France’s PCSTORM Critical Broadband Project Moves Forward
By Laurent Girardeau
Thursday, May 02, 2019 | Comments
The French Ministry of Interior (MoI) Home Affairs Technologies and Information Systems Department ST(SI)2 has selected most of the suppliers for its critical communications broadband solution. The selections follow a process that started in 2015 in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

At the time the procurement began, special forces were awaiting modern communications to enable them to quickly and efficiently track the ever-changing threats from terrorists, but broadband technologies were not yet proven to be combat ready, unlike the legacy Tetrapol and Project 25 (P25) mission-critical narrowband networks.

The French MoI was granted two 700 MHz frequency bands totalling 8 megahertz.

With the work of the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) on mission-critical broadband standards and nationwide public-safety broadband networks underway in the United States and the United Kingdom, it was time for the French to start their own critical broadband venture.

Early in 2017, the request for proposals (RFP) was issued. The RFP requested tactical fast deployable networks and terminals in the 700 MHz bands, subscriber identity module (SIM) cards, priority access to every nationwide mobile public network, multimedia group communications applications, gateways to legacy networks and strengthened mobile radio coverage. The project, named PCSTORM, is from a French acronym sponsored from the start by the MoI special forces including tactical units of both the French National Police and the French National Gendarmerie, as well as the Paris Research and Intervention Brigade (BRI). The key suppliers were selected through several demonstrations and negotiations under close scrutiny of the forces.

The RFP competition was fierce with numerous competitors. The last similar competition for a full-scope critical communications solution for Tetrapol networks was held in the previous century.

Three of the PCSTORM lots were granted to three small medium enterprises (SMEs). Streamwide, a French company, will supply a mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) and multimedia application. Athonet, an Italian 3GPP expert company, will supply the core network and tactical rapidly deployable networks. Prescom, a French SME expert in voice dispatching, will provide the gateway to legacy narrowband networks.

Orange, the French mobile network operator, will offer privileged access to its 4G network. French MoI critical communications officials will have full priority and pre-emption on the Orange 4G network, and the carrier will ensure access to all other French networks if its own network is not available.

Gemalto-Thalès, a French security specialist, was selected to offer a customized SIM card that will authenticate for access to both Orange networks and the rapidly deployable networks. Cogisys and Axians, two consultancy companies, joined forces and were selected to sustain the qualification and project load to come.

Still, one lot has not yet been granted. PCSTORM required the industry to provide a solution to ensure the best availability of the service, even in harsh events such as a large electrical grid failure, transmission outages, data-center attacks and more. The MoI has received some interesting propositions with more announcements to come, along with a signed contract before mid-year.

The French special forces were issued a beta version of the terminals, applications and tactical network. Users can already benefit from enhanced situational awareness, multimedia exchange and more flexibility in organizing talkgroups. The full service, at least for the special forces’ perimeter, is scheduled to be operational by the end of the year.

The official buildout kickoff, held 22 February at the French Gendarmerie headquarters, included a full presentation about the project and allowed selected suppliers to demonstrate their offers to the project. Athonet showed the first tactical network and terminals using the full 2-by-5 megahertz spectrum granted to the French MoI. The use of the two bands is a key asset for the MoI to guarantee fast deployment of tactical networks.

Another PCSTORM goal is to encompass the already largely available NEO smartphones. Almost every policemen and “gendarme” were issued secured smartphones to access the MoI intranet under the NEO program a few years ago. NEO and PCSTORM plan to merge to offer both confidentiality and critical availability in the coming years.

The PCSTORM project team also issued a request for information (RFI) for direct mode communications. It is well known that the 3GPP standards for Long Term Evolution (LTE) direct mode, called proximity services (ProSe), have not yet resulted in commercial products, and it is a critical issue for every force. As no solution has emerged yet, narrowband radios are still used for direct mode communications.

In parallel, the French MoI is preparing to create an agency to serve not only the police officials but also emergency services and firefighters.

For more on PCSTORM, visit LinkedIn.

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Laurent Girardeau, currently PCSTORM project manager, has more than 25 years of experience in mobile telecommunications projects. He worked on numerous projects for French industries under the former Alcatel-Lucent, SFR and Airbus before joining the French Ministry of Interior (MoI) in 2015. Specifically for critical communications, Girardeau led the Airbus offering selected by Belgium's ASTRID for its Blue Light Mobile mobile broadband services. He also led Airbus LTE-SATCOM fast deployables solutions and was involved in the U.K. Emergency Services Network (ESN) competition before retiring from Airbus.

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