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Press Release - 18/10/2017

ASTRID launches the next generation of Blue Light Mobile
High-speed priority communication for emergency response coordinators

Ghent, 18 October 2017 - ASTRID, the specialist telecoms operator for Belgium's emergency and security services, today launched the next generation of its Blue Light Mobile service. The launch was attended by the Federal Crisis Centre and 150 staff from across the emergency and security services. The new high-speed offering combines voice and data services and is now available to emergency response coordinators such as municipalities and contingency planning officials. Jan Jambon, Minister for Security and the Interior, handed out the first SIM cards today to the various public safety agencies.

Three networks in one
ASTRID first launched Blue Light Mobile as a high-speed data communication service in 2014. One SIM card now provides secure, priority access to three commercial mobile phone networks in Belgium and eleven networks in four neighbouring countries. Police departments and emergency services now enjoy the best coverage in Belgium, including border areas. In locations where there is no coverage for a given network, the user's tablet or mobile will switch automatically to the network providing coverage in that area. Data communication is fast, secure and high-priority.  

Mobile office on the ground
Blue Light Mobile services offer significant advantages to users on the ground. For example, teams can now easily check vehicle registration numbers in real time using their tablets, as well as perform identity checks, draft reports, query the dangerous substances database or share a photo or map with the control room. The SIM card offers private access to the secure cloud, through which the rescue service can avail of a secure environment for its own applications, but also share applications to exchange data between support teams. Essentially, the concept of a "mobile office" means easy access both for teams on foot or in service vehicles.  

New: priority voice communications
In addition to data, the second generation of Blue Light Mobile now offers voice communications. This means that users can now make priority phone calls quickly with their normal mobile or smartphone. Blue Light Mobile now boasts a unique feature - network priority over all other users.

Service offerings
There are two service levels: FIRST and PRIOR, with both offering priority communications. PRIOR card users have the added guarantee that their voice and data communications have absolute priority over all other mobile users. The number of PRIOR SIM cards is capped at 6,000 customers at present, to ensure that priority access operates effectively. However, there is still no limit on the number of FIRST SIM cards for all emergency and security services.

Blue Light Mobile SIM cards can also be personalised and individual users can activate different communication methods and options. From 1 November, security departments and agencies can begin the phase-in of Blue Light Mobile SIM cards.

Who can use Blue Light Mobile?
Police departments, fire service units and medical response teams, as well as airports, city councils, local and provincial authorities, defence forces and many other public bodies will be allocated a certain number of priority SIM cards, based on their size. Each organisation can distribute them freely among their various divisions.

Jan Jambon, Minister for Security and the Interior, said: "The flashing blue lights of the emergency vehicles that we see in traffic now also operate in the sphere of telecommunications. Thanks to this service, 6,000 people who play a critical role in our security operations will, from 1 November, be able to avail of a special SIM card giving them priority network access at all times using their mobile phone. The PRIOR SIM card will ensure permanent network access, even when networks are busy. Voice and data communications will have absolute priority over all other users".

"Emergency situations and major incidents that this country has experienced recently have demonstrated just how important it is to have stable and efficient methods of communication", noted Frédéric De Fays, expert at the Federal Crisis Centre.

Complementarity between Blue Light Mobile and TETRA radio communications
With Blue Light Mobile, ASTRID addresses individual and priority communication needs. People who do not use their TETRA radio every day can now readily communicate using their normal mobile, smartphone or tablet.
It should be noted however that Blue Light Mobile is not intended to replace the existing TETRA radio network, but instead represents a complementary service. The ASTRID radio network remains the primary method of group voice communication for all emergency services.

Blue Light Mobile underlines ASTRID's innovative approach. Marc De Buyser, Chief Executive Officer of ASTRID, said:
"With this new management contract, ASTRID can focus on renewing all of its communication systems. Our teams are also applying their technical expertise to initiatives supporting staff on the ground as they carry out critical missions that save lives". 

Effective teamwork
"The development of Blue Light Mobile is the result of close collaboration: the ASTRID platform enabled its implementation, the IBPT (Belgian Institute for Postal services and Telecommunications) gave its approval and there was a strong will among many parties to do whatever it took to make it possible. The Users' Advisory Committee has been an ongoing source of support to ASTRID", noted Minister Jambon. 

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Press release - 7/6/2016

New ASTRID paging system for volunteers of all emergency services in Belgium

This weekend ASTRID completed the changeover from its old paging system to the new one. Paging is used by the fire brigades and emergency services to call volunteers who are equipped with pagers through which they can receive alert notices. The important preparations for renovating the infrastructure and ensuring continuity of the service provision in the future started one year ago. ASTRID worked closely together with the user organisations throughout the entire process. During the changeover on Saturday, June 4th 2016, ASTRID constantly kept users informed about the course of events. The technically complex migration was completed in four hours (between 8 AM and noon), during which time the paging service was interrupted. Following several months of preparation, the technical teams from ASTRID and its suppliers have done their utmost to ensure a smooth transition. After the switchover of the 226 antennas in various locations all over the country, the pagers of the volunteer firefighters and emergency responders as well as the alarm terminals at the fire stations automatically connected to the new system. On the Saturday afternoon the teams carried out on-site technical maintenance on 30 antennas. More than 2.3 million pages pass through the paging network every year. Radio communication was not interrupted during the switchover operation as it did not involve the ASTRID TETRA radio network.

Necessary works
Certain components of the old paging system had become outdated (2001) or had reached end-of-life status and the supplier was no longer able to offer maintenance or a replacement. The paging service is a quintessential tool for calling volunteer firefighters to the fire station. After consultation with the users it was decided to re-opt for POCSAG, a proven and widely used technology standard that continues to meet the operational needs of the emergency services. The renewal of the paging system encompasses the replacement of the network core and its auxiliary system (consolidated in three data centres), the gradual replacement of the emitters on the antennas, and the addition of certain features with added value for the users. After completion of a public procurement awarded in 2015 to the company Thales, the paging technology will be brought up to date from the previous system. This will allow for a reduction in operational costs at the same time.

The users of the paging system
A pager is a device through which volunteers can receive short messages (e.g.: “Urgent intervention – house fire”) or codes transmitted by the station. The main users of this simple and efficient alerting system are the (voluntary) fire brigade, the Civil Protection Service, several medical emergency services, doctors, hospitals and the Red Cross. The system allows for sending an alarm message simultaneously to a large number of volunteers who possess a pager and are located outside the station (at work or at home). Approximately 6,400 alarm messages pass through the ASTRID paging network every day. Paging subscriptions are free of charge for emergency zones (fire brigade) and public emergency services.

Christophe Grégoire, Chief Operations Officer at ASTRID:
“This technological upgrade offers a direct operational benefit to the users in the field, i.e. the 12,000 volunteer firefighters who are active throughout Belgium. In addition, it ensures continuity of the paging service for another 15 years. I would like to thank all of the users and everyone who has participated in the works for their contribution to this complex migration effort.”

Features and benefits of the new paging system:

  • Messages are transmitted faster as a result of more rapid processing in the centralised system
  • Better redundancy: The centralised systems are redundant and constantly exchange their data between them
  • Advanced system monitoring from the ASTRID Service Centre
  • No need to replace the 21,000 pagers already in use in the field
  • Guaranteed technological support from the supplier of the infrastructure (Thales) for the next 15 years
  • New key features in the longer term: 
    - Encryption of messages
    - Transmission of acknowledgment of receipt
    - Automatic re-transmission effort in case of failed delivery

The Technology
The ASTRID paging network consists of 226 antennas dispersed through Belgium as well as centralised management systems (servers). Alarm messages are sent from the server to the antennas, which in turn forward them to the pagers. The technology underlying the ASTRID paging network is based on the POCSAG standard. The system allows emergency services to quickly send and receive messages throughout the whole country. The ASTRID paging network offers maximum indoor coverage. Paging messages can be transmitted to pagers by phone, via an ASTRID radio or very specifically via a PC or alarm terminal.

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