Keeping the blues and twos connected

15 September 2020

Britain’s location in north-western Europe has meant that, luckily, the natural disasters it experiences are, comparatively, not as serious as some of those that routinely strike other parts of the world. However, that’s not to say we’re immune – after all, the British Isles are prone to storms, floods and of course, terrorist attacks.

Given we could be hit by something anywhere, at any time and likely with little or no warning, its paramount that the emergency services are able to maintain connectivity to save our lives.

Mladen Vratonjić, chair of TCCA,  a membership organisation which represents all standard mobile critical communications technologies and complementary applications, says every business, organisation and government should have a business continuity plan to protect operations should they be affected by an unplanned event. The event could be a natural disaster such as an earthquake or flood, or unnatural such as a terrorist or cyberattack.

“It is often said that there are three ‘Rs’ of the greatest importance for any critical telecommunications network: resilience, reliability and recovery,” he says. “These are achieved through some more ‘Rs’ - redundancy and robustness. There is no overall standard classification for a mission or business critical network – however mission critical networks are those essential for some mission accomplishment (mostly public safety), and business critical networks serve businesses that cannot operate without reliable communications. To meet those requirements, there are technology standards that have been designed specifically with resilience at their core – these include TETRA, P25, Tetrapol and DMR – all well-established narrowband systems leveraged for both mission and business critical networks around the world.

Earlier this year, the Home Office handed a year-long contract to APD Communications to develop critical software to integrate blue light organisations and other public services with the forthcoming Emergency Services Network (ESN).

The plan is to replace the UK’s existing TETRA-based Airwave network and the Home Office is leading a cross-government programme to deliver it. The rationale behind the decision was to provide police, fire and rescue and ambulance services as well as other public safety organisations with voice and data services. At the time, Mike Isherwood, managing director, APD noted that while he was delighted with the contract because it acknowledges its LTE services, “it will be down to each individual service to make the transition, supported by our software solution”.

APD’s mission-critical communications and control solutions are used by more than two thirds of UK police forces, as well as other emergency services organisations.

Indeed, Cambridge-based Sepura supplies TETRA technology to emergency services around the world and a firm official explains the benefits of radio over other methods of communication during a critical situation. “Radio works on an independent infrastructure, so not susceptible to call overload, system failure, etc,” says a company spokesman. “It is a robust system, designed to withstand extreme weather. It can also be supported by temporary network infrastructure to support if needed, particularly in remote areas that are often the epicentre of a natural disaster. Critical comms radios are robust and will keep working in hot, wet or dirty environments, and can suffer rough treatment much more than other communication systems. They also use encrypted voice comms to ensure comms are kept confidential.” He adds that data applications can be developed to work over the system to integrate with back office systems. TETRA radio systems also enable co-operation between agencies using that platform – “often police, fire, ambulance, rescue and other emergency response organisations”.

Traditionally and unsurprisingly, the largest users have been public safety organisation – police, fire, ambulance, rescue organisations. After all, they need it more than any other group, business or sector.

The Sepura spokesman says the specific requirement for a critical communications platform are where there is a risk to critical national infrastructure, a risk to life, or a risk to business operations. “Where these conditions/risks exist, there is a need for a communications system with greater functionality that can be provided by standard cellular phones or low level radios,” he adds.

Another key player in this space is from TCCA member Motorola Solutions, which kits out emergency services around the globe. Ricardo Gonzalez, responsible for the international core strategy (outside the US) points out that Land Mobile Radio (LMR) has long been the best communication method in disaster-stricken or conflict zones. “The evidence for this is that it enables instant, reliable communications with high capacity in areas where cell phone towers are down or even where there are none at all,” he adds that despite the fact LMR has been present for some time, it continues to evolve for changing times and many countries are planning to continue to operating their nationwide LMR networks for the next 10-15 years. 

So, how is the network maintained and how can the services be guaranteed it will work at a critical hour? On the first point, Gonzalez says that LMR system management has come a long way since the days of analogue-only radios and manual support services. He adds that maintaining today’s software-centric LMR system requires a new set of tools and expertise. “This paradigm shift brings its own set of challenges, benefits and considerations. Monitoring a network 24/7 is a heavy burden for many organisations, as their internal IT support staff is simply too small to provide around-the-clock service. These kinds of organisations often partner with an outside service provider who can provide the necessary support,” he says. 

As far as the second point is concerned, Gonzalez claims that a mission-critical network is purpose-built to withstand multiple failures before communications are affected and is specially designed for multiple levels of active redundancy. Examples he gives are  alternative energy solutions for radio base stations such as solar panels, batteries, and generators, as well as alternative linkage between base stations such as satellite or microwave. “When all else fails, our LMR devices will also work in local fall-back-mode if the network does go down,” Gonzalez says.        

Almost a year after the devastating terrorist attacks that took place in London on in July 2005, Rajant Corporation from the US took part in a critical communications technical demonstration. The goal was to stream video from a tube tunnel back to the surface and Rajant says its system beat other competitors, streaming video back topside within 15 minutes of starting.

Nevertheless, the Sepura spokesman says there are landscapes/terrains/regions where critical comms are more difficult to deploy than others. “Every system deployment is unique,” he adds. “Systems have been installed across nations (and indeed allowing interoperability across national borders), on offshore oil rigs, in underground mines, on super-fast train systems, in ski resorts and in locations where buildings are designed to protect from natural disasters. Part of the process of designing a system is to understand where potential problem areas may exist and to mitigate any potential issues with them.”

Gonzalez argues that one of the biggest advantages of a modern LMR network is the ability to operate in the most difficult terrain. “That being said, it is extremely important to choose the right kind of technology and form of deployment to fit different kinds of geographies and use cases,” he says. “For example, a dense urban area with large amount of users is quite different from remote rural areas. We like to see ourselves as technology partners, helping our customers find the best communication solution to fit their exact needs.”

So, if the network is safe and it can be deployed in pretty much any situation, is there a question mark surrounding the technology itself? Do the handsets/radios need to be updated regularly and just how much of an investment is that? The Sepura spokesman says “it really depends” on how and where the radios are used. “On a less busy site the radios might rarely be upgraded, whereas police users might look to set up a radio much more frequently, based on operations taking place at that time,” he says. New innovations are always being brought in to support users in these cases – for example over the air programming, enabling radios to be updated whilst connected to a secure, approved Wi-Fi network, reducing the time radios are out of use.”

We’ve managed to get this far without mentioning 5G. Prior to the introduction of Covid-19 and possibly Brexit, you’d be hard-pressed to find a topic more often talked about that the next generation technology. Of course, the UK has taken one step forward and two steps back with the way the government has handled the Huawei row. However, it’s still slated to be with us in the not too distant future and once it is, Ken Gold, director of test, monitoring and analytics at Exfo, which develops test, monitoring and analytics solutions for operators says the new technology brings the promises of more resilience. “5G network slicing would be used to ensure the performance of mission critical services,” he says. “Virtualised 5G core and edge networks will accelerate the implementation of required changes. Remote orchestration of new virtual resources as well as changes in traffic routing and moving critical services to the edge will improve service availability and reduce the need for truck rolls—keeping personnel out of the danger zone. Continuous monitoring and orchestration of the services and network will ensure critical services are maintained and the customer’s essential communications needs are met.”

The good news is we definitely have, or will have, technologies able to handle the very worst situations, but in the words of James Trevelyan, SVP global sales – enterprise at communications solutions provider Speedcast  says disasters of any kind are impossible to predict, making short-term communications that connect emergency services throughout every stage of the response efforts critical. “High-speed, uninterrupted connectivity that enables voice, video, data and IoT solutions can be the difference between the success or failure of a disaster situation,” he says. “With rapid response times necessary, communication networks that are quick and easy-to-deploy are imperative.

For many critical communications, satellite remains the method of choice – particularly in areas where the internet access and cell towers have been knocked out as a result of a disaster. Trevelyan adds that as satellite communications become faster, more reliable, cheaper and are able to offer lower latency, disaster recovery operations and critical communications will become more streamlined and tactical than ever before. After all, teams that are better prepared, better equipped and that can work well together in challenging circumstances have a better chance of saving lives than those that are not.

“Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and High Throughput Satellite (HTS) offer first responders a way to establish short-term, easy-to-deploy communications anywhere at any time. “Due to the speed in which emergency services need to react and take control of the situation, solutions that can be brought online within five to 10 minutes and allow them to gain coverage immediately are vital,” he continues. “When a disaster strikes, the first action of the emergency services is to create a local hub to re-establish critical communications and ensure they can stay connected through the entire recovery process. Once the disaster response team has established an on-site base, resilient trucks – similar to those used in broadcast – will be driven to the disaster area to create an emergency services network. A quick-deploy antenna mounted to the roof of the truck will be used to provide a satellite link to connect to the nearest cell tower to provide phone services and internet services so responders can better communicate at the scene.”

It’s a view shared by Martin Jarrold, VP international programme development at GVF, the global trade association for the satellite industry, who says any underlying assumptions that the need for emergency/critical communications in the event of natural disaster only applied to countries with poorly developed, fragile, or vulnerable communications infrastructures have been overwhelmingly challenged in the context of UK flooding, storm damage, and wildfires. “In these contexts, it has been a combination of different, but related, satellite technologies that have been important: communications, navigation, and Earth observation/mapping,” he says adding that the Integrating Space Assets for UK Civil Resilience project is part of ESA’s Integrated Applications Promotion (IAP) programme, which develops value-added services by integrating space assets in these areas.

“In the one example of the Saddleworth Moor wildfires, near Manchester, raged for over three weeks in June to July 2018, covering an area of 7 sq. miles of moorland at its peak,” Jarrold continues. “Far above the moors a range of satellites invisibly helped to monitor the spread of the fires and coordinate the responses. The EU’s Copernicus Emergency Management Service provided detailed maps of the fire, and imagery was also provided by the Airbus UK-operated, UK-built Disaster Monitoring Constellation.”

Jarrold says such systems can give responders strong situational awareness using various services in combination, such as “rapid mapping of affected areas using satellite imagery, bolstering resilience of communication networks using satellite communications, enhancing traffic management for evacuations and other activities, coordinating intelligence for asset management, with everything from ambulances and trucks to flood barriers tagged with GPS”.

Avanti Communications is a well-established vendor of  satellite technology across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Kyle Whitehill, the company’s CEO, says for the first responders and those working in the emergency services, access to secure high-speed connectivity is critical. “Emergency services personnel often rely heavily on mobile internet access,” he says. “ However, limited network infrastructure, especially in rural and remote locations can affect speeds, reliability and access.”

Whitehill cites Avanti’s Project HYDRA offering, which provides a secure 4G mobile network that is transportable and enables rapid deployment, whilst ensuring coverage, no matter the location. “HYDRA provides a private and secure high speed 4G overlay network anywhere in the UK,” he says. “The project also supports 2G and 3G devices and as it’s a completely transportable network and can be deployed wherever it’s required.

The service provides a complete small cell network that can operate in both standalone (private) or interconnected (roaming) modes. It has a range of up to 2km and can securely transmit data, make calls without interference and even locate disaster victims using the signal from their mobile phones.”

Whitehill explains how Avanti’s HTS link delivers end users with up to 60Mbps download and 20Mbps upload speeds and provides full coverage of the UK. “This technology is highly transportable and quickly deployable, both of which are vital criteria for critical situations emergency services,” he adds. “Project HYDRA was the world’s first hybrid small cell technology combining the latest software and hardware to provide ubiquitous coverage of Ka-band satellite.” 

Critical to the success of the communications function, however, is the strength of the security culture within the services and its ability to align closely to the security operation within it. Even if the network is in place and the kit is working properly, Trevelyan highlights the need for secure systems for always-on connectivity

“With no knowledge as to when and how a disaster will occur, preparation for connectivity loss is essential,” he says. “There’s a need to ensure that security has been implemented at every stage to safeguard against any loss of connectivity – particularly those that provide critical services and have a legal obligation to be online at all times. With a multitude of instances that could cause them to fail, operators need to keep these systems secure and adopt robust and reliable connectivity solutions. In these environments, the Internet of Things (IoT) allows for the systems to check in every second to ensure constant connectivity.”

He says power networks predominantly work off terrestrial connections, however all of them will  have a diverse technology at all critical sites including solutions such as very-small-aperture-terminal (VSAT) satellite links for critical backups to keep any connections live in the event of a problem with the network. In the event of a disaster, an outage of power could prove detrimental to the UK so operators need to ensure that the systems in place are well-protected and that they have dormant links on standby in preparation for any unprecedented issues.

Let’s hope we remain disaster-free for as long as we can, but it’s certainly good to know we’re in safe hands.