"Why do we need faster networks anyway?" is a constant refrain on talkback radio. The use of LTE mobile networks for police, fire and ambulance services provides a compelling answer to that question and much of the technology needed already exists, but there are many hurdles to overcome before public safety services can make use of them.
Picture by Paul Kane/Getty Images
Midland is a non-descript former railway suburb in Perth's north-east (some of the locals describe it in less charitable terms). It's unlikely to be on the top of anyone's list of destinations when visiting Western Australia, but over the past couple of months a steady stream of police, fire and ambulance managers have trekked to Midland to check out a temporary demonstration centre showing off how high-speed LTE networks — the kind often described as 4G in Australia — can be used in those public safety services.
Motorola Solutions, which develops software and hardware for those organisations, has set up the demo centre here for two reasons. Firstly, it's close to a major WA Police operations centre. Secondly, it was able to get a temporary licence (which runs through to November) to use 700MHz LTE spectrum for the demonstrations.
And so the executives come to check out the possibilities. Scenarios include a police vehicle automatically logging number plates from an attached camera and sending them back to headquarters to check against lists of stolen and suspicious vehicles; allowing drivers in fire engines to quickly switch between video overviews of where bushfires are located; and giving ambulance workers the ability to send high-quality video images back to a hospital for checking by a specialist doctor.
As uses of video and high-speed data networks, these are all somewhat more compelling than watching 'Gangnam Style' one more time at a higher resolution. They are also applications which can't be deployed using only the existing 4G networks from Telstra and Optus. The reason? You can't guarantee the network will be available when you need it, and you can't choose to prioritise who gets access. Those features are standard on existing public safety voice radio networks, which have long had their own spectrum reserved.
"Voice prioritisation happens on a routine basis in push to talk radio." said Motorola Solutions Australia managing director Gary Starr. "As we move from voice to data, prioritisation is equally if not more important."
And voice is now only a very small part of the equation for workers in these areas. "We're approaching the tipping point now with data; it's is becoming as important as voice for public safety customers," Starr noted at a media tour of the centre this week. "There are some real issues around coverage at the moment. Public networks are great for average consumer use, but public safety demands a great deal more. All this leads to the need for purpose-built broadband networks. The coverage they afford and the ability they afford to control and prioritise traffic is vital."
"Mobile data has shifted from being a supplemental service to something that is seen as mission-critical," adds public safety business development manager Greg Bouwmeester. "Enhanced apps are available, but they haven't become part of standard operating procedures because they haven't been able to rely on a communications medium."
That's not just the viewpoint of the guys selling the equipment, by the way. "The most important thing is to get hold of the spectrum so we can access more data," says Brandon Shortland, vice president of the WA Police Union. Some of these tasks can be performed in a limited way now, but are very resource intensive.
For instance, tracing car registrations typically requires entering each number plate manually. "You can easily end up spending all your time typing in plates rather than actually looking at what is going on around you," Shortland notes. Similarly, while police can already receive mug shot photographs on existing equipment, these are only thumbnail-sized.
The networking technology and applications exist, but whether any of this happens is dependent on funding. Building even a partial LTE network for public safety will cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars for Australia. Spending on that level takes time to justify, especially when the networks won't necessarily be used at maximum capacity all of the time. "Typically in public safety, hours of boredom are interspersed with moments of terror," Starr points out.
(Incidentally, and before this kicks off in the comments, as usual the usefulness of wireless services in this context does not mean that we don't also need improvements to wired networks such as the building of the National Broadband Network. Firstly, wired services still need backhaul options to convey large volumes of data. Secondly, the very fact that existing 4G networks can't guarantee enough throughput for public safety applications underscores the point that performance from wireless can't be guaranteed.)
While the greatest bang-for-buck comes from building networks in highly populated urban areas, the first deployments might spring up in more remote locations, where resources companies see potential to invest. "We've had a lot of interest from the mining sector," Starr said.
There hasn't yet been a formal announcement on whether some of the 700MHz spectrum currently used for analogue television will be reserved for use by public safety agencies, but most of the industry is assuming that wouldn't happen. A more likely scenario is that some 800MHz spectrum will be assigned, but that isn't likely to happen for some time. "This is a very long-term investment for us, because spectrum won't be available for three or four years," Starr said. And allocating the spectrum is only the first step: building the network is much more complicated.
We're not going to see 4G-enabled cops and ambulances in a hurry, but the discussion isn't going to go away. "There are always tighter budgets and they're trying to do more with less, or at least the same with less," Starr said. "At the same time there are greater expectations from the public."
Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Perth as a guest of Motorola Solutions.