Critical broadband device procurement process

The Critical Communications Association (TCCA)
By TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG)
Thursday, 10 March, 2022


Critical broadband device procurement process

Australian and New Zealand governments have recognised that public safety and emergency services need mission/business critical grade mobile broadband capability; both nations are advancing projects towards future critical broadband communications.

Today’s public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) end-user devices are still mostly built on narrowband technologies, providing mission-critical voice and short messaging services. These services are often available within nationwide PPDR network coverage, utilising dedicated frequency bands.

The narrowband PPDR device ecosystem is well established, including infrastructure and terminal suppliers, system integrators, service providers and resellers. From a device procurement perspective, there are existing frame agreements in place. The solution costs are well known, device lifecycles are long and there are no major changes in the product specifications. For TETRA users, TCCA’s interoperability (IOP) process allows for trusted multi-vendor procurement.

The critical communications landscape is, however, beginning to transition to a new era with the adoption of 4G and 5G broadband for mission- and business-critical services. Bringing devices to market that support these new technologies and meet demanding user requirements will require investments by the vendors, as well as commitment from customers in terms of, for example, development support, minimum order quantities, user testing and acceptance.

Many current procurement models (for non-critical use) in user organisations allow device purchases from a range of sources. User organisations can run their own procurements, broadband devices can be leased from IT service companies, or even purchased by individual employees: ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD).

Device and operating system/software lifecycles of today’s broadband devices are short compared to those of LMR radios, even though vendors are doing their best to extend them. The current procurement, testing, certification and approval processes required for PPDR usage therefore need to be adapted accordingly.

Critical broadband devices must meet the demanding requirements of PPDR users — COTS devices will not provide mission-critical capability. For example, devices must be rugged, have dedicated PTT buttons, deliver exceptional voice quality and support long battery life. In addition, to ensure the devices are interoperable and enable true mission-critical services they must support various 3GPP features, such as the mission-critical QCIs.

Vendors must be able to provide information on their existing capabilities and present a roadmap that shows how they plan to meet evolving customer needs and requirements throughout the contract period.

Understanding user needs

An essential part of creating a mission-critical device procurement specification is to fully understand the user needs. The user community will consist of multiple groups, each with its specific requirements and operational processes.

Once these distinct groups have been identified, close engagement will be necessary to fully understand their use cases and device requirements. This may be achieved via interviews, questionnaires, workshops, etc. It is likely that the diverse needs can be grouped to simplify analysis.

When describing their use cases and requirements it is important that the user groups look ahead to how the new broadband technology will transform and enhance their operations. Functionality delivered by existing LMR systems is the reference, but users should not just focus on replicating the voice and messaging functionality and reliability of their existing narrowband system. The evolution from a voice-centric to a data-dominated working environment requires considerable investment in business process redesign, so it is essential that each group fully describes their use cases.

Analysis of use cases could include also other segments beyond PPDR such as transport, utilities and manufacturing. As the underlying technology becomes more affordable more user groups will start using it. For example, one may need to consider the mobility requirements in high-speed train and aircraft (AGA: air-ground-air) communications, which are likely to impact network and device specifications.

Purchasing organisations should detail their specific local operational requirements. For example, the requirement to combine a PTT and phone call so that during a phone call it is possible to listen to the PTT conversation simultaneously. The device should support flexibility to decide the priority of phone calls/PTT calls. In practice this priority will be determined by PPDR policy: for example, in the UK the ESN policy is to prioritise PTT calls over phone calls.

The available spectrum will significantly impact device availability, choice and pricing. It is recommended that those PPDR organisations requiring devices which support unusual bands (eg, B31) consolidate their requirements to drive supplier investment.

Proven compliance with industry standards is key to an interoperable, multi-vendor device ecosystem. It is recommended that PPDR procurers demand compliance with 3GPP Release 12 as a minimum. Currently the 3GPP standards do not define off-network solutions suitable for PPDR use cases; it is recommended that standards-based LMR technologies are used to provide mission-critical off-network communications for the mid-term until the 3GPP D2D ProSe specification matures.

Cybersecurity is an essential requirement for the PPDR market. The potential vendors must be asked to provide information about their device security implementation, cryptographic compliance and possible certifications.

Test, test and try before you buy

End user testing and user acceptance is needed in every procurement process.

Is the device fit for purpose? After all, end users need to have confidence in the product. It will be difficult to specify every requirement and to document every behaviour.

At what point will the end user be satisfied with the results? When will his/her needs be fulfilled and will he/she be able to take the device into use? If this moment is not well timed it is possible that certain shortcomings/defects will damage confidence in the product/service.

One option to streamline the implementations and the workload that comes with the testing of the available solutions is to allow user testing on an operator-controlled list of devices. This list should contain enough devices to allow the user to fulfil his/her operational needs and allow the operator the control the lifecycles of the devices.

Users should be involved in an intermediate stage of the complete testing process. This way the users would get hands-on experience of existing devices and see the capabilities and potential issues: ‘try before you buy’.

The users, however, must be made aware of the technical implementation of the devices. Devices must for example use the designated mission-critical bearers and not be based on best-effort service through over-the-top (OTT) connections. Only then will the functionalities of the device/implementation be judged effectively.

The world of mission-critical smart devices is still developing and not yet fully mature. The ecosystem compared to standard smartphones is still small. It is therefore very important that PDDR organisations, manufacturers, standardisation and testing bodies cooperate to stimulate the growth and development of the mission-critical device market.

This article is based on TCCA’s white paper: Mission-Critical Broadband Device Procurement. The full paper is available to read/download here: https://tcca.info/about-tcca/tcca-resources/whitepapers/.

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

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