The evolving critical comms environment


By Ged Griffin, Centre for Disaster Management and Public Safety, University of Melbourne
Monday, 16 October, 2017


The evolving critical comms environment

Standards, spectrum, security, cloud computing, the IoT and applications were on the agenda at this year’s CCMENA.

I had the good fortune to once again attend the Critical Communications Middle East and North Africa (CCMENA) conference in Dubai (25–26 September 2017), and it offered me the opportunity to reflect on how much the conversation regarding public safety mobile broadband has advanced over the last 12 months. Last year the presentations and discussions were focused on a debate regarding the choice of networks in terms of 4G or 5G, and the strategy options in terms of dedicated, commercial or hybrid networks. This year there was a greater focus on applications and system features. It appeared that delegates had accepted that their choice of network will be driven by the availability of both budget and spectrum. I think this is a positive step as it enables decision-makers, vendors, engineers and users to start envisioning the huge potential of the new mobile broadband environment.

Barbara Held from Germany’s Federal Agency for Public Safety Digital Radio (BDBOS) provided a comprehensive overview of the current status and development of public safety broadband initiatives across Europe. It appears that there is either a strong focus on hybrid solutions or the various governments are still discussing a range of options, including testing some of these potential options.

Within the MENA region, authorities and decision-makers have few budgetary and spectrum restrictions and this has allowed them to be at the forefront of innovation. To this end, Dr Fahad Mushayt of BRAVO provided a detailed presentation outlining the strategic approach taken by Saudi Arabia to develop a nationwide critical communications service to meet the public safety needs of the kingdom. I am sure that the European delegates were envious of this operating environment, given their highly restrictive budgetary allocations and the limited spectrum availability in Europe. This environment is further complicated by cross-border relationships with multiple adjoining countries. As an Australian I can identify with the budgetary challenges, but I certainly appreciate the ACMA’s approach towards inclusive and strategic allocation of spectrum.

The key issues at the forefront of discussions this year included standards, spectrum alignment, security, cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and applications. Standards must be a critical element of our future communication ecosystems, as they are at the heart of interoperability and cost reduction. The key challenge is that a number of these standards are still being developed. So how do you specify or design a network without the full range of standards? Unfortunately there are no easy answers to this question, but it is obviously a shared responsibility of all participants within the communications industry. It also underpins the need to be actively involved in the various communication industry associations and to attend major communications conferences such as CCMENA and Comms Connect. The TCCA has also established the Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG) to drive the development and adoption of common global mobile broadband standards and solutions for users who operate in a mission- or business-critical environment.

Barbara Held speaking on stage

Barbara Held from Germany’s BDBOS, gave an overview of public safety broadband initiatives across Europe.

New technologies

Security within the LTE environment is a significant risk; it is an issue that has to be considered as a principle element within every aspect of the communications ecosystem. As detailed by Kiran Vaya of Motorola Solutions, the proliferation of IP-based technologies has resulted in a broadening of potential attack surfaces and this has been associated with a growing sophistication in attack methodologies. For these reasons, it is essential that public safety communications systems adopt a proactive and intelligence-led approach that provides in-depth protection for all elements of the ecosystem. Kiran outlined a five-step process that involved the stages of identify, protect, detect, respond and recover.

It appears that some developments within the artificial intelligence and network monitoring software communities may help to establish baseline activity and performance metrics which can be subsequently monitored to detect potential interference and snooping within our future systems. Delegates expressed an intention to work together to share knowledge regarding these types of security risks and recent activity. Once again, active involvement in industry associations like the TCCA and ARCIA will help communications industry stakeholders get access to some of these ‘lessons learned’ and insights.

The role of cloud computing within the new communications ecosystem is emerging as a core element of our future systems; however, the culture and attitudes of some stakeholders — especially within government and the public safety agencies — may be a challenge. Robin Davis (chair of the TCCA Transportation Working Group) gave an excellent presentation on the basics of how the cloud can provide significant financial benefits, as well as enhancing the efficiency and resilience of our future communications ecosystem. This presentation was further enhanced by Omid Mahboubi of the MENA Cloud Alliance, who has developed a cloud computing index to evaluate the maturity of cloud computing capability within the MENA region. This type of research will help decision-makers understand the potential challenges in using cloud computing to support the digital transformation of services. A copy of this report can be found at www.menacloud.org/Doc/MENACA CCI (c).pdf.

It would be interesting to see the results of a similar evaluation of the status of cloud computing in Australia and the Oceania region. The move away from the traditional ICT approach of using propriety agency-based servers, towards a more federated data model within the cloud, is likely to be a major change management issue — some ICT departments within agencies will see this as a key threat to their power base and influence. Strong leadership will be needed if we hope to transition to the cloud and realise the significant potential that is before us.

The IoT was a key topic of discussion, with an expert panel considering the hunger for data within the consumer space and its impact on the critical communications industry. It was suggested that, thanks to mobile devices and the IoT, we have moved from big data to hyperdata. Whilst this was a passing comment, there could be significant opportunities to streamline processes within a critical control room, but it will also require deeper thought regarding the human-machine interface to ensure that we do not overwhelm personnel working in this data-intensive environment.

This type of environment will be challenging if we want to take full advantage of the potential of new and emerging technology. Antti Kauppinen, of Finland’s State Security Networks Corporation, highlighted the need to carefully identify and prioritise the data needs of personnel and to adjust the presentation of any relevant data to fit the user needs or network capabilities. Nick Smye of Mason Advisory presented a detailed technical analysis and comparison of 3GPP IoT bearer standards and Low-Power Wide-Area (LPWA) approaches.

In terms of mission-critical SCADA networks, Nick suggested that IoT LPWA approaches are not yet suitable for operational use; however, they are mission-assistive. For example, the Remote Asset Inertial Monitoring and Alerting Network (RAINMAN) project in Scotland is significantly enhancing the effectiveness of monitoring wooden power poles. This approach reduces the number of catastrophic failures of the poles and the associated power outages. Nick suggested that these types of remote, low-power applications could be a ‘game changer’ and open up a whole new range of services.

In terms of applications, Motorola Solutions displayed its connected firefighter demonstration. This is an advanced application that shows how the IoT and mobility put advanced real-time intelligence from the fire ground or from inside a building into the hands of an incident controller and agency commander.

Simon Riese speaking on stage

Simon Riese outlined the ongoing work of Airbus in developing network management tools. Image courtesy Airbus Defence and Space.

An international effort

Video is emerging as another key feature of our future ecosystem, although, from the presentations given, the spatial enablement and visualisation of complex datasets appear to have a greater role and more impact than actual videos. This trend would suggest a need to invest in spatial data infrastructure to support new and advanced forms of data visualisations.

Marijo Novosel of the Croatian Ministry of Interior delivered a very interesting presentation on the potential role of video and ‘computing at the edge’. His outline of the potential benefits of computer vision, dynamic visual recognition and video analytics proved to be thought-provoking. For example, these tools can be used to detect abnormal behaviour of people or objects at a given location when compared to the average baseline activity. Similarly, a suspect object and potentially violent behaviour can be automatically detected and cause an alarm to be raised at a control centre.

Peter Clemons from Quixoticity outlined how technology is resulting in a more open and interconnected society where we are seeing the virtual convergence of everything. This situation has resulted in a lot of uncertainty for decision-makers. To this end, Peter is developing the Global Index for Critical Communications to assist in the decision-making process of governments, regulators, mobile operators and users. While he outlined the key criteria at CCMENA, the full index will be unveiled at Comms Connect Melbourne in November. The index examines 10 key markets, including Australia, and provides a framework for understanding the evolution of the critical communications world. I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in critical communications to attend Comms Connect Melbourne so that they can learn more about the index and get some insights into future opportunities within the industries associated with critical communications.

Simon Riese outlined the ongoing work of Airbus in developing network management tools to operate hybrid networks in a way that is invisible to end users. He also demonstrated the capabilities of Airbus’s Tactilon Dabat, which is the world’s first smartphone and TETRA radio combined into one device. This is a very impressive device and I think it provides some insight into the future of our mission-critical communications ecosystem. Going forward, I think the development of new mission-critical technology and devices like this device will be a key priority issue worth monitoring.

This year, my key take-home message is probably best summarised by a comment made by Barbara Held: “our networks might be national as far as coverage and user services are concerned, but standards, manufacturers and providers are international”. So once again, this reinforces the need to be an active member of the radio communications industry and to support ARCIA in representing the needs of Australian stakeholders.

In conclusion, the TCCA should be congratulated on organising a fantastic conference. Jackson Szabo and his team at KNect 365 managed the conference in an excellent manner and ensured all attendees had an amazing experience. In some ways, this event marked a ‘changing of the guard’. The new chief executive, Tony Gray, announced the renaming of the association from TETRA-CCA to simply TCCA to ensure that it represents all current and future standardised critical communications technologies, not just TETRA. Going forward, the TCCA is forming a new partnership with the Mark Allen Group to manage future events in Europe and the MENA region.

Pictured, top: Dr Fahad Mushayt, CEO of Saudi Arabia’s BRAVO. Image courtesy Airbus Defence and Space.

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