Given the high level of technology that we now work with, it was only a matter of time before communications themselves benefited. France, like other countries, is working out the final details of its new and improved high-flow and secure communications network. This network will help emergency services and security forces work more efficiently together.
The implementation of 5G communication technology has long been at the forefront of telecommunications. Although some people are preoccupied with the effects this fifth generation of wireless networks could have on their health and their environment, others see from afar the opportunities such technology could bring. Being able to communicate rapidly and to exchange information and data with partners to and from anywhere appeals to both security and defence forces. In France, the government announced in 2022 the launch of a new high-performance, secure communication network dedicated to firefighters, first responders, and police officers. “Emergency services’ communication devices and networks are key to protect people and goods,” the Home Office notes. This led to the development – awaited in 2024 – of the Réseau radio du futur (RRF), a sovereign network with very high flow based on 4G and 5G technology.
This new communication network is intended to drastically change the way emergency services and the police work with one another. “It will enable them to communicate instantly through video calls and live location sharing. They will also be able to send each other some medical imagery” the government said when launching the project. A total of 700 million euros are being invested in the RRF – enough to build a whole new network. Gone are the communication systems based on airwaves – named Tetrapol – whose latest improvements were made in the 1990s and that could not enable data or image transmissions from the ground. The overall idea is thus to work faster and better to save more lives. This French project aims to be used by 300,000 users in security and emergency services as soon as 2024.
Learning from others’ experience
France is one of the first countries to organise a critical shift between an airwave-based communication network and a secure, very high-flow system. This project is not, however, the most developed. In South Korea in 2018, the government launched Korea Safe-Net. According to the Korean Ministry of the Interior and Safety, the network helps foster collaboration between stakeholders in disaster response. Based on the same principle as RRF, the network is already stable, very much used, and now serves as a reference for anyone trying to make the shift from airwaves to 4G.
Closer to us in France, the United Kingdom has also started to work on a similar critical communication system shift: the Emergency Services Network (ESN). “ESN’s critical mobile technology will mean communication between the emergency services will take priority over other network traffic, even at peak times in busy built-up locations. It will mean the emergency services and other first responders can share vital data, information, and expertise quickly and securely from the frontline when it is needed most,” as stated on the British Home Office dedicated website. The government promises that the improvements made to the network will also enable British countryside inhabitants to have access to 4G and thus to make a call to the emergency services – something that is not yet possible in every remote and rural area of Great Britain. However, the ESN project – launched in 2015 – was supposed to be operational in 2020. But the service is still not in place. Two billion pounds have already been spent on the project. Last May, the government issued a tender to find a new supplier to finally launch the ESN; however, the National Audit Office fears that it will not be operational until 2029.
This catastrophic scenario is to be avoided at all costs in France. A consortium of industrials led by Airbus and Capgemini has been granted the charge of the RRF. In October 2022, the government announced that the network would be ready to be used in 2024. The deadline is less clear now, after a few interruptions along the way. Yet in October 2023, Airbus and its local partners in the south of France experimented with the new and improved network. The mobile phones of 140 firefighters were equipped with the RRF as a trial run. “Members of the local civil safety forces were able to notice the benefits and the innovations on the ground enabled by the RRF to serve their critical communications,” said Airbus. The French company is an expert in high-security and high-flow networks and has notably helped develop a cross-order communication network between Finland, Norway, and Sweden, based on local airwaves-based operators. This system enables an efficient and quick emergency response in this large, sparsely populated region.
What about mobile phones themselves?
The shift toward high-flow networks across the globe will also serve the interests of the companies that manufacture phones. Given its strength on the Korean ground, Samsung has been chosen by the government to be the partner in the RRF in terms of equipment. But other hardware companies are preparing to work with very high-flow networks. The French firm Crosscall is one of them and already equips “70 to 80% of fire departments.” As Denis Thayanithy, solutions and partnerships director at Crosscall, says, “our products will be able to be used as such. We have already started optimising our terminals to integrate the RRF parameters.” This means implementing “quality, priority and preemption mechanisms in the smartphones so that the necessary communication always comes first.” Within the device, securing critical communications means having “components that are powerful enough to use very secure cryptographic apps without slowing the communication down,” Denis Thayanithy explains.
When the RRF is deployed and effective, finding the right and secure terminal will be important. “We will need as many phones as we have users,” Denis Thayanithy notes. This means that many phones will be required. Once it is efficient for emergency and security services, the RFF will be deployed by the agents of the essential operators. This deployment should help workers from the railway company, SNCF – and the agents who secure the surrounding nuclear plants – shift toward a more secure communication network. Airbus’ national expertise will undoubtedly be an exportable resource on a large scale for European projects. It will firstly be used through the European BroadWay and BroadNet projects, which aim to create a homogeneous system so that all high-speed networks can communicate with one another. Airbus is also working unilaterally with other countries, like the Nordic countries, which are already well ahead of the game. In Finland, Sweden, and Norway, security services (fire departments and police) are connected to health service providers. In 2020, the European company also signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia’s largest oil and gas company to « modernize its critical communications network. » This will improve « team coordination and situational awareness.” In addition, work has also begun with several public authorities and major operators in the region, notably in the United Arab Emirates. In Asia (China and India), several ports and airports are involved.