Programmable backhaul has first responders’ backs
First responders need to react fast to emergencies. So does the backhaul network. Often seen as merely the plumbing for today’s public safety networks, backhaul doesn’t usually generate a lot of human-interest stories. And yet, programmable backhaul contributes, in its own way, to things as important as responding to security threats and providing emergency services.
Emergency response has become as data-driven as many other fields. While first responders still have to rely on their wits, instincts and training, as well as years of experience dealing with actual emergencies, they are also beginning to get digital help. New technologies such as sensors can detect gas hazards, drones provide a bird’s-eye view with high-definition video and infrared, and push-to-video radios enable improved communications. These new digital tools are part of a growing suite of technologies that deliver enhanced situational awareness for first responders.
All of these devices generate multimedia data that can be moved around wirelessly by 4.9G/LTE and 5G networks, but can existing backhaul networks support the sudden-increased load caused by the new services and connections needed to respond to the incident? The answer with today’s backhaul networks is, not always.
Applications such as video feeds from body cams and vehicle-mounted cameras are bandwidth intensive. And mission-critical applications like these require a range of different performance criteria to ensure things like latency and security as well as bandwidth. Furthermore, agencies are increasingly deploying drones and robots in the middle of rescues for 360° situational awareness, especially in areas that pose a danger to first responders, bringing more strain to the backhaul network.
In many kinds of emergencies — hurricanes, floods, wildfires — several agencies can be part of the response team, which multiplies the number of people on the ground, all of them needing to communicate back to their command centers and amongst themselves to coordinate activities. Other emergency situations involve large crowds of people that can occasionally grow unruly after concerts and sporting events.
In other words, all of this activity can cause bottlenecks in existing backhaul networks that can significantly degrade the important communications associated with the emergency response effort.
A programmable backhaul network can overcome these issues by creating, in near-real time, new slices (virtual network partitions) in the backhaul network to support applications, such as flying drones over affected areas for the duration of the response. Programmable backhaul can also increase dedicated network resource for existing slices on the fly to support additional needs such as backhauling more live CCTV streams.
The most flexible, scalable, and resilient backhaul network today is based on IP/MPLS, which offers a rich collection of network and services capabilities. Many public safety networks already rely on IP/MPLS worldwide. It is compatible with Ethernet, T1/E1 trunks, and 4-wire analog interfaces. It is fully interoperable with both analog land mobile radio (LMR) and digital P25/TETRA radio systems often employed by emergency services.
The key characteristic of IP/MPLS is its ability to continuously attain stringent performance for next-generation mission-critical radio services, such as 4G/LTE and 5G, while simultaneously carrying other traffic types, such as best effort internet services. This allows cities, for instance, to use public networks without having to operate specialized private networks for public safety communications.
However, this sometimes isn’t enough. Emergencies can unfold faster than network engineers can manually configure the backhaul network to support the additional applications and loads. Fortunately, software-defined networking (SDN) provides an additional level of flexibility through programming so that the backhaul network can react fast as situations unfold.
SDN supports service abstraction. This enables network engineers to program in advance or in real time automated routines that orchestrate virtual network resources to create the services required by first responders. This can happen almost instantly without the manual configuration by network operations staff. We call this “programmable backhaul”, and the good news is that it can be implemented on today’s IP/MPLS backhaul networks (Fig. 1).
Figure 1 Programmable backhaul blueprint
For example, when natural disasters occur, backhaul network operators traditionally would not have the time to manually provision new backhaul connections and adjust the backhaul network for additional capacity to support hot spots as the emergency evolves. With a programmable backhaul network, the connections and bandwidth required for radio communications, CCTV feeds, drone footage and first responder body cams would adapt and adjust as usage demands according to pre-programmed intents.
The multiservice capabilities of IP/MPLS also break down the operational silos typical of many emergency services, allowing data, voice and video to all be carried on the same network. Live feeds from public CCTV cameras or smartphones operated by citizens could, for instance, be fed on demand to emergency command and control centers if the programming is in place to support this. Command centers can, in turn, send these live streams to emergency personnel on the ground. Normally, the operational silos of dedicated networks would not allow this without the intervention of network engineers.
Programmable backhaul also benefits smart cities. Taking advantage of an orchestration platform that can oversee all smart city applications, the city’s operation center can have a unified, real-time view across all affected areas. If employing scene analytics solutions as well, emergency situations can be identified automatically, triggering alarms for command and control centers and setting up backhaul network resources in preparation for video and sensor data streams from the affected area.
Programmable IP/MPLS backhaul, together with 4G/LTE and 5G wireless networks, form the communications foundation for emerging public safety applications, including drones and scene analytics. Our goal is to ensure public safety agencies have the flexible backhaul resources to respond quickly to the unexpected – enabling first responders to focus on the situation at hand knowing that their backhaul has their back.