Philip Mason talks to the Canadian Public Safety Broadband Network Innovation Alliance about its mission to deliver next-generation comms to the country’s emergency services.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the critical communications landscape will know, a – quite possibly the – key theme of the past few years has been emergency services organisations’ ongoing move from narrowband to broadband technology.
Initiated by the likes of FirstNet in the US and the Emergency Services Network in the UK, an increasing number of countries are now looking to furnish their first-responders with country-wide, hardened LTE/4G coverage. These include the likes of Finland and France, both of which are well under way with their preparations for the move, as well as Norway and Australia, which are just starting to put their own plans in place now.
Needless to say, this theme is also becoming increasingly reflected at TCCA’s Critical Communications World event, which for the past two years has included a ‘government authorities’ village. This offers, in the words of the organisers, “a dedicated space for representatives of national critical communications projects from around the world to come together to discuss ideas, challenges and best practice”.
One such organisation is the Canadian Public Safety Broadband Network Innovation Alliance (PIA), which attended CCW this year for the very first time.
As might be expected given the above discussion, the organisation is likewise involved in the roll-out of broadband to first-responders. The real point of interest for CCT, however, is the unique way in which this is being accomplished, certainly compared with other government authorities involved in similar work.
The first key difference is that the PIA began as a local (Ontario-based) initiative whose influence is now spreading outwards around the country, rather than the other way around. The other crucial difference is the agility which is intended to be baked into all aspects of the work, from user uptake to the model used for the provision and roll-out of the network itself.
Communicating via the home page of its own website, the PIA describes its mission as: “Demonstrating leadership through the development of a PSBN governance framework for the Temporary National Coordination Office’s [more of which later in the article] consideration as a viable model.
“Many public safety organisations and public-private partners in Ontario have led the formation of the first PSBN governance framework in Canada. The PSBN Innovation Alliance group has established working relationships between participating organisations in order to manage, coordinate, promote and maintain an Ontario PSBN.”
Going deeper into the origins of the organisation, executive director of the alliance, deputy chief Anthony Odoardi, says: “The organisation was founded in 2019 by Halton Police, Peel Police and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. The idea has been to establish public/private partnerships throughout all levels of government, critical infrastructure providers, innovation hubs and private organisations, both in and out of the tech space.”
He continues: “We brought all these organisations together, not just as a think-tank but also as an entity to advocate for public safety, firstly in the province and then across the country, where it is desired to be established.
“We’re seeing private tech organisations who would traditionally be competing with each other now working collaboratively, something which in turn has given us a better lens through which to understand the concept of community safety.
“The PSBN is operational in our geographic region here in Ontario. We cover close to three million people in the regions of Peel, which is the most diverse community in Canada. We’re now seeing nearby regions also starting to build out that infrastructure. It is the only operational public safety network run by public safety agencies in the country.”
According to Phil Crnko, who is the director of engineering and finance for the PIA, the nucleus of the new communications offering began in the greater Toronto area, with coverage now bleeding over into adjacent municipalities.
He conceptualises the network as “almost like private 5G” based around the concept of “neutral host cores, held in a public/private partnership”. In terms of spectrum, the PIA also has the advantage of being able to leverage its own, with the project harmonised with the US in its use of FirstNet Band 14.
Going into greater detail about the anticipated direction of the build-out, he says: “These cores are 100 per cent privately held by Halton Police and Peel Police. At the same time, we have the flexibility that the RAN could be deployed across a range of different partnerships.
“That could be a carrier partner, integrator, or national start-up. Ultimately, however, we leave that decision to the municipal regions, who will all have their own requirements. This flexibility – alongside strict service-level agreements and key requirements around reliability – have been the key to our success so far.
“We call the neutral host entity Trillium, which is the name of the provincial flower [also known as ‘birth roots’]. That runs the cores, the SLAs and so on.”
Going more specifically in the subject of network provision, he says that the project envisages at least two primary carrier entities to provide nationwide coverage, as well as what he refers to as “seamless mobility” via the anticipated eventual use of network slicing.
The core would ultimately go from being privately owned (as it is now) to being operated via public/private partnership, with a multi-carrier model being the most appropriate for Canada due to the country’s current “patchwork quilt” of providers.
“Last but not least,” he continues, “we have the concept of private 5G RANs. Anywhere there’s a private 5G RAN, all public safety organisations will have access to that via our core network, which quarterbacks slices and access.
“One final secret sauce item is the involvement of satellite operator Telesat in the project. We see a strong role for low Earth orbit technology going forward, and satellite access is really key for our remote communities as we continue to build fibre out.”
Multiple business cases
As with any large-scale project of this kind, many factors have informed the decision to fund and build out the Ontario-based public safety broadband network.
In the first instance, this obviously includes the need to increase the effectiveness of Canadian public safety organisations, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by new communications technology. There are, however, also broader societal issues that need to be addressed around the provision of (non-emergency services) broadband coverage across the country as a whole.
Both of these factors continue to be key concerns for the Canadian Temporary National Coordination Office (TNCO), which is the governmental organisation mentioned at the beginning of this article as a key partner for PIA. Established in 2018, the organisation is charged with overseeing the roll-out of public safety broadband across the country.
It published its latest PSBN progress report in August of this year, outlining nine defining ‘principles’ for such a network, ranging from interoperability and uninterrupted access to affordability and efficient use of spectrum.
Discussing support for the PIA project at governmental, regional and international levels, Josh Johnson, director of strategy for the PIA, says: “The TNCO report has informed a lot of the work that’s already been done, including looking at the management of chronic urban/rural divide issues.
“The TNCO essentially provided an endorsement of the hybrid model which Phil was talking about earlier. That is, where you have this ‘core project’ network, which is then able to utilise commercial partnerships as and when required.
“Peel and Halton really were visionaries in this in that they decided to go ahead and build out the core network while the report was being written. Sometimes it’s just not desirable to wait for everyone else to do all the work – you have to take a little bit of a leap of faith.”
Picking up on the subject of rural broadband provision and how the PIA’s ‘multi-provider’ model is being used to help facilitate it, Crnko comes back into the conversation. He says: “There were six major problems to be solved, informing what we’ve done with the network.
“One of the key ones was the massive digital divide, which is linked to some of our geographical challenges in terms of the sheer size of the country, coupled with some very low-density populations. There are communities which are currently connected only by satellite, and we wanted the PSBN to be a factor in solving that problem.”
Other ‘societal’ issues informing the project, meanwhile, include the ever-increasing cost of mobile data and the subsequent implications for the continued use of commercial broadband by emergency services organisations.
Another one is reliability when it comes to the use of commercial broadband itself. Johnson illustrates this via the mention of a recent network outage afflicting national network provider Rogers. “That really hammered home the value of our policy suggestions,” he says. “This is not about big government at all, but resilience through public/private partnerships.”
Community safety and wellbeing
As crucial as all this is when it comes to establishing the business case for the network, the most important factor has to be the anticipated ways in which it will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of Canadian emergency services.
It will therefore come as no surprise to learn that both PIA and the Canadian authorities have given this aspect plenty of thought as well, conceptualising broadband connectivity as integral to how they want public safety to do business going forward.
Giving an overview of Canadian police jurisdictions, and the general operational structure of first-responders, Odoardi says: “A good way to conceptualise it is by comparing it to the United States. Both have similar models when it comes to the emergency services, taking place at three levels, with organisations working together to co-ordinate missions.
“The difference lies, firstly, in the [comparatively few] public safety agencies in comparison to geography. There is also a fundamental difference in the approach to public safety itself, something we define – certainly in Halton and Peel – as the concept of ‘community safety and wellbeing’.”
According to Odoardi, the latter sits “outside the paradigm of traditional policing” with an increasing focus on societal concerns, rather than just law enforcement and crime prevention. It too is integral to the rationale driving the PSBN project.
Odoardi continues: “Over the last few years, certainly since the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest which it led to, policing has had to differentiate itself from the traditional model. It now has to meet specific community safety needs.
“The network is intended to help do that, and we’re tying it to an overall framework in relation to providing services to the community as a whole. The idea is to look for upstream intervention resources, in order to mitigate negative interactions with the police. A key area in relation to that could be mental health.”
He describes a relevant scenario as starting with a call to 911, which could potentially be in the form of a video feed. Broadband connectivity would enable officers to see the footage in question, which in turn can be shared with public safety partners.
The aim – he says – is to assess any potential crisis in advance of police attendance, while simultaneously looking for “appropriate upstream resources” and giving them access to the situation. The latter could, for instance, include livestreamed footage from a body-worn video camera straight to a mental health professional.
“Our vision is to make sure that in crisis situations we do our best to provide our public safety and critical infrastructure partners with the information they require to maintain public safety,” he says. “At the same time, we’re also looking at what our communities genuinely need, and the day-to-day operations around that.
“Eighty per cent of what police deal with is non-criminal in nature, which could mean issues around precarious housing, security and the protection of vulnerable people. Having a reliable network that allows us to do that allows other public agencies to come on board with confidence and partner with us in total response.”
The PIA is responsible for some of the most interesting work currently taking place in the realm of mission-critical communications, both in terms of concept and execution. Its strong community focus also marks it as a project to watch very closely moving forward.
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Author: Philip Mason