Meeting the Demand for Data

Euros Evans, Airwave’s Chief Technology Officer, looks at how we are working to deliver enhanced data capability for our customers, in advance of the arrival of true broadband for critical communications.

For users of the Airwave Network, fast and reliable access to data is becoming critical to the way in which they operate. Our customers use data across the Network every day for short messaging and image transfer, and there is an increasing desire for higher bandwidth data rich applications and business intelligence to drive efficiencies across operational services.

In looking at the provision for mission-critical data services, we are considering a broad range of users and an equally broad range of requirements.

At Airwave we are working on a number of ways to enable information to move faster, more efficiently, and more reliably, across the networks that exist today.

Typically, fire & rescue and ambulance crews are sent to locations to deal with an incident, and act on arrival, operating as self defined units, unless of course it is a major event or incident in which case coordination and information sharing is critical.

Rapid access to data can be of critical importance. Data is of course only another word for information – and the more information these emergency responders can gain about an incident and casualties, the more effective their response will be in terms of resources and reaction. Police Forces need different types of data – they need to see an overall ‘picture’ of unfolding events, and they need completely reliable and immediate group communication.

In terms of overall efficiency, all the blue light agencies need services such as Automatic Vehicle Location System (AVLS) and the ability to track the movements of their colleagues to ensure the safest and most effective response. Imagine the transformation of major event management if the location of each public safety officer was visible to colleagues on an interactive map on a hand-held device.

The challenge for us at Airwave is to equip our customers with data capability in the field, to enable full interaction. Data communications are more efficient, use less human resource, and offer less opportunity for error than speech. As consumers, we are all far more data-savvy with our smart phones and tablets, so there is a step change in user acceptability.

Some data communications capability is available today, offered by TETRA and the various public network data bearers including 3G. However, to ensure that our public safety users have the capabilities they need to operate effectively into the future, we need more dedicated bandwidth to handle the growing demand for data.

We have a vision for the future for public safety services and first responders.

We are constrained because of a lack of this bandwidth – particularly on the uplink – i.e. from the user back to the control room. In the consumer world, we ‘consume’ data, so the downlink is the important connection in terms of speed and capacity. For the emergency services, there is a critical requirement to be able to get information back from the user, so the uplink has greater significance.

The future solution will undoubtedly be Long Term Evolution (LTE) – dependent on spectrum – but until LTE networks are widely available and the standards issues have been addressed, there is a gap in data bearer capability. This needs to be addressed now, to ensure the public safety services have the capacity they need to take advantage of developments in data services and communications.

At Airwave we are working on a number of ways to enable information to move faster, more efficiently, and more reliably, across the networks that exist today. We are working on capabilities that will deliver increased uplink bandwidth over existing network bearers, so we can work with our customers and end users to determine the value and business benefits of new and enhanced applications. If we can successfully put that capability into a vehicle, then we can create a complete mobile operations centre for the emergency services, with all the associated efficiencies that can deliver.

One of the challenges we have as an industry is how to ensure reliable connections in rural areas. We are evaluating technology that uses non line of sight capability, enabling connectivity to base stations from the core switch that would have traditionally required satellite communications.
 
As we know from our Smartphone and tablets, commercial networks can provide high bandwidth data functionalities now for consumers. However, the benefit of a private dedicated service for critical communications is that it can be designed to provide a service and solution tailored to meet the specific needs of users.

We are already working with other critical communications organisations and supporting the TETRA and Critical Communications Association (TCCA) in its work towards achieving a dedicated broadband solution comprising frequencies plus modified LTE technology. A number of initiatives are in place to secure cross-border harmonised spectrum in Europe, and influence the standards bodies such as 3GPP and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the US to incorporate public safety needs into the ongoing development of LTE. When this work is ready, around 2020, the first dedicated networks can be realised.

What will happen after 2020 is not yet clear, as many existing networks will not be ready for replacement, and voice services over LTE will be limited in early implementations. Replicating full TETRA functionality will take longer, so in many markets TETRA will be used for voice long into the next decade, with mission critical data on a combination of commercial networks and private LTE where justifiable.

Of course the network enhancements need to be matched by those of the terminals, and in the future we see devices collaborating to deliver more capabilities. We also see a greater exploitation of shared databases and applications that require data to be entered only once. These will build into a central resource and data repository for the public safety services, enabling faster, more efficient access to accurate information and reduced data storage costs.
Control rooms will become more efficient, as their complexity migrates to the core of an all-IP network and becomes a service at any point of delivery. A reduction in bespoke elements makes the system inherently more reliable, and resilience increases as the accessibility of core services increases (anywhere with IP connectivity can potentially access services). As the core is common to all users, there is wider availability of functionality.

We have a vision for the future for public safety services and first responders, and we are working hard on our customers’ behalf to ensure that they are fully enabled to support the communities that they serve, today and for future generations.