Safety networks in the spotlight: a catalyst for change

BAI Communications
By Mark Ward, Airwave Solutions Australia
Saturday, 02 January, 2010

Following both global and state government trends towards interoperable systems, impending budget deficits and ACMA’s plans for the 400 MHz spectrum band, now is the ideal time to reassess Australia’s safety communications infrastructure with the view to making wholesale improvements. Mark Ward*, business development manager for Airwave Solutions Australia, explores the possibilities of a common network platform.

State by state, agency by agency, today’s public safety and emergency communications networks have evolved on a needs-driven basis. Each individual organisation in Australia has historically been responsible for its own communications - and, when fighting fires or undertaking rescue operations are the primary concern, managing networks is not core business.

The result is a nationwide patchwork of independent public safety networks - up to seven or eight per state - comprising disparate technologies, varying functionality and age, regions of duplicated coverage and assorted business models.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA’s) proposed changes to the 400 MHz band, currently used for most public safety and emergency communications in Australia, present the opportunity to re-envisage and rationalise the country’s communications infrastructure.

As government services are relocated to the 403-430 MHz sub-band, it is the ideal time for decision-makers to step back and examine the bigger picture - as well as consider the future.

Here, a logical progression would be to introduce a single, premium-quality network, built from the ground up to be shared by all users.

One of the key incentives for a shared network is communications interoperability between different agencies. The ability to selectively share information between agencies can make the supreme difference in a coordinated emergency response.

This concept is not new in Australia: the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires in Victoria were a catalyst for large government radio networks (GRNs) to be deployed in some states for use by multiple agencies.

Yet, while these have certainly made a difference in those states, many of the smaller dedicated networks have been retained to supplement coverage, capacity and availability.

While maintaining ancillary networks might provide peace of mind, it is an inefficient use of resources. Far better to engineer a sophisticated, highly resilient digital network with flexibility and future-proofing built in.

Simple economies of scale will justify multiple levels of in-built redundancy to ensure the network remains available despite power outages or broken network links.

By duplication (at minimum) of key points in the network, and arranging base stations in rings connected at each end to a main ground-based network, an unbroken service can be maintained in the most extreme conditions.

Similarly, coverage and capacity are best addressed holistically and can be planned appropriate to the needs of all users in a shared network. This will eliminate any gaps in coverage and maximise the flexibility and efficiency with which capacity is used.

A network can be designed with spare ‘surge’ capacity to allow additional users to operate during a major incident, using a queuing system to ensure that all messages get through in times of congestion.

Moreover, advanced digital technologies are available to manage the transmission of data in conjunction with voice communications, plus administer encryption layers to prevent unauthorised access.

Not only does this view of a shared network prove more economical overall, but it allows all users to benefit from a network with premium functionality. Several of the existing GRN service agreements are soon due for renewal, adding ammunition to calls for an overhaul.

The way forward is not without challenge, however. Budgets are notoriously tight in all states, so that any major renovation will undoubtedly attract scrutiny. Nevertheless, the outcomes of recent Royal Commissions into major incidents in Victoria and the ACT add yet more weight to the argument for communications overhaul and seem likely to draw a federal response.

The state governments and agencies also need to determine an appropriate implementation strategy and timeline. A network of such sophistication and scale would take some years to deploy, while the demand for public safety communications is unabating, increasing and largely unpredictable.

Harnessing the various agencies and existing networks into order and planning the migration to a share network certainly presents a logistical challenge. It is not the culture of this reactive industry to plan so far into the future. Here, an independent service provider may hold the answers.

The practice of outsourcing the operation of public safety and emergency networks is already established in Australia; however, there is still progress to be made to maximise effectiveness. At present, every outsourced model is different - including the use of different technology platforms, which means the networks are incompatible with each other.

If each state government were to specify a common standard - most probably P25 - for a new network in the 403-430 MHz sub-band, agencies with the right permissions would be able to operate their radios across networks, if state boundaries needed to be crossed.

It is also worth looking at the framework of the service agreement. One of the primary reasons for outsourcing operation and maintenance of a communications network should be to benefit from the expertise of a specialist.

Communications are a vital tool for public safety and emergency agencies, but a tool nonetheless. So long as that tool meets the needs of each agency - however demanding those needs might be - the agencies should not need to worry about how the network works.

In essence, the service provision contract should be focused on deliverables or outcomes, with the onus on the network specialist to ensure that the network evolves and improves to meet demand.

In this scenario, the relationship between the service provider and client will flourish only under a long-term agreement that encourages the network operator to innovate and truly understand the needs of the various network users. In return, the agencies benefit from a network that undertakes to exceed expectations.

By truly engaging with the agencies, the service provider would be in the position to address any service issues, response to changes in demand and react to any incidents that might require out-of-the-ordinary servicing.

The picture painted here presents an ideal future landscape for the Australian public safety and emergency communications sector - and it is not unattainable. Just such a secure, interoperable, resilient and reliable communications service has been shared by all public safety response organisations in Britain since 2005.

It does, however, represent a new view of public safety and emergency communications in this country. The demand is assuredly there from the agencies, which have long recognised the benefits of a common communications platform and standard.

Now these organisations need the legislative framework and commitment from government to move forward in a collaborative manner. The proposed changes to the 400 MHz band would appear to be the ideal opportunity.

* Mark Ward has over 28 years’ experience within the public mobile radio communications industry. He began as a technician with the Department of Defence, before building his career in a variety of business development, product management and operational roles in organisations such as Link Telecommunications, Motorola and Telstra. Prior to joining Airwave Solutions Australia, Mark was with Vertical Telecoms (Vertel), in both state and national management roles. His focus with Airwave is to work with state governments and public safety agencies to demonstrate the advantages of shared, multi-agency, open-standard public safety networks.

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