Public-safety organisations have always relied on high-quality critical communication voice services, built on specialised technologies with dedicated network implementations and spectrum. With the wide availability of high-speed broadband, the potential for harnessing a new range of critical data services to enhance the work of first responders is in the process of being realised.
The accessibility of LTE/4G and future 5G networks and services to the public-safety community will add many capabilities to critical communications infrastructure. This article explores the developments we can expect from broadband and some of the capabilities that will benefit the fire and rescue community.
3GPP is the organisation responsible for the ongoing development and enhancement of open standards for mobile networks. Uniting a number of national and regional standard development organisations, 3GPP uses a system of parallel ‘Releases’ that provides developers with a stable platform for the implementation of features at a given point and then allows for the addition of new functionality in subsequent Releases. The development of these Releases has historically been based on a volume-driven business logic, leading to consumer- and business-targeted updates being prioritised. As a result of work by TCCA and other global stakeholders, Public Safety features began to be considered in 2012. 3GPP Releases 12 and 13 were the first to address public-safety-specific requirements, and subsequent Releases 14 and 15 extended and enhanced these features. Work in 3GPP is currently focused on Release 16, which will be finalised at the end of 2019.
Releases 15 and 16 and beyond encompass 5G requirements, and 5G trials as well as deployments are expected to start during 2019–2020. Here are some of the key functionalities that we expect to see for the fire and rescue community:
Reliability and security
High availability and reliability are essential requirements for firefighters. Radio coverage needs to be widespread and communication immediately activated when a first responder pushes the button on the device. Uncompromised security is also a must. 5G is expected to provide several new features designed to improve the reliability, availability and security of broadband critical communications. These include Device-to-Device (D2D) communication, user and control-plane separation by using Software Defined Networking (SDN), a cloud-based method that facilitates network management and enhances network performance and monitoring, and Mobile-Edge Computing (MEC). Flexible use of radio resources with Multi-Connectivity technology will also contribute to improved reliability.
Critical communications networks need to be designed for use in the very worst cases of need. The dimensioning of network capacity should be based on situations where large numbers of people are in a small area and the network load is peaking. Typically, when first responders need to have the most capacity, for example at major unplanned events, people around them also want to communicate. If these two parties are using the same network, priority must be given to first responders to allow them the necessary capacity and performance. This means providing priority and pre-emption capabilities for public safety over non-critical consumer and business services.
With 5G Network Slicing capability, a single network can be divided into several virtual networks with different use cases and priorities. This opens new opportunities for infrastructure sharing between public-safety user groups. Separating user and control-plane traffic with SDN (Software Defined Networks), and NFV (Network Function Virtualisation) technologies is key for managing dynamically changing capacity needs in the network. This will offer first responders new capabilities to manage a portfolio of use cases with different priority requirements by using a single physical network.
Sensors and Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the key drivers of 5G. The target is to support a very large number of connected devices that can communicate with each other, exchange data and enable the automation of processes. Sensors, cameras and other automated devices will become an increasingly significant source of information for the public-safety community, as will information from citizens about incidents, in building a full picture.
Air-interface performance is always high on the 3GPP agenda, and 5G (Releases 15–16) is expected to significantly improve air-interface data transfer speed and capacity with enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) functionality.
Enhanced 4G and 5G networks for critical communications will help improve information sharing amongst fire and rescue teams and their fellow first responders, with secure and reliable video sharing from bodycams and via drones, group chat, file sharing and location sharing.
Commercial broadband networks are already used widely to provide public-safety users with non-critical broadband data services. Public-safety-specific functionalities of Releases 13–16 and beyond will widen and improve services which can be offered for public-safety users. However, it is important to understand that new functionalities will not by themselves change the overall status of offered services. LTE 4G and 5G networks will need to meet the stringent requirements of mission-critical communication for coverage, availability and security in order to be deployed for operational use in public-safety organisations.