The Airbus SLC CEO talks to Philip Mason about the company’s work with the French authorities, and its successful bid to provide core services to the Réseau Radio du Futur project.
Can you tell me a little about your professional background and your current role?
My background is as an engineer, but that was many years ago. In terms of my professional career, I joined Airbus Group after several years at the French DGA [Direction Générale de l’Armement], which is the French military technology and procurement agency. That was in 1994.
Six years later, in 2000, I joined the mobile communication unit, as head of business in France. I was in charge of delivering the ACROPOL project for the French Ministry of Interior which later became INPT [Infrastructure Nationale Partageable des Transmissions], a shared capability used by several security forces in France.
I have been in various roles during my time in this business unit, including being in charge of [business in] France, and later on, the rest of the globe. For two years, I also operated as head of sales for what used to be known as CIS, now Connected Intelligence, which is all about satellite services, intelligence, cybersecurity and so on.
I took over as the head of Secure Land Communications in 2015, and I’m still in that position after seven years.
What would you say are the biggest current opportunities and challenges facing the mission-critical communications sector? How do you anticipate those challenges being addressed?
I look at this more as an opportunity, but the biggest thing is the current migration to a more data-centric mode of operation on behalf of emergency services and security organisations. In our view, this is being enabled by the maturity of the technology alongside the availability of the 3GPP standard for broadband services.
In terms of challenges, I would say that a major one is on the operational side. The move towards broadband looks straightforward – simply enabling access to more capacity – but the end-user community will need to think carefully about how their working methods will change going forward.
This is something that we’re helping our customers to address, so they can take as much benefit from the technology as possible. We want to support them on their journey towards transition and evolution, and it’s something which we are currently focusing on incredibly heavily.
To what degree does the whole culture of user organisations need to change to accommodate the new technology? How exactly are you addressing that as a business?
As a business, we are creating teams of people who are responsible for really sitting, observing and discussing with the end-user, almost on a daily basis. Again, we want them to understand what the solution in question can bring in terms of their operation, and how it could add value. At the same time, we want to understand what they need.
An example of that is the recent rollout of our mission-critical push to X (MCX) solution in a large administration in France. That turned out to be quite a long journey, because they also had to discover the implications of the technology which they had procured. It has been a joint and fruitful journey.
To be honest, beyond the provision of the application itself – push to talk, MCX and so on – there are other important challenges to handle. These include the accessories to be used, for instance. Personally, I would say that you can’t really consider them accessories any more, because without that aspect, users can’t take advantage of the new ecosystem of collaboration [as enabled by broadband].
You’ve recently been awarded the contract by the French government to provide a core component of its planned Réseau Radio du Futur (RRF) emergency services broadband project. Could you go into greater detail about your responsibilities as a company?
From a procurement perspective, the French organised the tender in three different lots. Lot one was about coverage. This had been pointing towards a mobile network operator and they have indeed selected two of them, Bouygues Telecom and Orange. The third lot is in relation to the BSS [business support solution]; the information and management system for the RRF, for which they selected ATOS.
Our involvement is in relation to the second lot, in a consortium alongside Capgemini. To some extent it’s the main one in that it’s about the core network capability, data centres, the LTE software, and the provision of 5G at a later date. This is the lot where the MCX application, devices and the accessories are provided. At the same time, the second lot includes responsibility for system integration.
We have the responsibility to make sure the RRF as a system works, including lots one, two and three. Our partner, Capgemini, is focusing on the data centre creation and the provision of the core network application, while the MCX application, the devices and the accessories are provided by Airbus.
Why do you think you won the contract? How do you believe that Airbus differentiated itself?
I suppose the simple answer is just that we sent in the best offer. Looking a little bit further below the surface though, I do believe that, first of all, it was the very deep knowledge that we have of the customer. This is in terms of what they require, but also their constraints.
We have been working with the security forces in France for decades, so we know them well and we also know their business. On top of offering what we believe to be a very powerful solution from a technological perspective, that means we have been able to understand their actual needs.
Again, that’s vital from the manufacturer side, and we’ve been able to tailor the technical proposal to fit very well. When you already know your customer, they understand what you’re doing.
Is there any sense of how the users feel about the move from narrowband to broadband? Thinking back a few years, when the ESN contracts were first awarded in the UK, there was a certain amount of trepidation on the part of users when it came to the new technology…
First of all, it’s necessary to acknowledge how reliable [the current French narrowband solution] TETRAPOL is, as well as TETRA-based networks elsewhere. It works very well and does exactly what it has been designed to do. There is absolutely no ambiguity when it comes to that.
That being said, narrowband technology is not capable of delivering high-speed data services, which is now what the end-user organisations want, and what they’re moving towards. Public safety organisations want to evolve in their mode of operation, moving away from mainly voice and short messaging to a much more data-centric mode. That doesn’t mean that they’re not happy with what they have today.
But how do you create reassurance in relation to the new technology?
Public safety organisations don’t trust paper and they don’t trust PowerPoint. They trust what they see and touch.
So, in order to create the needed high level of confidence they need to feel comfortable, you have to be together with them in the field. It took us quite a long time, and quite a significant amount of effort, to create that level of confidence.
Going back to public safety broadband specifically, one of the pain points for users tends to be anticipated worries around coverage. What level of reassurance can be delivered in that regard?
It’s a fact that in some geographical areas, the broadband coverage might not be perfect for emergency services’ needs during a given incident.
For instance, take the case of the forest fires in France last year. [If they were to happen again] there’s no way to be sure that there would be commercial coverage, so solutions would need to be provided to fill the gap. That’s something that we’ve proposed to the French Ministry of Interior.
One of the key deadlines for the rollout of the new French network is the Olympics in Paris in 2024. That’s not far away…
It’s not, but as per the contract, there are several versions of the system to be delivered, the first one being early 2024. Whether that’s going to be a version which gets used at the Olympic Games, I can’t say, although I do believe they will make use of it.
If they do use it, it’s difficult to know to what extent. It takes time for a user organisation to get familiar with a new solution. But fundamentally, that’s a decision for the MOI and the users themselves.
Whenever the network is rolled out, we’re extremely proud of our success when it comes to the French procurement. That will now hopefully pave the way for other similar projects and opportunities in Europe.
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Author: Philip Mason