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Public safety forum pens deal with global ICT body to contribute to 5G and wireless advances to boost first-responder capabilities

By PATRICK STEPHENSON

BRUSSELS – The Public Safety Communication Europe (PSCE) forum of public safety organizations, based here, signed a deal with the “3rd Generation Partnership Project” (3GPP), the body that sets global mobile broadband and wireless telecommunication standards. PSCE is now a ‘market representation partner’ within 3GPP. With the agreement, it can now suggest recommendations to 3GPP regarding matters of public protection and disaster relief (PPDR).

What may seem like an acronym love-fest actually has important implications for European security. Despite its name, 3GPP’s focus is on 5G mobile communications and other long-term evolving (LTE) technologies, and how corporations can divide and use them most profitably. PSCE’s focus is on public safety and ensuring that first responders have the bandwidth they need to save lives and deal effectively with emergencies.

As mobile technology develops, the growing number of huge corporate and state-backed ICT players will fight for finer and finer slices of radio bandwidth, while ‘critical mission’ players such as disaster relief organisation will also demand to have their share of the broadband pie. Getting the share-out balance right between the two is vital.

Founded in the late 1990s, 3GPP is a standard-setting global forum of the ICT companies most responsible for crafting future LTE and 5G standards. Its partners include such heavy-hitters as the China Communications Standards Association and the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions in the US. These bodies, and others like them, must continuously harmonise rapidly changing standards so that, for example, 3G mobile phones in Europe can live-stream videos made on 5G phones in Japan.

PSCE’s main goal is to coordinate national public safety efforts so that in the event of a cross-border crisis, responders don’t get in each other’s way. The forum grew out of a European Commission-funded project in 2008, and is now a platform for the exchange of ideas between public safety practitioners and experts.

It also coordinates the “BroadMap” project to create a core set of harmonised specifications and procurement practices for wireless communications among protection and disaster relief agencies across the EU. Funded in part by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, BroadMap promotes harmonisation of standards and requirements within Europe’s public safety sectors, particularly for the procurement of equipment. This task includes the collecting, assessment and validation of PPDR organisations’ wireless broadband communication requirements, and preparing the ground for a new “eco-system” to catalyse new applications, services and processes in the public safety and security broadband field.

Much of the project’s work has been delivered to the Commission, based on contributions from more than 270 organisations across 18 European countries, including police forces, ambulance services, militaries, coastguards, prisons and utilities.

The final result will be a closed-to-the-public “prioritized and categorised knowledgebase”, to be up-and-running in 2018. The database will guide the decisions of a future Commission-funded innovation procurement programme.

PSCE says BroadMap will help it make a “comprehensive contribution” to 3GPP as a market representation partner. The timing is right: as 5G mobile technology starts to spread, governments are developing strategies to implement the next generation of public safety networks.

But the protectors of the public must also be protected, and their communications secure. On the same day that PSCE penned its deal with 3GPP, cybersecurity analysts were shocked when a malicious piece of malware named Mirai used hacked baby-monitors, among other internet-connected consumer devices, to shut down Twitter for several hours.

If similar zombie gadgets hijacked drones searching for the survivors of an earthquake or scrambled the radios of police responding to a terrorist attack, the consequences would be severe. It is uncertain how PSCE’s inclusion in 3GPP will help the protectors protect themselves.

     THE UPSHOT: The radio spectrum stretches from extremely low frequency bands with wavelengths thousands of kilometres long used by submarines to receive signals, to extremely high frequency bands that astronomers manipulate to detect objects in deep space.
     But the world’s big telecom players — public and private, some security-oriented and others far less so — are focused on a small portion of this spectrum: the comparably tiny range where mountains of money await those who can stake their claim.
     PPDR experts also need to stake their claim, preferably acting as a group in order to maximize their negotiating weight. Europe’s national public safety agencies are nearly as fragmented as their defence sectors, so anything that can help coordinate national European PPDR services is a good thing. Better coordination and integration would greatly aid the response to a public emergency, natural disaster, or cross-border terrorist attack, and save money besides.
     But it remains to be seen how PSCE’s collaboration with 3GPP could help first-responders defend themselves and their increasingly sophisticated equipment from internet attackers the likes of which shut down Twitter for several hours on 21 October. SECURITY EUROPE asked PSCE if their efforts involve improving the DDPR community’s cyber-defences but there was no response. Nor did the group agree to an interview on the subject.
     Thus, how – or whether – PSCE will improve cybersecurity within the DDRP community remains to be seen.

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