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Stuart Waine of Spry Fox Networks explains why 4G coverage is a necessity and not just a nice to have.

Ask any public sector organisation about their biggest challenges and they will tell you: managing demand, outdated technology, consolidation, budget cuts and community relationships. Consider this list carefully and it won’t take you long to realise that reliable mobile communications sits at the heart of their fulfilment, particularly where public safety is concerned. As the health crisis pushes local authorities and hospitals to their limits, never has there been a greater need for uninterrupted voice and data coverage inside any commercial building. 

Communications overhaul

Critical communication services are currently provided by Airwave using TETRA technology. The advantage of this network is that it facilitates uninterrupted coverage in densely populated and rural areas alike, is able to penetrate thick building walls and is not blighted by coverage dead spots. Its downside, however, is that the network struggles to support high-bandwidth voice and data services because of slow upload and download times.

As such there is a cross party initiative led by central government to replace Airwave with a new Emergency Services Network (ESN) that will run over 4G. This means that blue light services, law enforcement organisations and first response teams will be able to take advantage of digital technologies like wearable cameras and live streaming video, and reduce dependency on outdated technologies such as pagers, fax machines etc. which cost £millions to run and maintain.

The in-building coverage challenge

While the network chosen to facilitate ESN is focussed on upgrading its existing outdoor infrastructure to meet the demand of the new critical communications network, a bigger challenge will be ensuring adequate levels of uninterrupted coverage inside public buildings. The higher frequency bands used for 4G have much shorter propagation ranges than legacy voice-based networks and indoor signal strength is invariably weakened. 

Public sector buildings are prone to having poor 4G coverage due to the sheer number of internal corridors, offices, stairwells, basement areas etc. within, all of which are notorious mobile black spots. Poor coverage is frustrating at the best of times, poor coverage in the midst of an emergency could be catastrophic.

Taking the outside network indoors is easier than you think

The only way to overcome the 4G problem is to take the outside signal indoors using mobile signal boosters because mobile phone masts on their own are just not up to the job. The type of signal booster needed will depend on the size of the building in question; its location, how close it is to a mobile phone mast, the number of people requiring coverage, and the network(s) that need to be boosted.

This might sound like an arduous process and up until about 18 months ago it was. However, in 2018 Ofcom relaxed the rules governing the usage of mobile signal boosting equipment, so implementation  is now a straightforward process. The only limiting factor is that any deployed system must satisfy all technical requirements stipulated by Ofcom in the IR2102 specification. 

What the future holds

It is becoming increasingly apparent that 4G is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but an integral requirement for for public safety purposes. What is unclear at this stage is where the responsibility lies. Nobody wants to be culpable by taking short cuts, and with no clear guidance on funding, NHS trusts and public sector organisations are faced with a moral dilemma in the short to medium term. Forward planning is therefore essential to satisfy immediate expectations and future requirements because failure to take this into account could have very serious consequences.

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