Communication is vital to our everyday lives. And there are so many ways in which we do it: voice, text, email, tweets, pokes, VIBER, Tikl, BBM, the list is virtually endless. So much do we take the ability to communicate for granted, that it is often overlooked in the planning phase of operations where, in reality, it should take centre stage.
Take the military scenario as an example. When an operation begins, the very first thing that will be established is a communications link between the front line and those directing operations. Without it the commanders can neither issue instructions to their forces, nor receive intelligence feedback; without communications they are deaf, dumb, blind and vulnerable and this is true for every other situation from the Boardroom to the Ops Room.
When planning an operation in a hostile environment communications takes priority because we expect to have to provide it for ourselves, and this mind-set should be extended to any environment friendly or hostile: sadly that doesn’t always happen and many an operation in a sleepy, leafy suburb has floundered for this very reason.
So what are some of the things we should consider from a communications perspective during our operational planning phase?
First there is the nature of the operation itself. A close protection task will necessitate different communications choices to a surveillance task. A quick visit to the shops with your Principal will require a different approach to planning to accompany them on a safari into the African bush.
Second is the type of information you need to convey and the frequency (not radio frequency) with which you need to convey it. Are you giving a running commentary following a target on foot surveillance, or are you just giving regular check-ins with your ops room back at the Principal’s residence to let them know that the shopping trip is proceeding without incident?
Third is the operational environment. Are you in a place where, to use communications devices openly and overtly might cause you problems? Are you likely to find yourself in a situation where you may be searched, perhaps on entering a building with a security scanner, and you then have to explain the presence of your carefully concealed covert radio and accessories.
Fourth is the technology choice. Do you, or indeed should you, rely on third party networks for your communications? Mobile phone use is taken for granted these days. We use them for everything from making ‘old fashioned’ voice calls to poking people and writing on their walls!!
But what happens when the network isn’t there or is congested?: think London, July 2007. The Metropolitan Police, completely correctly, invoked ACOLC: Access Overload Control which is the means whereby they can restrict access to all cellular networks for all but priority users; a lot of people’s comms plans fell over that day.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use existing third party infrastructure. Sometimes it is the right choice. You just need to be aware of, and make sure you have planned for, as many eventualities as you can.
So what are some of the options and what are their merits?
The first and simplest choice is the one we’ve just discussed: mobile phones. Their conventional use to make voice calls or send text updates is well known and accepted. Some Smartphones allow you to install apps that will turn the phone into a short range ‘walkie-talkie’ using the phones on-board Bluetooth capability.
Less well known is the ability to have true PTT (push to talk) over the cellular network. This has been popular in the USA and some Middle Eastern countries for years but has yet to really take hold in Europe, although it is available. This doesn’t use the conventional ‘voice’ circuits on a mobile network but utilises the ‘data’ channel to convert your speech to IP packets and then route it to other devices within your talkgroup. It really is like having your own private nationwide radio network.
There are some limitations to this and it isn’t the ‘magic-pill’ that will solve all our communications problems. But it also has some advantages. Think back to ACOLC which I mentioned earlier was invoked in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings. It is a little known fact that ACOLC only affects the voice circuits on the mobile networks. Because the PTT services run over the data channels they are not affected: food for thought. But you can’t get away from the fact that you are still putting your reliance in a network owned and operated by someone else which, after all is said and done, is outside of your control.
The second, and probably most popular choice, is to have your own radio system in place. This is private, is owned, operated and controlled by you and should not have the same level of vulnerability as a third party operated system.
However, it still presents its choices and challenges. What type of radios to choose? What make and model? Analogue or digital? Clear or encrypted? Overt or covert? UHF or VHF? Trunked or standard? Licensed or licence free…..the list goes on.
Having worked through all the options above you are now faced with the question of coverage. If you are only going to be working in a relatively confined area and all parties are going to be quite close together throughout the course of an operation, then this becomes less of an issue. But if the operational footprint is large, if you are looking at providing coverage from the Principa’ls residence on one side of town to their high rise office block 20 miles away, and at all points in between the two, then the challenges grow!
The thing to remember when it comes to communications is that ‘everything is possible’. This may sound unlikely but I assure you it is true. With the right combination of equipment, technology and knowledge, there isn’t anywhere we can’t communicate.
But that is the key to the whole communications question: combination. No single system should ever be used in isolation. Sometimes different systems need to be combined to achieve an objective, but even if they don’t there should always be a fall-back and, ideally another one after that.
Whenever possible we will plan double-redundancy into any communications scenario. If your private radio network fails your back up is your mobile phone. But if your backup fails where do you go next? It may be as simple as knowing the locations of the public telephones (does anyone use those anymore?) in your area, or carrying a satellite phone for absolute emergencies. The thing is, you’ve thought about it and factored it into your comms plan.
As with any other aspect of operational planning, it’s about knowing what tools you have in your box. You don’t necessarily have to deploy them all every time, but knowing what is available to you is definitely a good place to start.
I hope this has given you some food for thought. Next time we’ll be answering all of the questions raised above when it comes to choosing your own radio network.