The emergency spectrum squeeze

By David Braue
Monday, 02 November, 2015

The emergency spectrum squeeze

The emergency services’ need for mobile broadband data is putting pressure on Australia’s public safety emergency radio spectrum.

Policing in NSW took a big step forward in September with the introduction of body worn video (BWV) cameras, rugged devices that allow officers to capture HD video evidence of their interactions with the public.

Some 248 of the HD-resolution cameras — developed by Fujitsu using FireCam devices, m-View streaming technology, palm-scanning authentication security, and custom-built software for recording and archiving footage — are now in use at policing hotspots in Kings Cross and Sydney’s eastern beaches.

Among other benefits, such devices provide forensic evidence in police investigations. They’re also said to improve the behaviour of the public, as well as facilitating incident response with live-streaming capabilities that let dispatchers monitor police activities in real time.

Yet despite their myriad capabilities, the cameras highlight a growing challenge that public safety agencies (PSAs) face in embracing a new generation of wearable, surveillance and analytical technologies that promise better delivery of information to the field. And that challenge is the ongoing disarray in mobile broadband strategy, which means that PSAs must temper enthusiasm for new technologies with the available mobile spectrum’s ability to deliver them.

The need is particularly pointed given the geographically dispersed nature of emergency operations, which happen every day in rural areas with spotty wireless broadband coverage, as well as in metropolitan areas where good 4G wireless broadband is generally available, even if performance can be erratic.

As well as meeting the physical demands of wet, hot, dirty and otherwise hostile field conditions, PSA solutions must accommodate both rich and sparse bandwidth availability as well as being able to work offline when necessary — and do it all without compromising the safety of field officers, the public or ongoing operations.

Exposure to fluctuations in wireless coverage are often being managed by positioning mobility device deployments as complements to regular policing, rather than as intrinsic parts of the process. That approach has delivered great benefits for Tasmania Police, which recently rolled out over 1000 Windows 8-based Acer Iconia W511 tablet computers to police across the state.

“If you’re sitting on the side of the road waiting for something to happen, you can take out the tablet and do the paperwork you used to do back at the station,” said Senior Sergeant Jason Hutcheon, who helped drive the project in his previous role within the organisation’s Business Improvement Unit. “When you can enter information into the systems straight away, it gives you more efficiency downstream.”

Yet dependence on the devices “has exposed other problems that were always underlying with the network infrastructure and connectivity”, he said. “[The project] has allowed us to go back and really focus on connectivity on the front end.”

To minimise exposure to connectivity issues, each tablet has its own 3G SIM — an architecture that was chosen to boost redundancy and reliability instead of relying on Wi-Fi connectivity from major-incident command buses.

“Normally we would have to set up additional Wi-Fi infrastructure,” Hutcheon explained. “But if they fail, the whole command centre fails. There is a certain level of redundancy in having everyone on the 3G SIM. If one tablet fails, the rest of the command centre is still operational.”

Such a usage model is typical of the stepped evolution of mobility within Australia’s PSAs, said Motorola Solutions ANZ Managing Director Steve Crutchfield. “Early use of broadband is probably more focused on productivity enhancement.

“In the longer term view, we’ve got this notion of turning data into intelligence and better enabling the activities of police, fire and ambulance. This will put more powerful information into their hands, providing them with relevant situational awareness and a better capability to relay information back to a centralised C&C situation. Broadband is clearly the disruptive force that will enable that.”

Spectrum rescue

In an ideal world, adequate mobile bandwidth would be available everywhere, all the time. But Australia is a large continent and — even as mobile operators begin to talk about 5G networks — 3G and 4G coverage is still spotty in many areas. Even more problematic: commercial mobile networks are highly susceptible to congestion, particularly in emergency situations where the first instinct of citizens is to reach for their phones.

As a result, many PSAs are still forced to shoehorn their expectations into the voice and 9600 bps data capabilities of the P25-based government radio networks. While such networks offer better and more pervasive coverage, particularly in regional areas, their limitations stretch the usability of new data-driven applications, making the transmission of even still images time-consuming and the prospect of live-streaming video an utter fantasy.

Driven by the “daunting data demands” of today’s Netflix-hungry mobile users, mobile network operators (MNOs) have invested heavily in new capabilities for transmission of video, notes telecommunications analyst Paul Budde.

“While networks can at times be strained, the MNOs are continually adding capabilities and applications in an effort to reduce their overall costings. Customer preference for Wi-Fi from homes and workplaces has meant that mobile broadband traffic is largely off-loaded to fixed-line infrastructure.”

In the field, however, the option of Wi-Fi off-loading is often unavailable; officers’ personal smartphones could theoretically be used to create Wi-Fi hotspots, but these would be subject to the same coverage issues as directly connected devices.

PSAs are eager for a better mobile broadband spectrum allocation that will enable advancements such as the BWV live-streaming to become part of everyday operations — and that has set up a showdown as PSAs demand more consideration in the ongoing reshuffling of Australia’s radiofrequency spectrum, occasioned by the shutdown of analog TV in December 2013.

The sudden release of masses of new spectrum bred a land grab in which PSAs had argued for a section of the precious 700 MHz radio spectrum — which pairs high-speed data performance with long-distance signal transmission that fills in coverage blackspots — to be allocated exclusively for emergency use.

Mobile carriers, keen to maximise usage of the 700 MHz spectrum for which they have paid considerable sums, have pushed for PSAs to instead either be pushed into the less-commercial 800 MHz range or to rely on commercial 700 MHz services.

Telstra has supported its case by implementing a purpose-built solution called LANES, which enables the prioritisation of PSA broadband traffic during times of peak demand but retains the spectrum for general usage during non-emergency times.

“In all the other industries, the capacity requirement is well known,” Telstra National General Manager of Government and Public Safety and Security Alex Stefan told the APCO emergency services conference in April.

“You know exactly how many trucks are on a mining site. However, the emergency service is the only one that has a dynamic profile. They might go a year or two years without much strain on the capacity on the network, and then in half an hour it can be 100% capacity.”

Having reached a stalemate on the issue, the public safety industry spent most of this year waiting for the results of a Productivity Commission audit into Public Safety Mobile Broadband (PSMB), which was ordered by then treasurer Joe Hockey in March and published in draft form in late September.

The terms of reference for the PSMB report — the first of its kind since a massive radiocommunications review in 2002, five years before Apple’s game-changing iPhone put mobile broadband on the map — noted “the need for PSAs to have adequate capabilities to respond efficiently and effectively when disasters occur” and ordered an analysis of the options available for the best use of “scarce and valuable resources”.

The ideal solution, according to Hockey’s terms of reference, would be secure and nationally interoperable and available by 2020; operate in metropolitan and regional areas; offer voice communications; ensure “sufficient capacity for PSAs, particularly during periods of peak demand and during a localised incident”; be resilient and maintain continuity of service; address “rapidly changing technology and increased demand”; be cost-effective; and support a range of end-user devices.

“Spectrum alone will not achieve a PSMB capability as infrastructure and supporting networks with compatible end-user equipment are required,” the order notes, highlighting the need for “a re-evaluation of user needs and project requirements given the passage of time”.

The draft report concluded that deploying a separate PSMB network is “nearly 3 times more expensive than relying on commercial networks”, with a net present value over 20 years of around $6.1 billion, compared with $2.1 billion using the commercial option.

That gap, which narrows as the scope of any private-network coverage is decreased, is attributed to high capital investment requirements, the wider portfolio of spectrum available to commercial carriers and the larger user-base over which commercial operators can spread the costs of current and future mobile technologies. A state-by-state dedicated network, the report notes, would be around 20% more expensive than a national approach.

Yet despite the lower cost of a commercial component, the report notes that channel-isolating solutions such as LANES are still in their early days and that “many PSAs remain uncertain about the capability of the technology and have indicated a reluctance to rely on mobile broadband data services that are delivered using commercial carriers’ spectrum”.

Despite this stated lack of confidence, the report concluded that a commercial solution “offers the best way forward” on first principles and that any risk of lock-in to a commercial network wouldn’t be worth the $4bn price difference.

As well as recommending that spectrum be priced at its opportunity cost, the report recommends extensive trials of commercial networks and bandwidth prioritisation — which, given the 5- to 10-year lifespan of existing networks, provides “a low-risk environment for experimentation with new technology… Trials would help jurisdictions to better gauge the costs, benefits and risks of PSMB, and to identify risk mitigation strategies… Starting small is likely to be beneficial for all jurisdictions.”

The new dispatch

Specific technologies to be used will emerge once clear decisions about spectrum allocation are made. However, Telstra’s LANES solution, which was successfully trialled during last year’s G20 meeting in Brisbane and is being spruiked to mining and other businesses this year, is gaining support in many circles because it meets both commercial and PSA requirements.

Crutchfield, who believes the spectrum debate has been “a bit myopic in and around the issues of 700 MHz vs 800 MHz” is among those who believe a shared public/private capability is the most appropriate structure going forward.

“The physics of LTE make it very difficult to justify purpose-built environments that are going to cover a geography like Australia, where there is capacity available in and around some commercial network environments,” he said. “We believe having a blend of both, with the ability to implement both with dedicated spectrum, will be the right strategy for the future.”

This approach would offer one other benefit: because mobile devices are tied to particular spectrum ranges and the mooted 800 MHz spectrum is not generally one of them, a PSMB solution built on 700 MHz-band devices would allow PSAs to harness innovative mass-market mobile solutions rather than being restricted to the work of those companies that bother to build for PSA-specific frequencies.

Satellite connectivity may also become more relevant for PSAs as the launch of nbn’s two new government-owned ‘Sky Muster’ Ka-band satellites delivers nationwide coverage at speeds capable of supporting rich two-way communications.

Adequacy of broadband will become increasingly relevant as PSAs increasingly look to embrace even more bandwidth-hungry new technologies, particularly those requiring high-quality (and high-bandwidth) video. This includes: BWV systems; drones with natural and infrared scanning as well as the ability to deliver payloads; intelligent CCTV surveillance cameras with automatic recognition of faces, guns, suspect bombs and other devices; field-based fingerprint scanners; situational scanners; and much more.

As these devices range further and wider from supporting Wi-Fi, they will also need to be increasingly autonomous, capturing store-and-forward data where necessary and proactively communicating with dispatchers whose job is rapidly changing to encapsulate a role as curators of operational intelligence.

The depth and quality of that intelligence is steadily increasing as conventional voice, video and digital records are being complemented with monitoring and analysis of social media feeds, CCTV, environmental sensor and other information. PSAs are also coming to rely on rapid analytical capabilities through big data analysis and forensic analytics tools from the likes of Wynyard Group, which can pick patterns with forensic implications from large quantities of event and operational data.

“It’s a combination of structured and unstructured data,” said Wynyard Group CEO Craig Richardson. “All these agencies have the intent to do the right thing and a lot of them have a lot of this data, but pulling them together in such a way to help is not a trivial exercise.

“Real-time intelligence on offenders and victims doesn’t rely on often onerous and bureaucratic processes,” he added. “It’s about data from a number of places to give the people responsible for managing those offenders the best chance of intercepting what might go wrong.”

Keeping it safe

Increasingly, connected systems introduce one other consideration that should not be underestimated: as devices are increasingly brought online all the time, they will be opened to compromise through outside hacking. This carries significant implications for PSAs, for whom it is critical to secure both access to supporting technologies and the information they create — particularly as they increasingly deploy autonomous, wirelessly connected devices like drones and situational robots.

“We can’t even protect the number of things we have online today,” said global security advisor Marc Goodman, who has often warned about the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), of which PSA devices will increasingly be a part.

“Although we’ve been excellent at wiring the world, we’ve failed to secure it. These cameras, for example, are overwhelmingly connected to the internet and overwhelmingly hackable. Robots are also going to be huge — but remember that these devices move about our physical space. If people hack robots, there can be very significant implications.”

Such concerns may seem esoteric at best, but within PSAs the increasing use of drones and robots in field operations reflects a looming reality: drones are already being used to monitor the spread of bushfires, for example, and their role in other emergency-response situations is likely to expand quickly.

Extending their reach back to centralised dispatchers will be of great value in helping facilitate a coordinated response to the many natural disasters with which Australia’s PSAs have to deal.

Eventually, seamless connectivity may obviate concerns about bandwidth — but we are still far from that point. In the short term, the Productivity Commission report will dictate the next step as PSAs work to build the responsive, capable field force that today’s mobile technologies promise to deliver.

“This process has been going on for some time now,” said Crutchfield. “We do need to move forward and quickly, because this is a significant and real issue for PSAs and for the community. We’re hopeful that some real and clear decisions will be made out of this process in the short to medium term.”

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