May 31, 2017

Network Slicing: The Silver Bullet That Killed Old School Thinking in Critical Communications

Exhibiting at Critical Communications World show in Hong Kong, our Sales VP Tomas Granö and I were party to a number of heated discussions on using IP networks and shared frequencies for mission-critical purposes. The argument pits the old school types, who contend that only Circuit Switch connectivity over owned infrastructure can serve mission critical operations, against another camp that says quite the opposite. Though much more quiet, this latter group represents the majority who argue that infrastructure can be shared but is has to be built more robustly. Perhaps needless to say, we heartily agree. And this doesn’t just relate to the important issue of network planning, but touches on network hopping (as provided by our newest partner, Goodmill Systems) but as well battery life, weight and efficiency.

In fairness, while its true that network sharing for critical communications isn’t there yet, the old school folks, quite rankly seem to be missing the forest for the trees. Priority service levels are already delivered via circuit-based services but they are confined to voice, and in this case most importantly group voice. But with the move to IP we’ve opened a vast sea of services, from detailed location information to HD video and real-time database access, not to mention voice via VoLTE. Public safety organizations are already using these services delivered to them upon shared networks, but their lack of reliability is an unavoidable bi-product of Best Effort. The point is that this will remain the same even on a private, dedicated network, because even if it is serving a smaller number of users this essential character flaw doesn’t disappear.

This all begs the question, not of how public safety organizations are going to afford to build out their own private networks, but rather how we may offer the services they already use on shared commercial networks more reliably. The great news is, we already know the answer. Native to 4G LTE and soon to be the dominant feature of 5G is network slicing which amounts to a silver bullet for public safety and much, much more. Even though the world’s public safety users number only some 70 million, their stuff needs to work well all the time, period. The ability to provide dedicated, SLA-assured slices on existing mobile networks not only removes the pervading conundrum over shared vs. private, but opens up a huge number of opportunities for critical communications organizations and the carriers that support them.

But this coming sea change will need to be managed, and public safety agents will be required to move with the times and onboard new technologies that will radically extend their capabilities. While the current cohort of agents, habituated to using group calls to get information will need to be re-trained, the next generation of operatives will ask which AI system their dispatchers are using. Real-time data delivery is already a component in game-based training where teams solve problems in the field with the help instant, AI-delivered data.

A corollary to this, and though on its face may seem quite different, is in the area of billing. This came up last week at another conference, the TM Live! Forum 2017 in Nice, France with KPN CTO Erik Hoving asking a rather disruptive but squarely on point question. “Why do we have a billing system at all?” he asked, pointing to the fact that the number of digital companies sending bills amounts to about zero. “We’ve spent zillions on BSS, but who wants a bill?” and he’s right. No one wants one, and the cost to carriers for this unwanted part of their service is phenomenal. And yet, just like old school public safety people are reluctant to jump aboard the shared network bandwagon, mobile operators, many of whom define themselves as billing companies, show all the nervousness of an identity crisis when the idea of a bill-free future comes up.

Once again, like dedicated networks, big billing systems are the product of the age oldcircuit switch voice era and are confined to counting minutes or bytes. And this, along with Best Effort is among the core reasons why consumers don’t feel a great deal of loyalty to their carrier or feel the value is there for the high monthly bills they pay. They don’t want to pay a middle man, but they are more than willing to pay content providers for the stuff that they love. On the flip side, one trick pony services like Spotify and Netflix have paved the way for this with unlimited services at bargain basement prices.

As mobile operators venture into these waters, the idea of integrating these services into their behemoth billing systems makes no sense. But further, and what does make sense is moving their entire business model over to unlimited, or time based service and hey, why not go the age-old net zero path and bring those advertisers aboard? Certainly customers love it, and revenue potential is huge.

And while we’re on the subject of revenues, let’s return for a minute to network slicing which will play an enormous role in all of this coming together. While everyone selling any technology will talk about the "Win-Win", or even triple win and always big Op Ex and Cap Ex savings and revenues, I have been in the tech and telecom world for a while and I have never seen anything like this. Network Slicing not only allows the mobile operator to deliver real value within their core business (which is not billing btw), solve the issue of serving multiple industry segments, including public safety, but most importantly all but guarantee a dramatically improved customer experience; and all this at a fraction of the cost of traditional network deployments. What’s more, network slicing can be delivered and paid for OTT in the same way Netflix or Spotify does.. There are too many wins to name, but you get the point.

None of this will happen over night, and certainly it will take a major change to the culture, thinking and business model of the mobile service industry, but the opportunity is simply too great to ignore.

By Mika Skarp, Founder and CTO, Cloudstreet

Mar 30, 2017

Public safety vehicles need to be always online!

For many years, public safety organisations around the world have implemented land mobile radio systems (LMRS) to improve the communication capabilities of their field operations. Some nations have been the forerunners in this area, boosting digital networks with excellent coverage throughout their respective countries. Others are slower to adapt, with rollouts still ongoing in many territories. These systems, whether TETRA, TETRAPOL or P25 technologies, were designed for specific public safety voice applications and often use technology similar to the first digital mobile networks. Although the systems provided a great improvement over voice-only services, their networks now face great limitations due to very low data capacities. Data traffic carried over digital LMRS networks may even jeopardise the primary voice services. 

The data solution required today must improve the main functionality of voice while simultaneously offering data communication that meets the capacity and requirements of public safety. The requirements for current and future critical data connectivity are:
  • Coverage;
  • Availability;
  • Data integrity;
  • Session persistence;
  • Cost efficiency; and
  • Interoperability.
What are the used services?

The required services are the key reason to implement new data connectivity. Services that are needed today within public safety vehicles include:
  • Image and file transfer;
  • Location-based services;
  • Database queries;
  • Biometric checks; and
  • Video streaming.
Information sharing between different public safety operations is a valuable tool for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of these service providers. This means collecting, sharing and forwarding data between databases controlled by different jurisdictions or pure command centre interoperability. These important applications are impossible to implement within the technological limitations of traditional voice and SMS-type data services. It is obvious that broadband capabilities that fit public safety requirements are essential in order to improve efficiency. This creates the next dilemma: what is required from a police broadband solution technically, and how can we afford it?

Using multiple networks is the "blue ocean" of critical connectivity

Utilising multiple networks simultaneously is the key to using these new data applications efficiently. The idea is to combine two or more relatively well-functioning networks into one connection that meets the requirements of field operations. Multi-channel router technology offers the means to utilise existing parallel commercial and/or private networks. Multi-channel routers need to be populated with several wireless terminals supporting a wide variety of different radio technologies or operators’ networks, and directing mission-critical traffic should always be performed using the best connection available. This enables the minimization of investment into new and expensive networks and does not require necessarily allocated frequencies for public safety. 

Services used

As a first example, the services police authorities use with the data connection are many and varied, with the future offering seemingly limitless capabilities. The first step is to enable a basic functionality (e.g. enabling e-mails with larger data files to be sent without interruption). The increased data capacity also significantly improves situational awareness (e.g. seeing in real time where all other units are and what their status is). With broadband data for police vehicles capabilities, it is possible to drastically expand the area within which units can be surveyed. Other immediately accessible services include real-time blogging, where units can write their observations to specific shared pages on a region by region basis. This service in particular has been extremely well received. The safe connection eventually enables easier and secure sharing of confidential information. It is possible to call up a suspect’s criminal record, any outstanding/previous fines, or even vehicle information. With this approach, all the needed tasks can be performed on the spot, while required documents can be created and printed immediately. This includes a wide variety of tasks, including:
  • Reporting an offence;
  • On-the-spot fines;
  • Sentence claims;
  • Preliminary investigations;
  • Crime enquiries;
  • Technical investigations;
  • Weapon register checks;
  • Personal ID checks; and
  • Passport checks.
The use of broadband in ambulances is somewhat similar. The hospital district needs to chart patients and share data in real time in order to more easily manage ambulance trauma workflow and analyse patient data. The applications used help hospitals realise significant clinical and operational benefits, as well as improving performance and quality. It is even possible to capture data using a touchscreen interface, making charting quick, accurate and comprehensive. The applications enable hospitals and staff to see the status of all patients, including real-time information from charting in the field. It is also possible to use a workflow management system that allows agencies to manage EMS through review and approvals, ultimately replacing the paper trail. The hospital district can then use pre-built server reports and a powerful data analytics package to observe trends and effect change. 

Ambulances are outfitted with docking stations and tablet PCs. Data is entered via touch or voice recognition. Paramedics can send patient data in real time to the hospital, but more than this, the system allows users to quickly and accurately capture and relay far more information than a manual method via paper charts. The patient data is then available instantly to the emergency department and clinical audit staff.

Is this economically viable?

Is a multiple network approach an expensive solution due to hardware and software pricing, as well as due to high network data costs? To answer this, one should look at the costs of the whole unit on the wheels. Whether it’s an ambulance or a police car, one can add the costs of two persons in the vehicle to the vehicle costs, easily making between €100 and €200 per hour. The issue with the broadband connectivity is efficiency. Can we use this expense more efficiently if we have a reliable broadband to the vehicle? Yes, we can.

For work efficiency improvement the clue is whether the users actually begin their work on the move. If the connectivity is not good enough, no matter how cheap, the applications will not be used and the availability levels should always be more than 99% – in many cases up to 99.9% is required. Only this high availability assures the office application usage and makes the ‘office on the wheels’ concept a reality. 

The future is now

It has been proven by many implementations around the world that the high data rate and high availability broadband services offer are a tremendous advantage to public safety operations in the field. This is a direct response from users that have used the technology for years. The applications constantly demand more bandwidth, as well as those currently available. In the future, online streaming video will be the killer application.

Additionally, intelligence cannot remain in the vehicle’s on-board computer. This means that safe and high availability access to central databases is a must. A managed multichannel routing solution is the future-proof answer to these needs, and no huge upfront investments are needed: one can start easily with multiple commercial operators and the links can be upgraded to new dedicated networks when they emerge. A wonderful benefit of Goodmill is that it can use any available network technologies now and in the future, provided that there are modems available.

From a monetary point of view, the approach is rock solid. The payback is only weeks due to improved operational efficiency and, most importantly, the solution has been proven to save not only time and money but also lives.

Juhani Lehtonen
Vice-president, Sales and Marketing
Goodmill Systems Ltd
+358 50 572 5542