Airwave Offers Data Services Ahead of U.K. Public-Safety LTE Tender
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | Comments

While the U.K.’s Home Office plans to build a Long Term Evolution (LTE) public-safety communications network for both mission-critical voice and data by 2020, the country’s current mission-critical voice provider, Airwave Solutions, unveiled two new data services to complement the TETRA emergency services network (ESN).

Both services, Smart Mobile and 4GMax, are predominantly for the emergency services’ — police, fire, ambulance — data needs. Smart Mobile allows cellular-like devices to operate as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), accessing the country’s mobile provider networks and interoperating with the ESN network.

4GMax, a service announced in February, is a specific network service that brings together the signal strength from multiple mobile operators to deliver increased uplink and downlink capacity.

All of the U.K.’s nationwide commercial carriers are currently rolling out 4G services. EE launched its network in October 2012, and plans to have it completed this year. The others began rolling out 4G services in 2013. In areas where 4G services are unavailable, the carriers offer 3G.

The U.K.’s planned Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) relies on enhancing commercial networks to meet mission-critical standards. The Home Office, which is overseeing the project, hopes to procure a replacement system for the Airwave TETRA network that currently offers narrowband data and voice services.

“ESMCP is planning to appoint a delivery partner in 2015 and hopes to start transition to the new service late 2016,” said Lorraine Russell, ESMCP stakeholder engagement and communications lead, in August 2013. The office declined to comment on the efforts at this time.

Many critics of the ESMCP plan don’t disagree that emergency services agencies need broadband data capabilities, but say the timeline is too quick and could result in a network that is untested and doesn’t meet mission-critical requirements.

In a British Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) broadband position piece released in February, the executive summary states that a smooth migration is vital to minimize impact. “There is a general consensus that not all of the existing public-safety voice features such as mission-critical push-to-talk will be standardized in time for the start of the ESN rollout. Implementation of the standards may take up to a further two years. A smooth migration therefore depends on either parallel running of the two technologies (until the appropriate standards are in place) or some form of interim service,” the paper said.

“I’m concerned that the Home Office is moving too quickly and not fully assessing the impact of a full-scale rush into a system based on commercial mobile networks or LTE,” said Mike Norfield, CEO of U.K.-based TTG, a mobile radio supplier. “I am absolutely a supporter of our emergency services having data applications that can aid efficiency and help save lives, but parties are missing the fundamental requirement that emergency calls must be able to override other network traffic — basically what we call ruthless pre-emption.”

Many European countries, where dedicated broadband spectrum has not been assigned for public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) use, are beginning to think outside the box to explore broadband data opportunities.

“TETRA continues to offer narrowband and wideband critical data communications for all users. Additionally, users can choose to also use broadband data from mobile operators and MVNOs for their non-critical data,” said Phil Kidner, TETRA + Critical Communications Association (TCCA) CEO. “One of the key benefits in doing so is that users will better understand what broadband can offer. At the same time, providers will better understand critical communications requirements, which will lead to better services and applications in the future.”

User needs prompted Airwave to offer the new data services. “The needs of public safety are changing and evolving,” said Euros Evans, Airwave CTO. “One challenge the industry faces has been identifying the applications and needs of the industry. We want to accelerate that decision-making process by understanding the benefits early on to help us recognize where we need to be, what we need and what those benefits are.”

Evans sees 4GMax as a complementary, long-term solution for public-safety data needs, and believes the service is strategic to discover what the future data needs will be, which will continue to grow, he said.

He sees Smart Mobile as an evolutionary step in the journey toward the eventual ESMCP, he said. The LTE network can only be provided when it is ready to meet mission-critical needs. “It’s about putting data into people’s hands today,” he said. “The reality is, when you start to use it, that’s when you start to look for ways to improve the capabilities.”

Smart Mobile allows public service agencies to use additional data services, interoperate with the Airwave ESN network through a push-to-talk (PTT) application, and have secure, end-to-end encrypted telephony services, as long as both are registered for the service. It was designed to increase efficiency by allowing officers to do more in the field, including searching databases, viewing maps and issuing penalties, Evans said.

The service can operate on an off-the-shelf commercial data device, such as tablets and laptops, on either Android or iOS operating systems. With the onset of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in the U.S., the industry is also seeing more ruggedized, public-safety geared broadband devices that would also work with the service, Evans said.

The Smart Mobile service will run off four of the U.K. commercial carrier networks but public-safety users would pay Airwave, which will operate as the MVNO. The prices are flexible and customizable, allowing agencies to select tiers based on the number of subscribers and users selecting the amount of bandwidth they need, Evans said.

4GMax puts equipment into vehicles and combines the bandwidth from up to four commercial national mobile networks, to deliver increased uplink capacity, enabling applications such as live video streaming from a vehicle on the road.

When using only one carrier’s network for data services — something many U.K. public-safety agencies are opting to do — the user is tied to that network’s coverage, which can vary widely and expectantly across a region, Evans said.

The 4GMax service increases the public-safety agency’s network capability. “It gives you greater data throughput and less limitations than you would have with a single carrier,” he said.

In addition to streaming video and data from a vehicle on the move, the service can be used as a Wi-Fi hot spot at a mobile command center. And when used in conjunction with Smart Mobile, which can be used with or without 4GMax, the device can take advantage of the high speeds associated with combining networks. 

Both services were designed to complement the TETRA network, Evans said. “There are still times when you need your voice system,” he said. But by aggregating the networks, there is increased resiliency in the service. Evans said that eventually he sees LTE voice services offering what mission-critical users need, but he doesn’t anticipate it happening anytime too soon.

“I see it circa the end of this decade, but I have to be vague on that because it depends on the requirements you consider mandatory,” he said. “If you have a long list of ‘musts,’ then it’s going to be further out. But if you take away some of those musts — say I only need a few features — then you can start to bring those dates forward.”

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