and more than 1300 base stations spread across the nation. On an average day, VIRVE users make 150,000 group calls and send 7.5 million short data messages, the latter being far higher than for any other country.

As is the situation in many countries, Finland’s public safety radio network provides reliable voice and short data services but not mobile broadband, while the country’s commercial mobile broadband providers have good coverage in terms of population compared to many other countries. But commercial broadband does not quite cover everywhere and, importantly, it does not offer a mission-critical level of service (even though it is common for VIRVE users to benefit from commercial mobile broadband services, but not for mission-critical purposes). A solution to bridge the gap between mission-critical narrowband services and best-effort commercial broadband services has been the introduction of multi-access routes and connection-aware applications that adapt to the service available.

One option for the provision of mission-critical broadband would be for the government to build a dedicated nationwide network, but this would require substantial funding and bandwidth below 1 GHz. This is not possible, however, as commercial network operators hold all the licences for spectrum in the 700, 800 and 900 MHz bands. The situation, then, is that the commercial networks will have to satisfy the needs of public safety agencies. To that end, Erillisverkot is to become a virtual operator — later to be upgraded to service provider status — and will have public safety priority and pre-emption powers.

The planned new mobile broadband capability has become known as VIRVE 2.0. In 2018, the Finnish government, through the Ministry of Finance, set a completion date of the end of 2025 for VIRVE 2.0, although this will depend on the project beginning on time… and the project can’t commence until it can be shown that it will actually meet the needs of public safety users.

To that end, Erillisverkot formed a Department of Mobile Technology Development and Strategy charged with managing the development and transition from TETRA to mobile broadband. As a first step, Erillisverkot issued a request for information (RFI) to industry to get an idea for possible solutions and to assess the challenges facing the project. That RFI, which was based upon a number of national goals, brought 11 responses from industry (which were followed up in workshop sessions with each respondent).

National goals

The high-level national goals set for VIRVE 2.0 are as follows:

  • It must provide secure, 3GPP-based, mission-critical mobile broadband with wide geographic coverage, high availability, QPP functions and national roaming.
  • The service must be competitively priced in order for it to become the network of choice for PPDR users.
  • Erillisverkot will be the service operator, handling subscriber services and application development using open standards.
  • It must support mission-critical and non-mission-critical services based on different user needs, and eventually provide 3GPP MCPTT, MCVideo and MCData services.
  • Availability must be ensured through improved power supplies, transmission links and redundant network elements.
  • Security must be top of mind during and after development to ensure services and data are protected and unauthorised use prevented.
  • Interoperability is the aim for all Finnish public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) users, plus the system should enable them to work with other European PPDR mobile broadband users.
  • Access must be available to any 3GPP-based terminal, while Erillisverkot will be responsible for implementing a high-security terminal ecosystem.
  • A solution will be implemented to ease migration from TETRA, and there will be integration of other systems such as the ERICA national emergency response system.
  • It will be based on open 3GPP standards, with the minimum requirement being Release 15.
  • The system will be hardened in terms of supply and preparedness, eg, in terms of coverage, availability, usability, data security, and power resilience.

Schematic map of Finland showing radio base station symbols distribution across the country

RFI and responses

The June 2018 RFI was issued to industry in order for Finland’s decision-makers to “gain a better understanding of the status of the related technologies and the network operators’ ability to provide MC broadband services”. The aim was to solicit information and “start a discussion with the industry without restrictions”.

Responses were received from Finland’s three main mobile operators as well as core network vendors, each of which provided valuable feedback and insights.

As far as the radio access network (RAN) is concerned, the main challenge relates to coverage, with current mobile networks having city areas with extensive coverage while many rural areas have sparse coverage. In contrast, the current VIRVE TETRA network has almost complete national coverage.

The MNOs said that the easiest implementation of mission-critical LTE services would come from using a single RAN, obviating the need for national roaming abilities. The MNOs also offered public–private partnership models under which all capacity would be available for PPDR if needed.

In terms of core architecture, the MNOs agreed that the two schemes proposed — multi-operator core network (MOCN) and full mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) — are currently the best options, adding that the choice should be left to the service operator. Core network vendors gave their blessing to both schemes in general, but had some arguments against each of them.

All the suppliers agreed that the MOCN model “would provide more control, independency and possibilities to provide self-managed and customised end-to-end services”. However, this was also seen as adding complexity to the network set-up. In summary, most of the suppliers recommended using the MVNO model in the early stage of VIRVE 2.0 deployment.

In terms of estimated costs, the respondents found it difficult or impossible to put figures to their suggestions, given the present uncertainty over proposed network details. However, the “total costs of the MOCN model were thought to be higher, even if some thought that the MVNO model could be more costly for the MNOs to support”. One respondent did give a range of figures for various options, but the aforementioned uncertainty meant the minimum and maximum cost estimates varied almost five-fold.

As far as mission-critical services go, most suppliers agreed that those functionalities “are not yet there”, with many stating that it would be “quite a long time” before this functionality becomes available. The year 2022 was suggested by most as being a realistic time frame for when both RAN operators and core suppliers would have implemented Release 15.

When it comes to security, a number of pros and cons were raised, including the need to consider security standards and certification of supplier companies. The importance of having a security operations centre, as well as security cooperation between operators, vendors, national authorities and other interested parties, was also raised. All of the operators expressed their willingness to implement additional security measures where needed.

Erillisverkot’s intention to establish a device ecosystem produced generally positive feedback, with some suppliers going so far as to say it would be essential for the project’s success. The respondents recommended that standardised equipment be used as much as possible, while adding that different PPDR requirements would see the need for a variety of equipment types, eg, COTS devices, hybrid (LTE+TETRA) terminals, hardened smartphones and IoT devices. It was noted that operations would require support not just from the network, but also from the device chipsets, SIMs and applications.

System status

New legislation assigning the Suomen Erillisverkot Group as the service operator for VIRVE 2.0 came into force at the beginning of February 2019. At the same time a Bill was passed mandating that radio access providers enable pre-emptive priority access over all their frequency licences as well as on all of their technologies, including 5G. A third important piece of legislation concerned national roaming — it will be mandatory for MNOs to support national roaming for VIRVE 2.0 subscribers. In practice, this will be valid for situations where the primary radio access service is not available either due to malfunction or lack of service coverage.

These legislative changes have enabled the procurement process to begin. On 13 March, public notices were issued for procurement of a RAN service for mission-critical users as well as for procurement of a 4G/5G core network. The aim is to issue a final RFT after the negotiations early in Q3 2019, leading to a decision by the end of this year.

Following that, the next stage will be to issue an RFI for a mission-critical application ecosystem in Q3 2019, followed by procurement of the mission-critical applications (planned to commence in Q1 2020).

Suomen Erillisverkot Group representatives — including Heikki Riippa, Senior Adviser in the Suomen Erillisverkot Oy Authority — will be attending Comms Connect Sydney in June, where they will provide an update of the VIRVE 2.0 process and a more detailed briefing of the findings so far, as well as the future roadmap.

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