The growing participation of commercial network operators in the public safety sector means they are having to build sites in remote areas. Simon Creasey looks at the obstacles in their way and how they can be overcome

Major incidents typically occur in densely populated urban locations such as global capital cities or large regional centres. However, from time to time incidents do occur in remote or rural locations. For example, sporadic wildfires in hard-to-reach forested areas or a mining or tunnelling accident that takes place miles underground.

Due to the fact that no-one can accurately predict when and where these incidents are going to occur, those public safety bodies seeking to embrace the bandwidth-intensive applications that are enabled by mobile broadband are under enormous pressure to create or have access to LTE networks that offer high geographic coverage, even if the civilian population in these areas is fairly low or indeed nonexistent.

But establishing these networks doesn’t come cheaply and is fraught with logistical difficulties. That’s why we are seeing a number of governments globally looking to get mobile network operators (MNOs) to offer LTE network services for public safety users. By sharing existing LTE infrastructure with consumer and enterprise customers, LTE public safety users can take advantage of robust established networks and reduce costs.

However, the major issue comes when public safety users require full network coverage in those hard-to-reach locations where historically MNOs haven’t previously had to offer coverage to consumer or enterprise customers – and especially not LTE coverage.

Providing highly reliable broadband connectivity in these areas presents a whole host of hurdles that MNOs need to overcome. In the first instance there is the logistical issue of getting materials and engineers to the site to build a new tower, which can be tough in areas where there are few or even no roads.

“The biggest challenge is usually travel time and appropriate transport vehicles to get to these locations,” says TJ Kennedy, co-founder of The Public Safety Network in America and former president of FirstNet. “Rural and remote locations that do support towers have the same equipment, sometimes hardened more for difficult weather and less reliable power; it just takes longer and is often more expensive to get there. Off-road vehicles as well as helicopters may be used to get to these locations, adding to significantly higher installation and operating costs.”

There will also potentially be power issues in these locations with the nearest mains supply located some distance away. “Getting power to a site that has no other infrastructure around it is incredibly difficult,” says Duncan Warne, ESN implementation director at EE. “Digging for powerlines is too expensive over those distances.” Then there is the added complexity of backhaul from remote locations where the use of fibre is probably not an option. “Transmission to remote sites is a challenge – fibre presents obvious cost issues, and there is often not a nearby site that we can connect into using point-to-point microwave links,” adds Warne.

Another possible issue surrounds ownership of the land where the new tower needs to be erected. “We’re often operating in areas of outstanding natural beauty, or huge privately owned estates,” says Warne. “If these parts of the country need connectivity, then the landowners have to support that – too often, that support isn’t there.”

As a result of this combination of different factors associated with bringing coverage to rural areas, many MNOs face challenges that they’ve never faced before. “MNOs have been building ‘monolithic’ networks where radio base stations are installed in remote sites that are connected via some sort of backhauling [fibre, microwave] to the network intelligence [gateways] in a few central offices,” says Karim El Malki, CEO at Athonet. “Therefore should anything fail in the communications chain between the base station and the central offices, even if the base station itself is powered and operational, then the emergency worker will be stuck without any connectivity – not even connectivity with colleagues in the same emergency area. That is not acceptable. Furthermore, MNO networks currently operate as black boxes to public safety agencies, making it impossible for public safety IT teams to be independent and rapid when it comes to managing and operating those networks.”

El Malki says that to address these new needs it is “fundamental to bring intelligence to the network edge by creating remote sites that can operate independently, can be managed by public safety teams and can maintain local connectivity between emergency workers in any situation”.

He says this can be done through a combination of new architecture of MNO radio sites that need to be equipped with network and application servers to make them independent of the national network if needed and “transportable standalone mobile edge networks to create coverage in difficult situations” – more of which later.

Some of the issues that El Malki and other experts identify are already being overcome. Take the example of power. “We’re evolving battery and back-up generator technologies, and designing sites that use less power,” says Warne. “Solar is another area of development – we work closely with innovative technology companies, from the telecoms industry and elsewhere.”

Inroads have also been made in the area of transmission. “We’ve developed a highly efficient satellite backhaul solution for these cases, and that’s meeting the challenges of fast data and instant voice.”

But while there may be ways of getting around some of these coverage issues, the problem is that some of the solutions don’t come cheaply and the cost of building new towers can be very high – especially in hard-to-reach areas. Then you have the added cost of bringing electricity or green power generators and storage to the site, plus the cost to bring backhaul connectivity to the site. And that’s not to mention the ongoing cost associated with maintaining the tower.

“Sometimes it’s not commercially viable for operators to deploy unless there is some sort of government support,” says Manuel Ruiz, head of mission critical and private networks at Ericsson. “It’s not just the cost of the equipment we provide – it’s providing the site, providing the security around [it], being able to provide the backbone fibre, optic whatever, and making it accessible for maintenance.”

This is where MNOs, utility companies and governments need to collaborate to find synergies, says Kennedy. “Everyone must come together to help reduce the cost. In some rural areas around the world, carriers have partnered to do rural RAN sharing as a way to save costs [eg, Northern Finland, as well as Canada] and governments have often invested in rural fibre deployments to encourage additional telecom investment [eg, USA Rural Broadband grant programmes such as the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program, known as BTOP]. We need to continue to find innovative ways to save fixed and variable costs to foster more rural deployments.”

As well as the potential prospect of towers not being commercially viable, there are some geographical areas where it is physically impossible to erect a tower. That is where rapidly deployable networks – which are only used in emergency situations – come in. These don’t require high network build costs and they have a limited impact on the local environment, which is helpful in areas that may have some sort of protected environmental status. These deployable solutions can also be used if an existing network is taken out by a natural disaster.

“There are different models, but the most popular one is putting it on a vehicle – a cell on wheels,” says Ruiz. “So if there is an event, they are able to have a bubble of coverage in that area.”

Nokia has already developed a portfolio of ultra-compact network and compact networks with deployable systems so that users can create “small bubbles of LTE coverage”, explains Jane Rygaard, global marketing lead for this business area at Nokia.

“So you can basically take an LTE network with you, deploy it on the battery if you have no power and you can backhaul it into the existing network,” says Rygaard. “If I gave you one of our backpacks and you put it up on the battery, you could have an LTE network up and running in under three minutes, which will give you a basic coverage. Of course, depending on antennas and everything else, you’re not going to get coverage for all of Scotland in one go, but it will give you [coverage across] the radius of whatever emergency area you are dealing with.”

She believes that as LTE is rolled out across the world we will start to see even more innovative deployable network solutions introduced. “We worked on the balloon project [known as Project Loom] with Google where they sent up balloons over Puerto Rico to create coverage, and that included LTE equipment to create disaster response communications,” says Rygaard.

Last year, EE also demonstrated pre-standard 5G backhaul technology, using it to connect its Helikite ‘air mast’ mobile coverage solution. Helikite uses mini mobile sites attached to a helium balloon to provide 4G mobile coverage where permanent sites have been damaged or where there is no coverage.

“We know that we need better solutions to keep customers connected in the most rural parts of the UK and during disasters, and we can make that solution even more powerful by developing groundbreaking pre-standard 5G technology,” explained EE CEO Marc Allera, speaking at a demonstration of the new technology.

At the moment, EE says this is not a meaningful solution for commercial operation and it’s still too early for widespread deployment, but this sort of technology is expected to gain traction.

As are deployable network solutions using drones. Earlier this year, at the TechXLR8 exhibition in London, Athonet showcased a drone carrying an LTE antenna that could offer high-speed data connectivity for as many as 100 users across a 1km area, in addition to taking aerial images or video. El Malki says the company is now looking to bring the drone, with full on-board LTE networks that are both tethered and non-tethered, to market.

“This set-up allows two emergency operators to communicate directly with each other on standard mobile phones – ie, voice-over-LTE and video-over-LTE – directly through the drone flying overhead,” he explains. “No backhaul or centralised network dependencies exist, which makes such communications more reliable and easy to deploy/control by people in the field.”

By their very nature these innovations only offer temporary solutions, and in the longer term the focus from MNOs will need to be on generating greater geographic LTE network coverage for public safety users. Some countries face a bigger uphill struggle than others. For instance, Gösta Kallner, technical director of Ice Group, says there are some obvious network coverage anomalies in remote and rural areas even in relatively advanced nations. He cites the example of Scotland, which has more than its fair share of locations that fit the bill.

“It should be fairly simple to build [a public safety LTE network] in Scotland,” says Kallner. “There is infrastructure in place already so it’s not impossible to put up a mast here and there and get coverage. You have very nice hills so you can do a fairly simple and good network, but it’s a question of priority.”

That’s not to say that efforts aren’t already underway – EE reported in April that it had rolled out its 90th new site in Scotland in the last 12 months.

Kallner adds that in the end, MNOs will build extensive coverage in all geographic territories, but the big question for him is what can be done to incentivise them to provide this coverage in areas that aren’t top of the list of priorities.

“When it comes to building additional coverage, usually the incentive is to simplify network sharing between operators,” he continues. “From a public safety point of view, the disadvantage with that is you get single networks, whereas it’s quite nice to have two independent infrastructures and be able to use both because then you increase your availability quite significantly.”

Governments are tackling these coverage issues in different ways – there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Some are trying to deploy dedicated networks with a dedicated spectrum, whereas others are taking advantage of existing LTE infrastructure offered by MNOs. Another emerging trend in countries that have large rural areas is a combination of governments having their own dedicated networks, but also having roaming agreements with MNOs, as the latter often have better coverage in these harder-to-reach locations.

“The only common thread we are seeing [in terms of the approach taken] is the relevance of the operators,” says Ruiz. “Even in regions where three years ago operators were not present, they are requested by governments.”

Whatever approach is ultimately taken, it’s clear this isn’t an issue that is going to go away. In fact, the situation could potentially be exacerbated in the future due to frequency challenges.

“All the public safety LTE bands are higher in frequency than the previous voice-oriented bands,” explains Ingo Flomer, coverage product director at Cobham Wireless. “For example, in Europe we are jumping from 400 to 700MHz, and in the US it’s from VHF to 700MHz, and these higher frequencies don’t propagate that well and require more sites.”

And it’s likely that many of these sites will need to be built in remote and/or rural locations. The shift from narrowband systems to LTE-based public safety has been slow in coming and the transition is only going to happen gradually over several years. Indeed, if you wind the clock back a few years, many people would have questioned if this transition would ever occur, but that perception has changed in a relatively short space of time, according to Rygaard.

“A year ago there were question marks around whether LTE was going to happen and if we were happy with where we were [in terms of adoption]. Whereas today it’s not a question mark – it’s more of a planning issue and ‘how do we get there?’.”

The biggest hurdle in many countries in terms of building networks for widespread geographic coverage is cost – particularly to fund expansion in remote or rural areas, which is where MNOs need greater financial assistance, according to Kennedy.

“Typically the low populations of rural and remote areas don’t justify a standalone MNO’s investment case to provide the capex and opex needed to create and maintain the connectivity,” he says. “However, we know public safety responds to incidents in certain remote areas. Rural telecom partners, combined with effective nationwide business models with the appropriate rural buildout milestone incentives, can help the cost sharing to build out more terrestrial rural and remote areas as needed by public safety to help to address these challenges. It is critical that public safety work collaboratively to prioritise each costly uncovered rural area to cover and highlight those areas that have the highest demands on public safety.”

Author: Simon Creasey