Finland is a first responder in the global critical comms industry
Public safety authorities make daily life-or-death decisions in emergency situations and other incidents. How do you ensure efficient co-operation between the police, fire brigade and emergency medical team in an environment where time is of the very essence? The Finnish critical comms ecosystem has been ranked a top performer in the field and has an end-to-end proposal and some time-tested references to show for it.
If you lived in 1960s rural Finland and found yourself in an emergency, say a fire, chances are the only emergency number you had was the local fire chief’s home number. The only realistic option was to pull on your Nokia-made rubber boots, one of the company’s main products at the time, and grab the nearest hose.
While Nokia ventured off into military and commercial mobile radios, Finnish public safety authorities invested in their own separate regional analogue networks to communicate more efficiently among themselves. By the 1980s, there were over 50 different and out-of-sync networks that had played their part for a while but were fast becoming expensive to maintain and inefficient to use in emergency situations.
Coinciding with Nokia’s dramatic rise to become the world’s biggest mobile phone manufacturer, the 1990s saw Finnish authorities pulling together to develop a unified and centralised digital public safety communications network.
“One of the main reasons for a unified system was a lack of resources,” says Tero Pesonen, chairperson at TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group. “It wasn’t possible to build five, four, three or even two digital networks for each branch of public safety. So, Finnish authorities had to overcome the mental hurdle of trusting each other and develop a common operating model.”
By pooling and sharing, and overcoming departmental preconceptions, Finland became the first to establish a nationwide public safety network, Virve, in 2002. It is still one of only few such networks in the world, and it serves all public safety authorities, rail transport and selected utility companies. The network covers over 100 000 users and around 40 000 terminals through 1 400 base stations across Finland.
This means that all Finnish public safety officials now have access to the same network whether they’re with the police, fire brigade, emergency medical team, armed forces or other critical infrastructure. When an accident occurs, the first responders from the multiple branches of public safety are grouped according to the nature of the accident and are able to communicate with one another. Operating under the same system of communications saves time and improves situational awareness, resulting in more efficient decision-making and fewer lives lost.
“Due to inter-cooperation between critical communications users and industry, we have good process of continuous development and with that the expertise to also help other nations with what needs to be thought of on the regulative and societal side, as well as on the technical side,” explains Pesonen.
Building on the multiagency co-operation in the 1990s, Critical Communications Finland (CCF) is a network through which the Finnish critical communications sector has continued to develop critical communications. The vibrant ecosystem now spans dozens of companies, authorities and research labs. From the consortium, one can find actors in all stages of the critical communications value chain, including leading Finnish companies like Bittium and Cloudstreet.
“When you work together, you find ways of co-operating and begin to trust others. It creates a positive spiral where co-operation breeds trust, giving birth to innovation and more co-operation.”
“On the technology side, the Finnish ecosystem is nearly able to supply an end-to-end solution,” says Pesonen. “The societal part is trickier and more dependent on the client, but we do have a world-first reference in building such a multiagency approach right here at home.”
The approach has not gone unnoticed internationally. Finland was ranked as the top-performing nation in critical comms in a study by Quixoticity in 2017.
The lessons learnt are being perfected for a more complex and data-laden future in LTE/5G networks. In addition, the roll-outs of commercial 5G networks will eventually start broadening the concept of critical communications into novel areas.
“Previously, public authorities were quite limited by technology and our operating models had to be adjusted according to the available technology. Now we’re limited by culture. With technology, we can do more than what is currently comprehensible and what the regulative frameworks allow.”
Finnish authorities are currently developing Virve 2.0 for a planned launch in 2022–2023 to support LTE/5G connectivity for public safety actors. The current system will be operated in parallel with the broadband system to ensure operational capability, until being phased out from 2025 onwards.
The broadband mobile service will enable new functions for authorities with which to further enhance their situational awareness. When moving from voice to data, the amount of information at hand will require new analytical skills from the emergency personnel. How do you make sure the people are in sync with the tech?
The missing link
Finnish critical communications company Beaconsim came to being when a public organisation asked a couple of young IT guys to help them with implementing the Virve 1.0 system in 2002.
The company has been in the business of providing simulator-based training and planning tools for operative communications ever since and has grown into a global business, with clients in 28 countries.
“We’re a software company most of all,” states Elina Avela, CEO of Beaconsim. “We offer our clients their existing radio network in a simulated environment. We offer them the tools with which to educate their end-users and develop their operating models.”
Avela’s words carry the weight of almost 30 years of experience in the niche industry. She began in 1991 with a 15-year stint at Nokia’s critical comms department, which was sold to Airbus in 2005. Avela became the CEO and minority owner at Beaconsim in 2007, ultimately buying the company in 2011.
Each emergency situation is unique, and hence emergency actors need to design operating models that are resilient to changing circumstances but clear enough to be intuitive to emergency personnel. Beaconsim offers its clients two types of technology-independent training simulator systems: a self-learning system and a virtual classroom. Users can practise different scenarios solo, but also develop and update ways of working together in emergency situations.
“You can have a state-of-the-art technology, but, if the end-users don’t know how to use it, it’s completely useless. We’re the link between the technology and the human.”
The critical communications industry holds much of the expertise that goes into building a ubiquitous information society where basically all things are online all the time. How is the industry facing the impending transformation?
A matter of trust
Critical comms plays a vital role in the Finnish government’s recently announced Digital Trust Finland programme. Here 100 million euros has been pledged to develop global networks and business related to digital trust-based solutions and services. The Finnish critical communications sector joins cybersecurity, research organisations, and Smart Finance and MyData actors in boosting growth and collaboration on a global scale.
“For example, the requirements for communications in autonomous vehicles are even more stringent than certain requirements in public safety,” says Pesonen. “So, it’s a win-win situation if those requirements are agreed on more generally.”
The integration of public safety networks and commercial networks could provide nations with security, better coverage, greater bandwidth and, most importantly, cost-effectiveness amidst fast-paced change. If the critical comms industry can serve as a beacon for commercial 5G, Finland is well positioned to set the standard, as Peter Clemons, founder of Quixoticity, noted.
“The country’s culture of close co-operation, its understanding of the importance of public safety and public service, and the sensible, pragmatic, multi-stage approach to migration to next-generation services while preserving the best of current systems is now allowing the Critical Communications Finland community to extend its close ties with other countries.”
The Finnish example in multiagency co-operation can serve as a reference for the greater society in how to build common ways of working through co-operation and trust. The benefits can be life-saving in the future.
“I think we’re at a juncture, like before Google. There’s a feeling of change. Information-centric operating models are coming, but we don’t yet know exactly what they will be,” envisions Pesonen. “Once they’re here, we’ll be wondering why we didn’t think of this before, because it feels so natural.”
Text: Samuli Ojala