Mobile network operators to play a key role in next generation critical communications solutions

A new study from critical communications industry organisation TCCA highlights the need for commercial mobile network operators to participate in delivering next generation critical communications solutions, not only for societal but also potential business benefits.

To date, true mission critical communications services have been based on dedicated technologies, dedicated networks and dedicated spectrum. The service operators are typically government-controlled, serving only mission critical organisations such as Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR) and related agencies. Land Mobile Radio/Professional Mobile Radio (LMR/PMR) digital technologies including TETRA, Tetrapol and P25, and legacy analogue technologies are widely used. However as narrowband technologies their capabilities to deliver broadband applications are limited.

Technological and ecosystem evolution is changing the existing critical communications paradigm and opening up new business opportunities for commercial Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

Critical communications users* are looking for new communications capabilities, new applications and new devices which will improve their operational efficiency, and therefore the safety and security of the wider society. These are the underlying drivers for the evolution towards 4G/5G-based critical communications solutions. The next generation of critical communications will be based on 4G/5G open standards defined by 3GPP. The model of using dedicated networks is being challenged and commercial MNO networks represent a new option for the provision of critical communications services.

An additional driver is the lack of dedicated frequency bands for broadband critical communications, especially in Europe. Spectrum is a scarce resource and the trend, at least in Europe, is to auction spectrum to commercial MNOs. Some countries will also grant dedicated spectrum for critical communications, but it looks like spectrum sharing between commercial operators and critical communications users is potentially the best way to find an economically feasible win-win solution.

“There are many projects either already ongoing or planned for the future where established PPDR service operators are looking to complement their narrowband services with critical mobile broadband offerings,” said Tero Pesonen, chair of TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG).

“Often the preferred option is to seek collaboration with MNOs. This opens a natural avenue for MNOs to enter the critical communications service market. PPDR service operators have the knowledge of their users’ needs, manage the customer interface and operate within the necessary operational and legislative frameworks, while the MNOs bring economies of scale and knowledge of 4G/5G technology deployment.”

Although the market for LMR/PMR digital technologies continues to grow, there are already significant next generation critical communications projects ongoing in which MNOs are playing a central role. Examples include the Emergency Services Network in the UK, FirstNet in the US, and SafeNet in the Republic of Korea.

Existing MNO assets can be leveraged to deliver next generation critical communications services. The technology base is the same as for consumer mobile networks, so MNO networks could be utilised provided that the additional critical requirements on availability, reliability, functionality and security are met. Significant additions have been made to the 3GPP 4G/5G standards to ensure that such critical-specific features are available to be implemented along with the whole suite of 3GPP standards.

Incremental use of broadband services can be started today, to complement mission critical narrowband services. Gradually the broadband services’ role and importance can grow as more and more operational requirements are met with the expectation that the broadband services eventually will exclusively fulfil critical communications needs. The service usage can proceed service by service, from local to regional and finally to national, as well as user organisation by user organisation.

Mission critical services are needed on a nationwide basis. Comprehensive radio coverage is therefore a prerequisite for fulfilling the service requirements of public safety and other PPDR organisations. In most countries, this requires coverage extensions of existing MNO networks. In addition, the mission critical users expect 100% service continuity as well as the possibility for automatic priority and pre-emption during major incidents, extreme weather conditions or other crisis scenarios. Higher levels of data security and protection against malicious attacks are also required.

Altogether, this means that ‘hardening’ of the commercial networks is necessary. An obvious upside for the MNOs is that by securing the network to fulfil such needs it will also improve the attractiveness of the network for all users and provide the MNO an opportunity for diverse benefits. Depending on the country, these can include premium ARPU, access to additional spectrum, or government-financed network hardening and/or extended coverage. A network with improved coverage and resilience is a competitive advantage not only with public safety users but also with other user segments.

The full white paper study can be found here

*Users of Critical Communications services can be categorised as Mission Critical or Business Critical, or both. Mission critical organisations are for example police forces, fire and rescue and ambulance/ Emergency Medical services, also collectively referred to as Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR). Some examples of business critical users include public utilities, oil & gas and transportation companies, but there are many more sectors where critical communications are essential. Within the mission critical segment the key driver is the safety and security of civil society. In the business critical segment the focus is typically on continuity of service of critical infrastructure, and significant economical values are usually at stake. In both segments operational efficiency and effectiveness are also important drivers.