Public safety comms in the spotlight

By Jonathan Nally
Tuesday, 25 June, 2019

Public safety comms in the spotlight

Australia’s future public safety mobile broadband system was a hot topic at Comms Connect Sydney.

The topic of public safety mobile broadband (PSMB) was front and centre of much of the discussions and presentations at Comms Connect Sydney in mid-June, where attendees were given an in-depth insight into developments both in Australia and abroad.

The intellectual ‘firepower’ present was quite impressive. There was Ed Parkinson, senior executive in charge of the US FirstNet network, plus Heikki Rippa representing the equivalent effort in Finland, and Steve Hwang representing South Korea’s Safe-Net. Also from Finland was Tero Pesonen, a leading authority on PSMB and standards work. And from the UK there was Tony Gray, who heads up TCCA. There were also plenty of local and international case studies in PSMB, 5G and other business- and mission-critical communications applications, both theoretical and real-world.

We’ll cover all of these aspects in separate articles to come, but for now we’ll concentrate on home-grown developments. Indeed, all eyes were on the presentations dealing with developments in Australia’s PSMB efforts.

Luke Brown, Assistant Secretary in the federal government’s Department of Home Affairs, was on hand once again to provide a ‘town hall-style’ snapshot of the status of PSMB at a national level.

“Since I last spoke at Comms Connect seven months ago, I think it’s fair to say that governments have done a lot in that period of time,” he said. “All Australian governments, including the Commonwealth, have been progressing a national public safety mobile broadband initiative now for a number of years.”

Noting that getting all Australian jurisdictions on the one page “isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do”, Brown outlined the strategic roadmap that was agreed in December last year at the national Council of Australian Governments meeting.

The roadmap “really is a representation of a commitment by all Australian governments to progressive public safety mobile broadband for Australia”, he said. “We are collectively driving down the path of implementing PSMB in Australia in accordance with it.

“We’ve drawn on our international partnerships in helping frame it. We think it’s a realistic implementation plan,” he said. “It also spells out a number of other work streams that need a lot of work in this process, particularly made more challenging by the fact that Australia is a federation.”

Brown said that to progress the roadmap, “the Commonwealth Government is working very closely with all jurisdictions, but in particular with the jurisdiction of NSW, [and has] established a national Project Management Office in Sydney in the NSW Telco Authority, to effectively drive, coordinate and steer that work on behalf of all jurisdictions”.

“We’ve identified the blueprint, we’ve established an office to start to drive and steer all the work, and we started investing in some of those initiatives,” he said.

Brown also commented on the request for proposals issued to industry late last year, which included a call for a proof-of-concept trial. The proof of concept aims to test the PSMB delivery model across urban, regional and remote locations in Australia over a period six to 12 months, and is expected to begin in the second half of 2019.

“All states and territories are participating in that proof of concept. We’ve been evaluating it for quite some time,” he said.

Brown acknowledged that probity issues restricted what he was able to say, but noted that “I think it’s fair to say that those of us that have been intimately involved in the evaluation of the proposals for the proof of concept, were pleased with the depth of the market response. To say we were surprised might also be a fair comment.

“The depth of the response has given us a lot of food for thought, and as a consequence we continue to deliberate on the best course of action,” he added. “I’m confident that there’ll be a resolution to that process soon and an announcement to the market and/or a trial of some kind to get underway in the second half of this year.”

Brown added that, while the present focus of work is on the core network architecture and technology, it was interesting to see the power of the applications ecosystem at work with the operational FirstNet network in the US.

“I had the pleasure of being in the US last week at a very large-scale urban search and rescue exercise that Australia participated in, and it was absolutely fascinating to have a look at the FirstNet applications that each of those firefighters, who were climbing over rubble, had in their mobile devices,” he said.

The importance of international standards and the prospect of Australia playing a larger role in their formation was a constant topic of discussion across the two days of Comms Connect Sydney. As a reflection of that, in answer to a question from the floor about whether Australia intends to become more involved with bodies such as the 3GPP, “The short answer is, yes,” Brown said.

The Program Management Office

As mentioned above, a national Program Management Office has been established, located within the NSW Telco Authority. Mary Egan, the Office’s Program Director, spoke immediately after Luke Brown at Comms Connect, and helped to bring the audience up to date with some of the thinking behind the project. Her presentation contained a lot of detail about project planning in general, and emphasised the potential for technological disruption in this, and other, fields.

In response to a question from the floor about how much input the public safety sector is having into the process, Egan said that “Working with the stakeholder community … has been an extremely important part of the process of not just understanding the needs but understanding the urgency.”

Egan also acknowledged that there is a level of frustration within the industry regarding how effective (or not) governments have been in communicating the progress being made, the suggestion being that the community feels it has been left a little bit in the dark. One questioner politely made it clear: “We still don’t know the stage you’re at… When can we expect to see things happening, and what can we do to help? It’s been three years and we still don’t know what’s going on.”

In response, Egan — who, in fairness, has only been in the job for a short while — pointed out that the Program Office was established a little less than five months ago, and that therefore it is still early days. But she gladly filled in some of the detail that the audience was thirsting for, explaining that the Program Office has established several work streams. The first is the PSMB capability stream, which encompasses the planned proof of concept mentioned above. “There’s been extensive evaluation around that, and before that [a] requirements capturing exercise which informed that activity,” she said.

Mary Egan on stage at Comms Connect

Mary Egan, Program Director, PSMB Program Management Office, speaking at Comms Connect.

There is also a governance stream to evaluate what the eventual PSMB management entity will look like. “There’s a … case to look at the national business case first and then what the jurisdictions might be expected to invest, in terms of PSMB,” she said.

There’s also a technology and services stream, which will develop the services roadmap for PSMB.

And finally, there’s consideration of spectrum needs. “We are very, very keen to get spectrum for the initiative if we can — [and] that’s not a given,” Egan said.

The level of frustration alluded to above should perhaps be seen as a healthy sign that the industry is eager to be involved in the process and has a thirst for information about progress being made. Certainly, the audience came away from the presentations better informed than before, and grateful to both Brown and Egan for providing their updates. Now that the Program Management Office is up and running, hopefully there will be a lot more progress to report by the time Comms Connect Melbourne rolls around in November.

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