On June 4, 2018, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) published its recommendations on the establishment of a next-generation emergency network. The proposed hybrid network would offer emergency services with the capability, capacity, and interoperability to support additional applications such as live images, videos, and texts. However, the approach would see considerable regulatory and financial burden placed on commercial operators which could make the network difficult to implement.
It is important to consider the current industry and leverage existing networks when defining a new emergency network
Networks for public safety and emergency services have for some time been evolving toward models based on broadband systems that allow the transmission of video services, geolocation, and high-speed images. Many regulators, including in the UK and Australia, have recently started to review existing emergency network infrastructures. Most recently, the Indian regulator initiated efforts to establish a next-generation emergency network better able to support the country’s public safety infrastructure. The existing analogue and digital emergency network systems in India are currently only able to provide narrowband voice and data communications. The TRAI is therefore recommending the establishment of a pan-India Broadband Public Protection and Disaster Relief Network, based on the Public Safety-LTE (PS-LTE) technology standard, to be implemented by the Ministry of Home Affairs alongside the Department of Telecommunications and public protection and disaster relief agencies.
Globally, three different models have been used to deploy broadband networks for public security: dedicated, hybrid, and commercial networks. In India, the TRAI has recommended creating a hybrid model, acknowledging that a dedicated network would be far too expensive. The hybrid model uses both a dedicated and a commercial network to provide greater flexibility. Hybrid networks are also generally more resilient and can more easily guarantee national coverage compared with a commercial network. However, when a country is defining its emergency network, it is important to consider the current industry, and how existing networks can be leveraged, while also assessing the potential costs involved. In the case of India, the requirements on state-owned companies, as well as the costs and eventual regulatory burden placed on commercial networks, may not make this hybrid model the most viable option.
To support a public safety network in India it will be vital for adequate levels of spectrum to be made available; a lack of spectrum has been a problem the country’s operators have suffered from for some time now. The regulator is suggesting allocating a 2×10MHz block of dedicated spectrum nationwide (814MHz-824MHz/859MHz-869MHz) to public safety. This would be at a no-cost basis and a further 20MHz in the 440MHz-470MHz range could be set aside for future development. The decision to allocate these low bands aligns with the approach taken by other national regulators – low bands perform best in terms of signal loss in hazardous environments and are most effective for indoor penetration loss due to a larger cell range. However, the amount of dedicated spectrum being allocated seems on the low side, particularly considering the country’s history with a lack of spectrum being allocated to operators. Commercial operators will be expected to use their networks in the areas not covered by the dedicated spectrum and given their limited existing resources, it is doubtful whether they will be able to support the public safety network as required. The regulator is planning to auction around 3GHz of spectrum later this year to boost operators’ holdings and solve this problem. However, acquiring more spectrum would demand considerable financial commitment from operators, leaving them with limited capability to fund the commercial aspect of the regulator’s emergency services network. This financial challenge is particularly relevant given that the industry is already under a high level of debt.
Under the regulator’s chosen hybrid model, existing commercial networks will be leveraged by telecoms providers to support the public services network. In addition to the spectrum perspective, there are concerns around how realistic this option really is. Stringent service level agreements would be in place mandating telecoms operators to provide access to mobile base stations during a disaster and backpack devices in case a terrestrial network is destroyed. It is worth noting that this would put considerable regulatory burden on operators because under the arrangements, operators will be expected to set up and deploy a dedicated mobile communication system at a disaster site within a specified time period to restore communications. This is far beyond the satellite backup that is currently in place and it is questionable whether operators would be able to provide rapidly deployable solutions in a financially viable manner.
Funding such a major project is always challenging. Although FirstNet, the dedicated network in the US, has been solely funded by the government through spectrum auctions, this is an isolated case. Most countries do not have this level of resource available. More relevant is the UK’s ESN, which has received considerable funding from the government to boost existing private investment. In terms of funding the public safety network in India, the regulator has recommended that the rollout to areas such as the metro cities, border districts, disaster-prone areas, and other sensitive areas like Jammu and Kashmir and the North East be covered by the government and carried out by state-owned firms Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). All remaining areas need to be deployed and funded by private operators using their commercial networks.
As technology continues to progress and evolve from LTE to 5G services, this will bring with it some interesting possibilities to deliver more cost-effective solutions in the future. Evolving to 5G network slicing would likely be more efficient in the long run, or the TRAI could try to work with a model similar to that of the UK, where no spectrum was specifically assigned to the network and instead the current EE network is used.
India (Country Regulation Overview), GLB005-000022 (February 2018)
"5G will enable greater possibilities to deliver more cost-effective public safety networks in the future,” GLB005-000049 (April 2018)
Sarah McBride, Analyst, Regulation