The British government is working on plans that would see the emergency services cease broadcasting on reserved frequencies. Instead, emergency broadcasts would switch to 4G networks – the very same networks used by the wider public.
This has caused a wave of fear throughout the emergency services, who are sceptical about the reliability of the 4G network. Ultimately, the switch to 4G could be seen as a step backwards for the emergency services, who currently communicate on a private spectrum that has been funded by taxpayer’s money, built around the TETRA standard of radio communication.
In reality, this is a perfectly logical operating model. It means the emergency services network will never be impacted by heavy stress or network congestion as it does not share the frequency with the public. In the long run though, it is thought that switching broadcasts to commercial 4G networks will save money.
Is the prospect of cheaper running costs worth the risk?
Many people have been quick to point out that the 4G network still has many teething issues. The UK still has a long way to go before it achieves universal 4G coverage. This in itself is not an issue, as if a 4G connection cannot be secured, devices automatically fall back to 3G, which means emergency responders will still be connectable.
However, the main cause for concern is the fact that the emergency services will share networks with the public. In the instance of a major emergency, such as the 2011 London riots, where vast amounts of emergency personnel have to be mobilised, the public could end up forfeiting their ability to communicate with each other. This is because emergency communications will take priority over public communications. It is not clear how this system would work or be implemented, but it could prove to be a costly obstacle.
It is even more problematic when it is considered that London’s mobile networks are prone to crashing during extremely busy periods. The 7/7 bombings and 2011 riots caused mobile networks to fail completely, due to the high amount of data being transmitted across them. In these scenarios, if the emergency services were operating on commercial networks, they would have been uncontactable.
With these two situations in mind, the outlook does not look positive for the proposed changeover. On the one hand, members of the public could be left without coverage as the emergency services would take priority, on the other hand, if the entire mobile infrastructure crashed, as it has done in the past, the emergency services would be completely uncontactable.
Looking beyond the obvious downsides, 4G powered emergency communications would be revolutionary
With the massive potential downsides, it can be difficult to understand why the switchover is even being considered. However, it would provide a much needed upgrade in the way the emergency services communicate. Police, ambulance, and fire services have relied on voice driven data for years, but there are more useful methods of communication which can be used to supplement voice messages.
One of the most talked about uses would be within the police force. Having a 4G connected police force would make it easier for them to share information, such as key videos or photographs, which could make it easier to bring a situation under control. It would also help in the regulation of police’s own actions. The police are facing more pressure to wear body cameras. It would make it extremely easy for an officer’s video feed to be uploaded and monitored in real time if they were connected to a high speed 4G network.
The ambulance service would also have many applications for a 4G enabled emergency communications network. Within seconds, information contained in pictures and videos could be transmitted by first responders back to the hospital, enabling doctors to begin to diagnose and plan how to treat a patient before they arrived through the hospital doors. In theory, this information would be relayed much faster and more precisely than if it were carried out by voice alone.
All of the positive gains rely on being connectable
Whilst what could be possible with 4G enabled emergency communication sounds impressive, perhaps even futuristic, it will always be undone by the issues that the commercial 4G networks are facing.
Network speeds are continuing to slow as more people switch to 4G. Handsets still regularly default back to 3G and 2G connections when they cannot receive a solid 4G signal. All of the revolutionary improvements of 4G emergency communication would be rendered redundant in a second if a device could not secure signal. Worse still, if a device could not secure a 3G or 2G signal either, it would be completely offline. This is a situation that would be unlikely to happen on the older TETRA system, due to the fact it has near universal coverage and zero possibility of suffering from congestion caused by the public.
Having 4G enabled communication for the emergency services is great in principle, but it should not be rushed
Given the fact that many regular customers are experiencing less than favourable performance from 4G, it is probably for the best that the emergency services avoid using it for their communications.
The government have laid out a plan that sites 2016 as the year they are set to make a decision about which 4G mobile network wins the contract to supply 4G to the state’s emergency services.
The 4G infrastructure is set to be even further bolstered by freeing up frequencies currently reserved for digital TV broadcasts, which is another huge announcement for LTE communications in the UK. Perhaps the allocation of extra bandwidth and the award of a huge, publicly paid for communications contract will be the catalyst for dramatic improvements across the 4G network.
One thing is for certain, the 4G network will have to improve dramatically by 2016 if any of the major players are to be awarded the contract, without putting any emergency services staff or members of the public at risk.