Mission Critical Networks: Emergency Response and Law Enforcement
We are living in a very complex world reality and every country across the planet faces enormous challenges to guarantee homeland security. From natural disasters, organized crime, potential terror attacks, potential warfare between nations, and climate change to health crises (like the COVID-19 pandemic), major emergencies or accidents, there are countless examples of complex situations that could have a major impact on a country’s stability and national security.
Legitimately, citizens across the world demand that their governments and authorities have the capabilities to respond to any threat or risk to homeland security. We must not forget that public safety and rule of law will always have a strong impact on quality of life and economic and social development.
The handling of any situation requires information to make tactical and operational decisions, and particularly in emergencies or catastrophes, where lives area at stake, the authorities need access to broadband connectivity, immediate network response (low latency), video for visual assessments and pattern recognition (from drone fleets or body cameras, for example), earthquake rescue robotics, and other applications to increase the effectiveness of their operations.
More than ever, police and armed forces, first responders, emergency services, and other institutions are relying heavily on telecommunications and connectivity to be able to respond swiftly and accordingly. Especially in regard to national security issues, critical and secure communications technologies make the encryption of information necessary to avoid leaks that could lead to intelligence failures.
This implies that mission critical communication networks are a necessary, and even a mandatory asset for any government. We must also mention that the use of certain telecommunications standards for security purposes, such as Tetra/Tetrapol (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) or P25 (Project 25), has been a subject of debate as critical communication networks have been deployed across the world by major technology providers.
Looking backward, tragedies like the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the US, redefined the importance of critical communications. On that occasion, the congestion-induced collapse of communications led to massive confusion and disorganization of rescue efforts as brave first responders rushed inside the Twin Towers to help civilians. We all remember that the authorities failed to fully evacuate the World Trade Center before both towers collapsed. It is important to highlight that radio communication problems between different emergency corporations during that tragic day were acknowledged in the final report released by the Special 9/11 Commission in 2004.
P25 (Project 25) open standard telecommunication technology adoption (provided by many technology companies) was in part a solution implemented in the US to resolve interoperability problems between telecommunications devices and different radio systems, aiming to prevent similar situations in the future. Interconnectivity and interoperability are technical requirements for devices to communicate between each other.
Looking into the situation in Mexico, our security forces perform operations using the capabilities of the National Radiocommunications Network (IRIS network). IRIS is the most important security network in the country and it is overseen by the National System of Public Security.
Deployed during the 1990s with Airbus/Cassidian (currently Airbus Defense and Space) as the main technology provider, the IRIS network operates using the Tetra/Tetrapol telecommunication standard, used mainly for secure communications, and in some cases, it only allows the use of voice and tetra text messages between radios.
A diagnostic of the status of the network was done some years ago by Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), resulting in recommendations for modernizing the security network. However, its functionalities have not changed very much, and given the technological evolution of electronics and networking, it is worth reflecting on the potential evolutionary path of Mexican mission critical connectivity.
Considering we are living in the midst of a technological revolution that has changed how telecommunications provide services in ways that were impossible 20 years ago, and that ultra-functional 5G networks are also now a reality, the importance of connectivity is being redefined.
Telecom networks are now able to seamlessly organize themselves with the support of machine learning and artificial intelligence, to achieve maximum efficiency in coverage and performance. Network slicing is also a relevant concept for critical communications, with technology allowing the directing, temporarily, of the full capacity of connectivity layers to a special purpose, user or set of users. For example, during a security operation, a network can prioritize the connectivity of rescue teams and police forces going back to normal after the incident has passed.
The use of commercial mobile devices and networks with suitable software has developed a new scenario for public safety. Secure communication applications in commercial handsets can now even have a military defense-grade level of encryption due to the embedded computing power, even in some modest smartphones.
Similarly, commercial telecommunication networks can now also work on mission critical tasks, as illustrated by the First Responder Network Authority of the United States (FirstNet) created in 2012. It was conceived as a hybrid network dedicated to public safety and operated by commercial carrier AT&T.
In Finland, “Erillisverkot” (meaning separated networks in Finnish) is a state-owned special purpose company (SPV) overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office, which operates the “Virve” public safety network that in its original configuration runs under Tetra technology, like in Mexico’s case.
Today, Finland’s Virve network is transitioning to “Virve 2.0” to enhance its capabilities by adding broadband connectivity for more sophisticated services and applications on smartphones and other devices. In particular, mission critical applications and situational awareness capabilities will be available to respond to any challenge in complex environments.
Päivi Pohjanheimo, Ambassador of Finland to Mexico and Central America, commented that “for a long time, the Nordic countries have put their focus on technological development and innovation.Telecommunications and connectivity are priority topics for Finland’s bilateral cooperation policies. We will always be keen to share our proven experience with friends and allies that are looking to enhance their capabilities for better security.”
Finally, let’s be clear that we face many dilemmas regarding how best to handle public safety. The blend of telecoms and public safety and emergency service delivery adds a layer of complexity beyond the standards debate. But the most important dilemma may be how governments should take full advantage of what technology can offer today, as has been described in this article, to have more tools in their quest to protect citizens and save lives. Technological evolution never stops, and we always need to be prepared to embrace the opportunities and synergies that will be triggered by technological developments.
We may not find a perfect formula, but adoption of new technology for public safety purposes will always be a game changer for protecting lives and securing the rule of law. It is a good time to reflect upon the future of mission critical connectivity in Mexico.