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NIST Award Recipient Cracks the Code on Public Safety Devices

University of the Basque Country broadens first responder app market and simplifies device certification process.

Smartphones, mobile apps and strong network connections have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to take for granted the technological progress that makes those features possible. While everyday users enjoy ample choices in the mobile app store and rarely question their broadband coverage, first responders often are not so lucky. That’s because public safety communication tools are built differently than your average smartphone. The Mission Critical Push-to-Talk (MCPTT) ecosystem — from the devices themselves to the networks that carry their signals — is far more complex than average user networks and requires much greater subject matter expertise when designing new features and functionalities. One reason is that it’s hard for developers to know if these mobile devices will operate as expected if they use commercial broadband networks.

These differences make it challenging to design effective tools, resulting in barriers to entry for the creation of public safety communication tools in the marketplace. As a result, few apps are made for MCPTT devices, and even fewer are high quality.

That’s where the University of the Basque Country (UBC) in Spain comes in. This NIST award recipient has been working under two separate federal cooperative agreements since 2017 to make communication tools more accessible to first responders. Thanks to its work on the 2017 Mission Critical Open Platform (MCOP) and the 2019 Mission Critical Services Testing-as-a-Service (MCS TaaSting) projects, public safety officials will now have access to more apps that help them do their jobs, and mobile device developers can have confidence that the devices they’re creating are standards-compliant regardless of what network they connect to.

The average smartphone user has an abundance of mobile device apps to choose from, whether they are connecting us to friends, relaying the latest news story, or providing us with directions. First responders don’t have this luxury. The technical specs for public safety communication tools are different from the average user’s because their equipment requires extra layers of security. However, few app developers are familiar with the standards for first responders’ communication devices, and as a result, developers struggle to create apps for these devices.

MCOP makes app development for public safety communication devices easier because now developers do not need to be intimately familiar with the exact technical details of first responder standards. Instead, they can use MCOP: a user-friendly, easy to access, free and open-source platform that provides application programming interfaces (APIs) to developers. These APIs handle all the security rules and technical specifications for mission-critical devices. That allows developers to focus on the functions of the app, and let the APIs do the heavy lifting of making sure their creations will work on mission critical devices. That means anyone — not just subject matter experts with deep technical and security knowledge — can develop apps for public safety.

The result? More apps for public safety and a better supported open-source ecosystem.

Building open-source APIs for public safety apps was just the beginning for UBC. It’s not enough to create an app for the device. The device needs to work on commercial broadband as well as public-safety-specific networks. MCS equipment vendors need to know if their devices consistently meet public safety standards and specifications. However, most existing solutions are expensive and are only profitable when a vendor sells millions of devices.

To address this challenge, the team at UBC created “MCS Testing as a Service” (TaaSting) to check whether or not mission critical devices pass different certification test cases. If they pass, that means they are standards compliant and usable by the public safety community.

The TaaSting project conducts testing through a cloud-based platform that defines, develops and validates devices for public safety. It also enables cost-efficient and regular testing, retesting and certification of first responder devices. If a vendor uses TaaSting successfully, they can create a report that shows their offering is standards compliant.

UBC’s method is so reliable that standards-making bodies around the world are using this tool as the de facto process to verify and certify MCS devices, enabling MCPTT to become an integrated part of the testing ecosystem.

UBC’s efforts are driving innovation for public safety and making open standards compliance more accessible to all. Because of this work, it’s possible for the mission critical vendor community to test its devices at a fraction of previous costs and rest assured that its equipment is trustworthy, reliable, interoperable and compliant.

Impacts on the global market

Building open-source and standards-based tools for first responders helps ensure that public safety can benefit from the same user-experience-based ecosystem regular app and mobile phone users have grown accustomed to. It also helps increase user confidence that devices will connect to the network, without running the risk of getting disconnected in an emergency.

Principal Investigator Fidel Liberal says these impacts would not have been possible without NIST funding. “The impact of the NIST PSIAP [Public Safety Innovation Accelerator Program] is global. Without NIST funding, progress in this area would be difficult to achieve because the public safety market is so small and often lacks a business case when compared with the commercial mobile broadband giant one,” Liberal says. “NIST enabled this market to thrive, and the global return on investment of healthy open mission critical communications ecosystems is huge in terms of competitiveness, innovation, cost effectiveness and lack of entry barriers.”

For more information on the MCOP and for access to the different APIs, be sure to visit the project website. To access the MCS TaaSting cloud platform and test the conformance of your product, visit the project website.