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Public safety communications: should commercial mobile network operators embrace the potential?

With mobile broadband delivered everywhere by commercial mobile network operators (MNOs), consumers have for some time been getting into powerful smartphone apps in a big way. It seems like there’s an app, or many, for anything you want to do. Public safety agencies, like the police and fire services with a growing proportion of their staff being digital natives, also have their eyes on the potential of apps to make their work easier and safer by augmenting their narrowband services with broadband to transform the way they work.

But how will these services be provided? Public safety organizations have traditionally used their own dedicated professional mobile radio networks. But today’s mobile broadband is driven by MNOs with the necessary expertise and infrastructure. Can MNOs meet the stringent needs of public safety? And could it be profitable for them?

A viable business prospect

Several business models exist in which operators and governments can work together to produce network services that meet the demand for improved public safety communications, while also providing a solid business case for the MNO.

Several funding possibilities are available to provide the significant investment needed for MNOs to provide public safety mission critical broadband (LTE) services. Revenue model options and commercial pricing need to be negotiated and both government public safety agencies and the MNO’s targets must be agreed.

To meet mission-critical requirements, investment is needed in three key areas:

  • Core network: Dedicated network elements are deployed at secure government facilities or on the operator's premises. Virtualized core networks can also be used to flexibly deploy dedicated gateways and maintain high levels of security.
  • Radio network: To guarantee availability for mission-critical LTE, network coverage is extended by new radio sites, while existing ones are hardened. Rapidly deployable LTE systems are used in extreme conditions. The radio network is shared by public safety and commercial users, controlled by QoS and access policy mechanisms.
  • Apps: Dedicated public safety applications like push-to-talk and push-to-video enhance the communications of first responders.

Analysis of three country profiles by Nokia Bell Labs Consulting shows that an MNO can achieve break even within three to five years without government funding and with a reasonable activation fee and monthly charges of a few tens of euros per subscriber.

However, there are technical challenges that need to be understood early on. Based on the study, an average 80 percent of the overall investment is sucked up by the radio access network, with the impact on the business case of the hardening of existing sites and adding new sites needing to be considered carefully.

The industry backs MNO involvement

Such opportunities are underlined by growing agreement within the industry about the important role MNOs can play in public safety. Wireless industry bodies such as the GSA (Global Suppliers Association) and the critical communications industry in the form of the TCCA (The Critical Communications Association) are now promoting partnerships between MNOs and public safety organizations.

One example of successful collaboration is that between the UK government and EE, which are working together to create an Emergency Services Network or ESN, to be run over EE’s public radio network. Public safety user traffic is processed by a core network dedicated to government users. Nokia is working with EE to develop ESN. FirstNet and AT&T in the US is another example – see our webinar for more on this.

Other examples of how the market is moving include a trial between Nokia, Finland's public safety network provider and Telia Finland to test Nokia network features that ensure public safety communications are given priority over any other traffic in busy 4G/LTE networks.

And it is not just service fees that the MNO can win by working with governments. A network that meets the needs of mission-critical users will have the highest reliability and availability that can benefit existing customers, helping to reduce churn. Acting as a key link for the emergency services in a country can also enhance the MNO’s reputation.

MNOs and public safety organizations can have a bright future together, working to extend the reach of broadband further into the professional radio sector.

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Tristan Barraud de Lagerie

About Tristan Barraud de Lagerie

Tristan leads the portfolio marketing for Nokia private wireless innovations, aiming at the sustainable digital transformation of cities, transportation, public safety and industries. Enthusiastic by nature, Tristan is pushed by a constant wish that innovation can positively impact society and help prevent climate change.

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