It seems like an obvious solution in 2019, but the ground reality when it comes to rescuing operations in India is positively archaic by comparison.
Right now, all public safety and disaster management agencies—be it the police, paramedics or fire department—operate their own communications systems. This is done over a narrowband network, which allows only for voice services. “Most of these are old, proprietary, non-interoperable and non-scalable systems,” said a senior government official dealing with telecommunications. Coordination between multiple agencies, therefore, is an uphill struggle.
Department of Telecommunications
Samsung has particular expertise in setting up the sort of system they demoed at the IMC. The company was instrumental in the implementation of the world’s first such public safety LTE (long-term evolution, a technology standard that supports 4G) networks in South Korea.
In the US, too, Samsung is involved in FirstNet, the country’s first responders network authority that is setting up a dedicated private network for public safety.
The US and South Korea are hardly alone. Globally, countries are upgrading their public safety networks—mostly narrowband, at present—to unified LTE networks accessible by state and local authorities.
Samsung, as one of the pioneers of public protection and disaster relief (PPDR) networks, understandably wants a piece of the Indian pie too. It has persistently met with officials at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), and the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) to open up a business opportunity for itself.
Trai itself is amenable to the idea and has sent its recommendations to the DoT. So far, the Gujarat and Haryana Police have shown interest in setting up a public safety broadband network, according to a highly-placed source at Trai.
The final picture is yet to emerge, but even as the puzzle begins to take shape, one piece is missing. Any such plan will require telecom operators to set up and manage the PPDR network. Will current market leader Reliance Jio, floundering public operators like BSNL and MTNL, or the old guard—Bharti Airtel and Vodafone-Idea—take charge? More saliently, do the debt-ridden operators even have an appetite for this?
The need for a broadband PPDR network came to the fore in 2014 in South Korea, during the sinking of the Sewol ferry. As rescue agencies struggled to coordinate with one another, the ferry capsized, killing over 300.
In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the Korean government commissioned a project for a unified public safety LTE network—SafeNet. Samsung, unsurprisingly, grabbed the opportunity.
“So Samsung started developing critical communications solutions as per Korea’s requirements. In parallel, 3GPP (the standard-setting body for mobile telephony) standards also started evolving, and we started aligning our products as per the standards,” a Samsung executive said.
While Samsung eventually provided the end-to-end technology for SafeNet, Korean Telecom set up the LTE network.
The SafeNet contract in its home country cemented Samsung’s position as a PPDR network pioneer and strengthened its enterprise portfolio. Riding on this reputation, Samsung provided software applications and hardware devices for agencies using the FirstNet system in the US, which is operated by AT&T. Since mid-2018 when the American carrier AT&T launched this service, more than 9000 agencies and organizations have subscribed to FirstNet.
The early adopter countries have allocated 2x10MHz of spectrum in either the 700MHz or 800MHz band. These two bands are recognized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for public safety broadband networks, allowing for economies of scale when it comes to producing devices for such networks. This sort of standardization is crucial. Incidentally, Suresh Chitturi, who headed the Samsung delegation at IMC, also chairs a working group on mission-critical applications at 3GPP.
With this sort of legacy, Samsung sees itself as the natural first choice for the Indian government when it comes to setting up a pan-Indian PPDR network. And while Indian authorities seem sure a shift to a broadband PPDR set-up is what they want, they still aren’t sure about the finer details.