Keeping connected in the toughest environments

09 February 2021

According to the United Nations’ Global Humanitarian Overview 2019 report, Asia-Pacific nations experience more natural disasters than any other region in the world. Between 2014 and 2017, nations in this area were affected by 55 earthquakes, 217 storms and cyclones, plus 236 cases of severe flooding, impacting 650 million people and causing the deaths of 33,000 people. Then, if you consider the various war zones/armed conflicts, terrorism and unforgiving, often treacherous terrain synonymous with the world’s largest continent, it’s a part of the world that needs a solid critical comms backbone more than most.

Given the region could be hit by something anywhere, at any time, likely with little or no warning, its paramount that the emergency services and local communities are able to maintain connectivity to save lives. So, just how prepared is the critical communications set-up in relation to each country and indeed southern Asia as a whole?

Mladen Vratonjić, chair of TCCA, a membership organisation which represents all standard mobile critical communications technologies and complementary applications, says every business, organisation and government should have a business continuity plan to protect operations should they be affected by an unplanned event. The event could be a natural disaster such as an earthquake or flood, or unnatural such as a terrorist or cyberattack.

“It is often said that there are three ‘Rs’ of the greatest importance for any critical telecommunications network: resilience, reliability and recovery,” he says. “These are achieved through some more ‘Rs’ - redundancy and robustness. There is no overall standard classification for a mission or business critical network – however mission critical networks are those essential for some mission accomplishment (mostly public safety), and business critical networks serve businesses that cannot operate without reliable communications. To meet those requirements, there are technology standards that have been designed specifically with resilience at their core – these include TETRA, P25, Tetrapol and DMR – all well-established narrowband systems leveraged for both mission and business critical networks around the world.

Cambridge-based Sepura supplies TETRA technology to emergency services around the world and a firm official explains the benefits of radio over other methods of communication during a critical situation. “Radio works on an independent infrastructure, so not susceptible to call overload, system failure, etc,” says a company spokesman. “It is a robust system, designed to withstand extreme weather. It can also be supported by temporary network infrastructure to support if needed, particularly in remote areas that are often the epicentre of a natural disaster. Critical comms radios are robust and will keep working in hot, wet or dirty environments, and can suffer rough treatment much more than other communication systems. They also use encrypted voice comms to ensure comms are kept confidential.” He adds that data applications can be developed to work over the system to integrate with back office systems. TETRA radio systems also enable co-operation between agencies using that platform – “often police, fire, ambulance, rescue and other emergency response organisations”.

Traditionally and unsurprisingly, the largest users have been public safety organisation – police, fire, ambulance, rescue organisations. After all, they need it more than any other group, business or sector.

The Sepura spokesman says the specific requirement for a critical communications platform are where there is a risk to critical national infrastructure, a risk to life, or a risk to business operations. “Where these conditions/risks exist, there is a need for a communications system with greater functionality that can be provided by standard cellular phones or low level radios,” he adds.

As much of the developing world transitions from analogue to digital radios, it is important to understand that digital networks require more precise alignment than analogue networks to achieve optimum performance.

Motorola Solutions is another key player on this space, kitting out much of the continent.

Steve Crutchfield, regional vice president – Asia Pacific, says  investment in mission critical communications is proving to support economic growth throughout the Asia Pacific region. “Thailand’s mission critical network provides a good example of that where the system is designed to support the country’s continued growth and expansion with the flexibility to add large numbers of users over time,” he says. “Any country experiencing significant growth in infrastructure, innovation, education and skills requires an advanced communications system. Additionally, the construction and modernisation of these networks support job creation through their construction.” 

It’s a no-brainer that the emergency services is a key beneficiary from critical comms, but which other sectors benefit most from critical comms and why?

“In Asia Pacific, the minerals and energy sector in Australia and Malaysia’s oil and gas sectors are big users of our mission critical systems to reach new levels of safety and productivity,” adds Crutchfield. “Additionally, the rail sector are very big users of TETRA systems in Asia and we have supported the construction of more than 200 rail projects.” He adds that public safety, transportation and logistics, mining, oil and gas, natural resources and retail sectors are seeing the biggest growth.

Barry Hack, solutions engineer at Viavi Solutions, argues that poor alignment causes degraded digital modulation accuracy in the transmitter, which impacts the receiver’s ability to recover the digital data, leading to poor coverage and range.

“For example, a 20% calibration error can affect range to the same extent as a 75% reduction in power,” he says. “A quick back-to-back radio check will not show this problem. An understanding of digital radio operation and alignment, proper setting of filter parameters and an accurate FM deviation meter will significantly improve the performance of digital radios. This is important as most digital FSK based systems, such as DMR, P25 and NXDN, use CW and FM modulation for tuning of the radio transmitter.”

Hack says FM deviation meters are peak reading. Any other signals or noise will add to the measurement. “AF and IF filters impact the measurements, too narrow they attenuate the wanted signal, too wide and they add noise to the measurement,” he continues. “Using DMR as an example, a low tone (eg 100 Hz) is measured and the corresponding high tone (eg 3 kHz to 6 kHz) is set to exactly match the level of the low tone. FM deviation meters must have no change in accuracy from one frequency to the next. In other words, there should be no ‘tilt’. This is a critical parameter, for example 0.05 dB flatness is specified by one major OEM.”

Crutchfield explains how Thailand provides a strong example of where Motorola provides a mission-critical TETRA network to support both commercial and government organisations with instant and secure voice communication via an advanced, nationwide system.

“We provide the system through CAT Telecom, an operator of Thailand’s telecommunications infrastructure,” he says. “The system provides Thailand’s government agencies, emergency services and other critical enterprises with access to the mission-critical radio communications network.”

The shared operator system, Crutchfield adds,  is highly-scalable and based on the modern TETRA standard, “providing reliable, flexible and secure communications access to more than 200,000 users”, including government departments, oil and gas companies, transportation operators and other critical organisations.

“It also provides next-generation capabilities including location services to pinpoint radio users and other resources in the field, providing improved response to large scale events,” he continues. “The system also utilises Motorola Solutions’ broadband enabled push-to-talk platform, enabling seamless communication between radio users and other workers using smartphones, tablets, desktop computers and other devices.”

Due to Asia’s size, richness of different cultures, landscapes, climates and contrast of wealth, are some nations more advanced in this space compared to others?

“There are many different needs and considerations for critical communications throughout Asia,”  adds Crutchfield. “Among them are disaster management and recovery which is particularly important in countries including Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines which face significant risks from natural disasters including major floods. The Asia Pacific region is the most exposed region to natural disasters in the world with rising economic losses from these events forecast to exceed USD$160bn by 2030. Critical communications is also extremely important in South East Asia where vigilance against terrorism is always essential, especially in southeast Asia, which is identified as a potential hotspot.”

Meanwhile, in countries including Malaysia and Singapore, Crutchfield  says Motorola Solutions sees strong demand for both mission critical communications as well as advanced video security, command centre software and Computer Aided Dispatch systems. “We have long term partnerships with government agencies in both countries and are seeing a variety of requirements for both fixed and mobile video solutions including body-worn video, in these two nations,” he says.

Another company that has played and continues to play an integral part in the critical communications space is US industrial wireless mesh networks specialist, Rajant. According to Michael Van Rassen, its president, military & government markets says military, defence and other mission-critical agencies continually grapple with the complexities of establishing and maintaining internet connectivity in remote and often hostile environments. “In particular regions, such as those in Africa and south Asia, where pre-existing communication infrastructure may be lacking, the challenge is exacerbated,” he says. “As this capability is extremely critical for situational awareness, tactical strategies, convoy communications, and more, these teams must be supported by a ruggedised networking solution that is tailored to their needs, seamless to set up, and proven to perform in challenging environments.”

Nevertheless, the Sepura spokesman says there are landscapes/terrains/regions where critical comms are more difficult to deploy than others, regardless of economic circumstances. “Every system deployment is unique,” he adds. “Systems have been installed across nations (and indeed allowing interoperability across national borders), on offshore oil rigs, in underground mines, on super-fast train systems, in ski resorts and in locations where buildings are designed to protect from natural disasters. Part of the process of designing a system is to understand where potential problem areas may exist and to mitigate any potential issues with them.”

So, if the network is safe and it can be deployed in pretty much any situation, is there a question mark surrounding the technology itself? Do the handsets/radios need to be updated regularly and just how much of an investment is that? The Sepura spokesman says “it really depends” on how and where the radios are used. “On a less busy site the radios might rarely be upgraded, whereas police users might look to set up a radio much more frequently, based on operations taking place at that time,” he says. New innovations are always being brought in to support users in these cases – for example over the air programming, enabling radios to be updated whilst connected to a secure, approved Wi-Fi network, reducing the time radios are out of use.”

We’ve managed to get this far without mentioning 5G. Prior to the introduction of Covid-19 and possibly Brexit, you’d be hard-pressed to find a topic more often talked about than the next generation technology. Of course, the UK has taken one step forward and two steps back with the way the government has handled the Huawei row. However, it’s still slated to be with us in the not too distant future and once it is, Ken Gold, director of test, monitoring and analytics at Exfo, which develops test, monitoring and analytics solutions for operators says the new technology brings the promises of more resilience. “5G network slicing would be used to ensure the performance of mission critical services,” he says. “Virtualised 5G core and edge networks will accelerate the implementation of required changes. Remote orchestration of new virtual resources as well as changes in traffic routing and moving critical services to the edge will improve service availability and reduce the need for truck rolls—keeping personnel out of the danger zone. Continuous monitoring and orchestration of the services and network will ensure critical services are maintained and the customer’s essential communications needs are met.”

The good news is we definitely have, or will have, technologies able to handle the very worst situations, but in the words of James Trevelyan, SVP global sales – enterprise at communications solutions provider Speedcast  says disasters of any kind are impossible to predict, making short-term communications that connect emergency services throughout every stage of the response efforts critical. “High-speed, uninterrupted connectivity that enables voice, video, data and IoT solutions can be the difference between the success or failure of a disaster situation,” he says. “With rapid response times necessary, communication networks that are quick and easy-to-deploy are imperative.

For many critical communications, satellite remains the method of choice – particularly in areas where the internet access and cell towers have been knocked out as a result of a disaster. Trevelyan adds that as satellite communications become faster, more reliable, cheaper and are able to offer lower latency, disaster recovery operations and critical communications will become more streamlined and tactical than ever before. After all, teams that are better prepared, better equipped and that can work well together in challenging circumstances have a better chance of saving lives than those that are not.

“Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and High Throughput Satellite (HTS) offer first responders a way to establish short-term, easy-to-deploy communications anywhere at any time. “Due to the speed in which emergency services need to react and take control of the situation, solutions that can be brought online within five to 10 minutes and allow them to gain coverage immediately are vital,” he continues. “When a disaster strikes, the first action of the emergency services is to create a local hub to re-establish critical communications and ensure they can stay connected through the entire recovery process. Once the disaster response team has established an on-site base, resilient trucks – similar to those used in broadcast – will be driven to the disaster area to create an emergency services network. A quick-deploy antenna mounted to the roof of the truck will be used to provide a satellite link to connect to the nearest cell tower to provide phone services and internet services so responders can better communicate at the scene.”

Let’s, for a moment, imagine the worst has happened. There’s a warzone or disaster-struck area: what are the best options?

For Martin Jarrold, VP international programme development at GVF, the global trade association for the satellite industry, says the developing world has long looked to a range of varied communications solutions to support their connectivity agendas for the facilitation of socio-economic growth, in attempting to meet the sustainable development goals of the global development agenda, to attract inward investment, to enable the creation of knowledge based economies, and other strategic objectives. “Such solutions are also mission-critical for governments, and their partnering organisations, working in humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) environments,” adds Jarrold. “Just as governments and regulatory authorities search for ideal solutions to the challenge of connecting people in remote and under-served regions, NGOs and United Nations agencies need reliable communications to be available to support supply logistics and coordinate ‘first responder’ relief efforts anywhere and at any time.”

Jarrold is complementary about terrestrial communications networks – cellular/mobile networks, microwave networks, fibre – in that they play a very visible and vital role in both day-to-day connectivity and in circumstances of disaster response and humanitarian relief. However, he warns that infrastructure such as masts, towers, ducting/pipelines are all variously vulnerable when disaster takes the form of cyclone, earthquake, flood, military action, and typhoon, and networks’ traffic capacity limits are compromised when the connectivity needs of displaced persons/refugees/victims of the effects of pandemic combine with those of ‘first responders’.

“Terrestrial communications can never be a total solution, illustrated, to use just a single example, by the critical role of satellite for backhaul ever since the earliest days of 2G mobile network deployment,” he continues.

“The role of satellite communications in economy and society is broad, goes very deep, and is ever increasing. This role is not necessarily as obvious as it is for terrestrial, and yet satellite serves both every day needs and not-so-every day critical situations: from consumer to corporate/enterprise broadband data, from government closed user groups to multinational networks, from multicast VSAT services to distance learning, rural telecommunications, e-Health/telemedicine, and news distribution; and aeronautical, land mobile and, maritime services.”

Of course, a great deal of the necessary infrastructure behind these applications and services is in Earth orbit – hundreds of geostationary (GEO) satellites above the equator, thousands (soon tens of thousands, according to Jarrold) of medium-Earth (MEO) and low-Earth (LEO) orbiting satellites encircling the globe – and so, he says, this ‘space segment’ is not obvious to most. “A GEO can provide coverage over an entire continent. GEO high-throughput satellites (HTS) provide ever-increasing broadband capacity, with early HTS satellites having 45 gigabits per second (Gbps) of capacity, while more recently launched satellites offer roughly 130-145 Gbps and upcoming satellites around 1 terabit per second (Tbps),” Jarrold adds.

The ’Ground Segment’ is a little more obviously visible – particularly the big satellite antennas at teleports/hubs – though even then the everyday very small aperture satellite terminal (VSAT) does not dominate the skyline like a cellular/mobile mast or microwave tower. 

Although preparedness for any given situation is invaluable, one never knows how things will pan out in the worst possible situation. Luckily, the best people and their technology are ready to act.