Developing and deploying mission-critical applications using broadband technologies

The Critical Communications Association (TCCA)
By Tim Clark*
Tuesday, 25 April, 2023


Developing and deploying mission-critical applications using broadband technologies

Although the mission-critical narrowband services of P25 and TETRA continue to thrive, many public safety and first responder organisations are deploying or planning for the deployment of broadband technologies to enable the use of new mission-critical (MC) applications. These will increase first responder effectiveness and productivity and ultimately increase citizen safety.

The deployment of these MC applications will be complex, and success will depend upon many factors. It is essential that these applications achieve the MC quality of service (QoS) — priority, pre-emption, availability, security and resilience — that first responders demand, and that they are used to from their narrowband services. A standards-based approach is essential to help ensure interoperability and multi-vendor choice of products — public safety organisations should insist on compliance with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifications for MC services.

MC applications rely on an end-to-end MC ecosystem that supports the necessary QoS that users can trust: from secure hosting environments for the application servers; through the transport and cellular networks; to the devices and their associated operating systems. To do their job effectively, first responders will typically require MC applications and non-MC applications to be used on the same device. This means that the use and potential misuse of device resources must be considered, and how these resources are shared between the applications running on the device. There should be a focus on how to reduce the risk of ‘secondary’ applications degrading MC applications with the appropriate use of device management tools and control of permissions. Given that MC applications may depend upon services provided by third parties, the whole chain of device and application support must be carefully considered and managed to avoid degraded operation.

The user experience is paramount — applications that are not intuitive and that negatively impact how users perform their job should not be used. The user experience of either the MC or secondary application can be ruined by poor integration of the two. This might apply especially in the use of hardware such as the screen, microphone, speaker and camera.

Applications used by first responders can be categorised as:

  • MC applications — applications making use of MCX services (MCPTT, MCData and MCVideo) requiring mission-critical QoS, priority and pre-emption.
  • Secondary applications, such as business applications — for example email, calendar and other applications that assist users in performing their job — and consumer applications such as social media, weather, news, traffic information, train timetables and other applications that provide important information.
     

Although the quality of mobile applications has greatly increased over the last decade, there are still many developers who do not consider the many pitfalls of developing an application or service that relies upon a connection that is as unreliable or changeable as that of a mobile device. This applies just as much to an MC application as it does to a business or consumer application.

Writing an application that works well on a mobile device is complex in that it needs to take account of a basic connectivity issue — that of poor coverage. An intrinsic challenge of running a radio-based network is that certain places will lack coverage and applications running on that device need to perform well in those circumstances. Tools and simulators are widely available to help develop and test the quality of applications.

Due to the importance of the microphone and audio paths in the provision of an MC application, other applications should be written to release, for example, the microphone if it is required by another application. Audio should be delivered in a manner by which the user has control over whether the secondary application audio should be combined with any audio from the MC application or whether the secondary application audio should be suppressed. Similar considerations need to be made around other hardware components such as the screen, speaker and buttons.

Applications need to be updated to deal with vulnerabilities and add new features. However, in order to facilitate testing by critical network operators prior to users getting the application, developers should enable beta test capabilities to allow pre-testing of updates in advance of deployment. The operator also needs to test the final version — if that is not possible then the operator must be able to block automatic updates until such time as the update has been fully tested and verified as safe to use.

The use of third-party capabilities, which are beyond the control of the MC application developer, introduces risk due to periodic updates of that component. Developers must be aware of their responsibility to utilise patched versions of capabilities such as third-party APIs and libraries to ensure security and reliability. This includes elements from Google such as Google Play Services APIs, WebView (for user interface) and common libraries which may be open source but might not receive patching.

Broadband technologies will enable a wide array of new applications to greatly enhance the effectiveness, productivity and safety of first responders, but critical network operators need to clearly understand users’ requirements and the risks they are prepared to accept when deploying MC applications. Different user groups have different requirements — it is important that these are well understood and addressed by the operator’s application strategy.

Further guidance and details on mission-critical application development and deployment can be found in TCCA’s white paper ‘Mission Critical Broadband Applications: A guide for deploying and developing mission critical applications using broadband technologies’.

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The Australian perspective — a word from NSW Telco Authority

To ensure the safety of Australians, it is crucial for our emergency services to utilise the latest technology. This involves a careful shift towards mobile broadband-based applications and technologies which cater to public safety requirements and enhance overall performance and efficiency. The process of transitioning to these new technologies is intricate and requires a concerted effort. To achieve this, all governments across Australia have come together to establish a nationwide mobile broadband capability dedicated to public safety.

NSW Telco Authority is working with NSW Emergency Service Organisations (ESOs), other states and territories and the Australian Government to develop a nationally interoperable public sector mobile broadband (PSMB) capability. The PSMB will deliver reliable and secure mobile data communications capability for exclusive and prioritised use by emergency service organisations requiring critical service levels. By providing a standardised environment, ESOs will communicate more easily with one another across organisational and geographical boundaries, helping to keep people safe right across Australia.

ESOs in Australia communicate using radios, which are reliable and secure but do not support emerging and future technology needs. To provide data capabilities to their members, many agencies are using multiple commercial mobile broadband networks. However, these services may not guarantee adequate performance during emergencies, provide sufficient coverage or prioritise ESO users in emergency situations. PSMB will deliver a mission-critical service level of mobile broadband to agencies, which is vitally important in emergency situations when commercial mobile networks may be congested or suffer an outage. It will also allow ESOs to make greater use of emerging technologies and data-heavy applications like live streaming from body cameras, personal location tracking and bushfire monitoring drones. Ultimately, this capability will help to save lives.

On behalf of all Australian states and territories, NSW Telco Authority has led two workstreams to develop and test viable technologies including managing a proof-of-concept trial. NSW Telco Authority continues to work with its state-based ESOs and contribute to the development of a national PSMB approach.

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*Tim Clark is a TCCA board member sponsored by Motorola Solutions.

Image courtesy of Motorola Solutions

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