Revaluating public sector communications in line with digital transformation
“Assuring seamless mobile connectivity is integral to any digital transformation project but achieving this is challenging at best due to complex building structures, the raw materials used and multisite requirements,” says Stuart Waine of Spry Fox Networks.
Keeping pace with online demand from the public. Enabling remote/hybrid working in incredibly short timeframes. Ensuring access to vital services for the most vulnerable. These were just some of the challenges the public sector has faced as a result of the pandemic. To fulfil these expectations and maintain “business as usual” local government and the NHS turned to technology and the progress made has been extraordinary. In fact, the crisis has triggered widescale digital transformation across all public services by providing the fast-forward button needed to overhaul legacy systems/networks and review processes and operations.
Many of the digital services that went live in just a few weeks, along with agile/hybrid working support are here for the long haul because of their associated advantages. Moreover, digital investment in the public sector is predicted to add £32 billion to the UK economy by 2040 through reinvestment and service improvement, according to study carried out by Virgin Media Business and the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr). Indeed, it’s set to bring about positive change for both the public sector and the community, including disadvantaged groups. It is imperative therefore that this appetite for digital transformation continues if the nation is to realise this potential boost.
Whilst the rapid rollout of digital services at the height of the crisis was truly commendable, what has been highlighted in its wake is the antiquity of the communications infrastructures underpinning most of these services and their vulnerability to cybercrime. Much of this has come about by organisations enabling remote working in short timeframes and via any means possible with security being little more than an afterthought due to the perceived expense versus the perceived risk. Reluctance to invest in security and disaster recovery has left comms infrastructures in many public sector buildings susceptible to attack, as some local councils know all too well, the ransomware attack on Hackney Council’s comms networks caused by substandard security and IT training being a prime example.
An underlying element to any digital transformation project is assuring a reliable mobile phone signal. And achieving this in conventional public sector properties is challenging at best. Consider the average NHS hospital; providing reliable mobile coverage has always been difficult because of their sprawling layouts, complex structures, kilometres of internal corridors, not to mention stairwells, research labs, clinical theatres, CCTV control rooms, A&E admissions etc which are often situated below street level and void of a mobile phone signal.
Mobile coverage isn’t just limited to commercial cellular services either, it’s the driving force behind IoT driven technologies, including light control, access control, sensor technology and CCTV systems as the comms mechanism for IoT technologies is currently cellular. Poor mobile coverage is also an issue in many regional offices and blue light services control rooms as cellular (4G to be precise) is integral to data driven technologies such, wearables, electronic health records (EHR), streaming video footage or access control.
Whilst the larger tier 1 facilities can overcome their coverage challenges by implementing operator connected DAS or small cell, what of the regional offices of police/fire/ambulance services or the smaller local government buildings? The facilities managers of these smaller premises have neither the experience nor the budgets needed to commission a high-end solution like DAS, yet they face exactly the same connectivity challenges.
The only way to provide the levels of coverage needed in these situations is by taking the outside network indoors using supplementary equipment such as mobile repeaters. But before you even get to that stage, you need to assess the outdoor coverage situation as this will determine the type/number of repeaters needed and their configuration. Factors to be considered include the proximity of a mobile phone, the mobile operators, and the number of devices/services needing to simultaneously connect to the indoor mobile network.
This information can be obtained by carrying out a detailed mobile coverage survey, but most of the readily available tools do not provide a hierarchical view as they only consider the network coverage situation. Mobile coverage as device level must also be taken into account or performance and Quality of Service will be compromised.
Deploying a mobile repeater-based solution isn’t always as straightforward as it might seem on the surface either as there is currently a loophole in the repeater policies. If you don’t fully understand the rules you could end up installing a contraband solution and the consequences of being caught can be costly and damaging. For a mobile repeater to be legally used in the UK it must meet stringent criteria stipulated by Ofcom and not many do.
Assuring Mobile connectivity inside any building has always been a moving target and will become even more so as 5G becomes universal. Forward planning from a property owner/manager’s perspective, particularly for frontline public sector staff who work around the clock as they require seamless connectivity and access to all information all the time, in real time. Securing full network coverage does not have to be an arduous, complex task so long as you have the right tools.
The author is Stuart Waine of Spry Fox Networks.