Co-operation is key to Finland’s critical communications success
Whether they’re with the police, fire brigade, emergency medical team, armed forces or other critical infrastructure, all Finnish public safety officials have access to the same public safety network.SPAL
Finland’s critical comms ecosystem is preparing for a broadband upgrade to its pioneering and world-leading public safety network, Virve.
When Finland was named the happiest country in the world for the sixth year running, what became abundantly clear is that the society here operates under a heightened level of trust. Happiness is not all about smiles and laughter for this northern nation, more so a deep sense of the satisfaction that people have with their lives here. Trust forms the basis of a deep sense of togetherness among the population of 5.5 million people, which can be seen across all aspects of society.
From a business standpoint, many industries here are recognised for their strong sense of community characterised by open information sharing and mutual support. In a turbulent world, this community of trust represents a solid foundation upon which to build critical communications.
“Over the years, trust has become a formidable asset for a whole range of Finnish companies active in the critical comms industry,” said Kirsi Kokko, head of the Digital Trust Finland programme at Business Finland. “Trust is also a key ingredient in building world-leading ecosystems that keep coming up with next-level innovations ranging from 6G to post-quantum cryptography.”
Operating under the same system of communications saves time and improves situational awareness, resulting in more efficient decision-making and fewer lives lost.Sopimuspalokuntien Liitto
One of the industry’s globally recognised pillars of innovation is its public safety network. Known as Virve, the network serves all public safety authorities, rail transport and selected utility companies, enabling them to communicate via shared voice and messaging services. Thus, when an accident occurs, first responders from the multiple branches of public safety are grouped according to the nature of the accident and can communicate with one another. Operating under the same communication system saves time and improves situational awareness, resulting in more efficient decision-making and – critically – fewer lives lost.
A critical upgrade
A pioneer when it launched a quarter-century ago, Virve remains one of only few such networks in the world. And it is certainly well utilised: the network currently hosts around 74 million messages per week, enabling effective communication and co-operation by and between the authorities. However, as it uses the single-band TETRA technology, Virve is in need of a refresh. The rapid advances in technology during its lifetime are spurring the most significant change in its history: a broadband upgrade.
“We have been working with Virve already for 20 years,” says Sami Honkaniemi, CEO of Mentura Group, a provider of software solutions for critical operations. “I think it's important that the modern broadband technology and its capabilities and potential are taken into use by first responders because there we can improve operational efficiency. We can do things smarter. There is potential to really make it more efficient and save more lives.”
According to Toivonen, the Virve services will coexist for a while during the transition to broadband, allowing organisations to migrate between the services in a controlled manner and integrate the new service into their operations with confidence.
The arrival of Virve 2 will importantly usher in the era of the group call, but there are other significant upgrades, too, such as fast positioning capabilities, database searches and effective image sharing.
“Put together, the authorities will have a virtual situation room of unprecedented scope and savvy working for the common good,” Kokko added.
Driving this change is Erillisverkot, the state-owned special-purpose company that provides services for organisations that support the safety and functioning of society in the fields of communications, mission control and securing critical infrastructure.
“We can still remember the transition in our own phones from the GSM technology that enabled voice and messages to broadband-enabled smart devices that run various applications,” said Virve 2 programme director Ari Toivonen. “The same thing is now happening with the Virve phones and other communication devices for the authorities that police officers, rescuers and paramedics, for example, wear on their lapels.”
Once operational, the Virve 2 upgrade will initially address several basic, familiar functions, but given the rapid advances of technology it will enable a lot more – including future applications that are not yet known.
“Drones are already widely used in the security sector, and Virve 2’s group video service, for example, can produce video from the camera carried by a drone,” explained Sven Forsell, Virve 2 programme manager. “This saves resources and increases safety when mapping out a forest fire, for example, or in siege situations.”
Finland became the first in the world to establish a nationwide public safety network, Virve.Erillisverkot
And while Virve 2 will utilise the same 4G and 5G networks as commercial services, its traffic remains encrypted and prioritised.
“Virve 2 sort of drives in the same lanes as passenger cars, but its messages are like VIP vehicles with darkened windows and blue flashlights – the messages are encrypted and the network always moves the other traffic aside to make way for them,” Forsell explained.
Reception is improving
It’s no surprise that Nokia is present in the story of Finland’s critical comms; its present and former employees are intertwined with the sector’s success. Elina Avela began working in critical comms in 1991 at Nokia’s critical comms department. Now, with more than 30 years in the industry, Avela has witnessed first-hand such significant moments in the sector’s history as the transition from analogue to digital in 1995 with the shift to the TETRA network. And so, whilst excitement is bubbling for Virve 2, like any introduction of new technology, Avela is acutely aware that a monumental change like this will be done gradually.
“The transition from narrowband to broadband is not going to happen overnight,” she says. “It's going to be maybe even 10 or more years of goals being met and Virve 1 and 2 in parallel use. So, it's really important to plan things, and in this planning businesses can use simulators really effectively.”
Avela’s company, Beaconsim, is well positioned for such needs. Beaconsim specialises in a full-fledged solution for critical communication training and planning – a critical twin, if you will. Its advanced radio and C&C dispatcher simulators facilitate the measurement and control of training and also support operative planning. This approach is poised to meet any industry resistance to the introduction of the broadband network head on.
“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what technology is implemented; if the responders don’t know how to use it, the whole operation is in jeopardy. That’s why comprehensive and user-focused training programmes are so important, along with reliable networks,” she said last year.
As Virve 2 now proceeds to the testing and commissioning stage, Finland can look forward to a sustained, secure future for its critical communications – one that stands on the shoulders of a long history of trust and collaboration.
“The next generation of Virve will be one of the most important governmental ICT projects in the coming years, [and it] will facilitate seamless co-operation between the authorities and other public safety operators, crucial in daily life but also in crisis situations,” commented Timo Lehtimäki, Erillisverkot CEO.
“The importance of Virve in critical operations cannot be overstated,” he added.
A critical situation
In May, Finland hosted the annual Critical Communication World event in Helsinki, showcasing to the world some of the 50 companies that are heavily involved in developing its critical comms ecosystem. Here are four of the companies in attendance.
This leading provider of advanced and intelligent software solutions for critical operations is pioneering the migration to mission-critical broadband.
“We help our customers improve the reliability and safety and security of their operations by managing the communication system,” says CEO Sami Honkaniemi. “We basically convert communications capabilities to operational efficiency, helping the operator manage a multi technology environment so you have multiple different technologies.”
This company offers reliable, operator-independent and cost-effective connection solutions for mobile and fixed environments.
“We produce a multi-channel router that does everything you would expect a router to do,” says CEO Topias Uotila. “The innovative part is the multi-channel aspect, which means that instead of just connecting to a network, we're connecting to multiple networks at the same time and then we can in real time decide what data goes to which network.”
The resultant constant data flow means that in demanding conditions such as a high-speed police car chase online connectivity remains critically uninterrupted and situational awareness is uncompromised.
This company provides a mission-proven, easily deployed and easy-to-use situational awareness platform for public safety operators and industry.
“These can be totally different organisations, like fire, rescue, police, military, operating together and now they can get that info in one place,” says NSION CSO Mattipekka Kronqvist. “Our solution can be integrated to vehicles, drones or into body cams, for example. The interest lies in the capability of how smoothly all those different points come together.”
“Our solution is future-proof and it's available now. It’s not a prototype but a full functioning system.”
This company is a leading European manufacturer of global navigation satellite system (GNSS) solutions worldwide. As with many Finnish companies in the sector, the lion’s share of its customers are abroad. Indeed, the company exports more than 90 per cent of its production outside of Finland.
“What we do in the public safety area, which is the biggest market for us in Europe, is we keep the navigation fix alive,” explains managing director Simo Ruoko. “This means that the dispatcher can successfully dispatch the nearest fire truck, ambulance or police car to an incident.”