A complex rescue operation involving a boat drifting 100 nautical miles off the coast of Cadiz with 300 people on board requires the immediate cooperation of the Portuguese and Spanish authorities.
Thousands of kilometres away, between the Finnish border and Norway, there is a serious accident involving a truck and a passenger bus in an increasingly popular tourist area despite Arctic temperatures. In extreme weather conditions, the authorities of both countries begin a complex joint rescue operation using land vehicles and paramedical helicopters.
What at first glance would seem like a smooth-running coordination exercise is complicated by the fact that the services of each country have different safety communications networks that often do not understand each other and delay or hinder decision-making on which lives can depend.
These two disasters are just some of the scenarios or usage cases that have been developed by the foreign ministries of several European countries in collaboration with their security and emergency forces to determine the guidelines of a prototype to facilitate the communication and sharing of data between the emergency services of the different countries using broadband to improve the operability of joint operations. Up to now, regardless of political issues, this had been made difficult by the existence of differing technological and telecommunication language standards.
Aware of this challenge, the European Commission is financing the BroadWay initiative via a public tender to design the next generation of broadband communication systems for Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR).
The project involves 11 EU countries which generally have critical communication systems using mainly Tetra or Tetrapol radio networks. In addition, some 49 emergency response organisations from 14 countries, such as police, fire and emergency medical services, aim to take part in analysing the proposal and another 60 have expressed their support for the project. BroadWay covers 1.4 of the 3.5 million emergency response staff across Europe.
The idea is to create a kind of high-capacity secure roaming network between European emergency services to work together to eliminate technological “borders” and ensure optimal interoperability between police forces, firefighters, medical assistance and other emergency teams.
The initiative defines this pan-European ambition as follows: “Disasters, crime and terrorism are not limited to geopolitical borders. The people who protect and rescue us should be able to talk, share and access information, wherever they are and whenever they need to, thereby improving European cooperation”.
Drawing on its experience in deploying safety and emergency networks for security forces, known as TETRA or PPDR networks, and the fact that it is present in seven European countries, Cellnex Telecom is part of one of the four consortia already working on the initial phase of this innovative system using broadband.
Cellnex has become specialised in mobile, voice and data communications networks, aimed at closed groups of users or fleets that need reliable service with a high level of availability.
Using both analogue and digital technologies in Spain, the company has more than 9,000 sites, specialised technical personnel and centres that provide round-the-clock monitoring to ensure efficient management of this type of communications, even in crisis situations.
“We already operate more than nine security and emergency TETRA networks in Spain and contribute with our vision as an infrastructure manager and operator. Through this project, we will leverage our experience in providing support to the pilot by performing the testing campaigns in our facilities with networks for a closed group of users”, explains Francisco Javier Marcos, head of innovation at Cellnex Telecom. “The company’s international expansion has also proven vital, since we operate in seven European countries and have the infrastructure to provide the entire network”.
The consortium is led by plane manufacturer Airbus and also includes Belgacom International Carrier Services, Nokia Solutions and Networks, Proximus and StreamWide Technology and is competing with three other groups in the first phase of the project, financed by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and development programme, to take on the technological challenge of improving interoperability across borders.
Unlike the situation in the US or China, the European Union has more mobile operators and networks than countries, which constitutes an obstacle not only to economies of scale but also to intercommunication in the bloc using standardised methods.
There are certain experiences – such as that of Norway, Sweden and Finland – where security services already share their TETRA networks in radio communication circuits, but with the roll-out of mobile broadband, the goal is for these European forces to use a similar system to work through cellular networks.
“We are facing a technological challenge with a standard solution, not a niche one”, explains Marcos. “It is vital to have a fully interoperable network in key areas such as the fight against organised crime or human trafficking, but also in more social areas with cross-border coordination of fire departments, ambulances, health services, etc.” In the event of a great fire, an epidemic or a major anti-drug trafficking operation, we cannot afford to be unreachable.
Founder of Newsbub (Google Partner). Former chief editor of Reuters Spain.