Basic services and everyday safety rely on radio frequencies

The Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom is responsible for the technical administration and planning of radio frequencies, the monitoring of the use of frequencies and investigating and eliminating radio interference. In this task Traficom ensures that the frequencies critical for the functioning of society are functional and available also in the event of disruptions and under exceptional circumstances.

Radio frequencies have an extensive social and economic significance, as most services necessary to society, citizens, companies and communities rely on wireless communications networks. The communications networks of critical infrastructure include e.g. networks that serve

  • energy production and distribution
  • water supply and waste management
  • essential information society services, such as telecommunications and communications
  • the authorities
  • the financial sector
  • transport and logistics.

In addition to wireless data transfer, many of the above also make use of accurate time and location information gained through satellite navigation services.

Frequencies for emergency and safety radio communications are another significant section of frequencies whose securing is prioritised. The key users of emergency and safety radio communications frequencies include aviation and maritime transport and the authorities responsible for the safety and security of society and citizens, such as the emergency services, the police, the Finnish Defence Forces, the Finnish Customs and the Finnish Border Guard.

Frequencies are also a key issue to consider when designing communications networks critical for the services or operations of a company. Network implementation with licence-exempt radio equipment can be quick and easy, but critical networks should never rely on them. Traficom is only able to ensure interference-free frequencies with the help of frequency planning and radio licences when network implementation utilises radio equipment subject to licence.

Schematic diagram explaining society's critical infrastructure and spectrum-dependent services

Electricity and water supply ensured with radio modems using radio frequencies

Power plants and waterworks form a radio frequency user group small in size but large in importance. They use radio frequencies subject to licence in radio modems that are used to transfer e.g. measurement, alert and control data. In addition to being reliable, wireless data transfer in municipal engineering radio networks is the most cost-effective way of implementing the monitoring and control of power plants and waterworks. The functioning, speed and reliability of the radio network play a key role in the monitoring of the electricity and water supply, as the secured access to electricity and water is a significant part of people’s lives in society. 

Radio modems can be used to implement reliable data transfer connections in the difficult Finnish terrain where fixed connections have not so far been seen as economically viable solutions. General mobile networks have neither so far been seen as equally functional and reliable solutions for these purposes. This means that the use of frequencies subject to licence will be considered essential in electricity and water supply in the future as well. The increase in the use of radio modem frequencies and the number of networks has evened out, and these networks currently use around 15,000 transmitters. Networks are currently being developed and modernised e.g. by increasing data transfer speeds which creates needs for frequency changes. At the same time, the planning must further highlight the efficient use of radio frequencies in order for Traficom to be able to offer sufficient radio frequencies to meet the needs of users. 

Private radio networks used for tailored needs 

Companies critical for the functioning of society, especially in industrial production, logistics and the security and construction sectors, widely use private radio networks for different purposes. Factories, security companies and ports, among others, use private closed radio networks for local voice communication and data transfer. These radio networks establish connections quickly, and the use of the network incurs no extra costs. Furthermore, the usability and reliability of the network can be influenced with own investments, and the network operation is not dependent on other parties.

The demand for private radio network frequencies in industry continues to be steady. When renewing old systems, there is a clear tendency of moving from the older VHF range devices into the UHF range and from analogue technology to digital mobile radio (DMR). Reuse for the VHF range comes from rescue departments securing their digital public safety network VIRVE connections with traditional analogue radios.

The demand for frequencies reserved for the terrestrial trunked radio technology (TETRA) to be used by trade and industry has not met with expectations, and currently the DMR networks can implement many features expected from the TETRA networks with smaller device investments. The demand for private radio networks based on mobile network technology is also increasing strongly, and these will be utilised more and more in the future. 

Emergency and safety frequencies prevent accidents and save lives

Certain frequencies are globally reserved for maritime and aviation emergency communications and others for search and rescue operations. In emergencies, radio communications are performed with radiotelephones or special emergency transmitters, either automatically or activated by the user. Emergency communications are transmitted with terrestrial connections, or in case of certain emergency transmitters, via satellites. The radio traffic on emergency frequencies is monitored continuously in air traffic control, other vessels and aircraft and the maritime rescue coordination centre.

Emergency transmitters include emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRB) on vessels, emergency locator transmitters (ELT) on aircraft and personal locator beacons (PLB). These are intended for sending distress messages via satellite to earth stations. The devices operate in the international Cospas-Sarsat system. An alert from a Finnish emergency transmitter is received at the Turku Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre that relays alerts from aircraft to the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre. 

Traficom maintains an aircraft emergency transmitter register that contains aircraft information and their emergency contact details, among other data. Each vessel’s MMSI number is programmed into the EPIRB devices, allowing the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre to find the vessel’s information in the Traficom register. Similarly, the identification number issued by Traficom is programmed into the PLB devices, making it possible to find the information of said device.

The flight monitoring of passenger aircraft forms part of aviation safety. At regular intervals, aircraft send the aircraft registration, location, altitude and speed via the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system (ADS-B). In case of an accident, the ADS-B data can be used to determine the flight route and path in the moments preceding the accident. ATC, other aircraft and those with an ADS-B receiver can receive the data of an ADS-B transmission. 

The emergency and safety radio communications frequencies are of the highest priority in Traficom’s interference investigation work, and they are to be extensively protected also in disruptive situations and under exceptional circumstances.

Location and time information support society’s services

Location and time information is utilised in several sectors and services critical to society. Accurate location and time information is produced by global navigation satellite systems (GNSS). Location information can also be produced with the help of various sensors or positioning based on mobile or WiFi networks. Positioning can also utilise combinations of different solutions. 

Location information based on GNSS systems is widely used e.g. in rescue operations, logistics and transport on land, at sea and in the air, as well as in construction. Many smartphone and smart device applications also make use of satellite positioning. Accurate time information is used e.g. in the financial sector and in telecommunications, mass communications and electrical networks. Of the satellite navigation systems, Galileo is built by the European Union (EU) and the only GNSS system under civilian control. Other similar global systems include the American GPS, the Russian GLONASS and the Chinese BeiDou.

The GNSS signals traveling from satellites to earth are weak and as such vulnerable to different interference that can be caused e.g. by the environment and its blind spots, the atmosphere (ionosphere in particular) and various faulty or nearby high-powered radio or electrical devices. Signals can also be jammed or spoofed intentionally. 

The risk of interference in satellite positioning as in other radio communications can be minimised with technical solutions, e.g. by positioning the receiving antenna further away from other radio or electrical devices and to a location without blind spots. Frequency diversity receivers receive signals from several GNSS systems (GPS, Galileo, Glonass, Beidou) operating on different frequency ranges, meaning that a disturbance on a certain frequency or system does not necessarily prevent receiving the navigation result. There are also different antenna solutions for minimising the risk of interference, and critical applications may also use e.g. several GNSS receivers by positioning them on different sides of the vessel body or building. 

The Public Regulated Service (PRS) of the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system is more resistant to interference, jamming and spoofing than other satellite services as it occupies a wide bandwidth, offers an increased performance compared with open navigation signals and is encrypted. The purpose is to secure the availability and reliability of time and location information especially for security authorities, such as the emergency services, the police, the Finnish Defence Forces, the Finnish Customs and the Finnish Border Guard. Traficom’s National Cyber Security Centre Finland is responsible for the PRS services for authorities in Finland.

Public safety network secures access to data and opportunities for cooperation in crises

Finland’s authorities currently use the public safety network Virve operated by Suomen Erillisverkot Oy. As the features of the Virve technology are becoming insufficient for modern authority needs, the Virve 2.0 broadband service utilising commercial mobile networks is currently being built.

Virve enables protected group and one-on-one calls, distress calls and short messages supporting the cooperation between authorities in daily work and crisis situations across organisational boundaries. The Virve network is used by the authorities, such as  

  • rescue services, emergency response centres and the police
  • social and health services
  • the Finnish Defence Forces
  • the Finnish Border Guard
  • the Finnish Customs
  • and municipalities.

Virve is also used in other safety critical operations, such as in industry, guarding, security and the transport of valuables. The Ministry of Transport and Communications decides on user groups entitled to use the public authority network.

In the future, Virve 2.0 will also offer reliable and safe broadband mobile services, allowing the use of image and video for the purposes of creating a situational picture. The Act on Electronic Communications Services and the Act on the Operation of the Government Security Network were updated in early 2019 to make it possible to offer public authority communications services in commercial mobile networks. In order to secure critical authority communications, this ensured that public authorities have priority to data traffic, access to the necessary data transfer capacity during load spikes and access to national roaming in commercial networks, in addition to other necessary technical and operational prerequisites.

The broadband Virve 2.0 is implemented in cooperation between the authorities and commercial operators. In Virve 2.0, Suomen Erillisverkot Oy acts as the service operator and the commercial operator selected as the cooperation partner delivers the 4G and 5G base station services to Erillisverkot. Erillisverkot implements the core network functionalities enabling safe communications for authority operators.

The broadband Virve 2.0 is planned to be in operational use in 2023, although the development of new services will continue long into the future. 

Frequencies supporting our safety in traditional and novel uses

One of the key user groups of radio frequencies are the authorities responsible for Finland’s defence and security, such as the Finnish Defence Forces, the Finnish Border Guard and the police. Traficom works in close cooperation with security authorities. Traficom also manages the use of authority frequencies and makes sure that the civilian use of frequencies and e.g. the radio systems of the Defence Forces can operate without interfering with each other.

In an increasingly digital society, the need for radio frequencies in the operations of the authorities and in national defence increases as new wireless applications and uses are developed. Traficom also develops methods for streamlining the use of radio frequencies in order to meet the frequency needs of the authorities. The use of frequencies can be made more efficient e.g. with dynamic shared use where one user can utilise the frequencies when the primary user of the frequency range does not need them e.g. in a particular geographical area or at a certain time. Dynamic shared use has been utilised e.g. for the needs of the Defence Forces. 

Unmanned aircraft serve public authorities and rescue operations

Due to technological development, model aircraft, unmanned aircraft, such as drones, and other unmanned aerial vehicles are increasingly used in recreational and business activities. They have also been used in the operations of public authorities for some time now. 

In drone operations, frequencies are used for steering and control in addition to transmitting data from payload devices, e.g. a video camera, down to earth. In the operations of public authorities, drones enable several functions supporting the safety of citizens and rescuers alike, e.g. in looking for missing persons, locating wildfires or mapping risks and creating a situational picture in accidents. Drones allow aid to be delivered faster than before, and e.g. a location of a fire can be mapped even before the fire engines arrive on scene. However, the strong increase in the number of drones and other unmanned aircraft has also created new safety threats, and in order to respond to them, security authorities have been authorised to intervene as necessary in the use of frequencies for controlling unmanned aircraft or drones, for example. These interventions cannot cause greater than minor disturbance to other radio communications.

In recreational activities, unmanned aircraft generally use licence-exempt radio transmitters for control and data transfer. For professional use or more extensive needs that are subject to a licence, Traficom plans the frequencies and grants radio licences on a case-by-case basis. Traficom’s website offers extensive information about flying drones. 

Sustainable development through digitalisation

The UN’s sustainable development goals steer and challenge urban development. The sensors and devices linked to the digital infrastructure of future cities aim for the real-time monitoring and control of urban infrastructure, increased safety and reduced emissions, e.g. via automated public transport. The automatic monitoring of water supply, wastewater and heat distribution increases reliability, and predictive maintenance provides great cost savings.

Digitalisation in health care aims to achieve more effective processes, cost savings and a wider care service availability. Remote monitoring of patients and partial virtualisation of health care enable high-quality service supply outside hospitals as well. Health promotion and the prevention of illness via devices and sensors is another key area for development.

However future technology will enable us to improve our environment and society, wireless technology and the smooth and interference-free use of radio frequencies will play an important role in it. With its operation, Traficom promotes and secures the creation of a more sustainable future for us all.

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