Spark yesterday announced it was planning to shut down it’s nationwide paging network at the end of March 2017. Unlike usual telco announcements this doesn’t seem to have attracted a single mainstream media story, any significant social media discussion, or even the creation of a thread here on Geekzone. A few people of whom I mentioned it to responded with “we didn’t even realise it was still going!”.
The paging network was launched by Telecom New Zealand in 1988 using POCSAG technology on a single 157Mhz VHF frequency. A second channel was launched not long after this to cope with demand for the service, and in the late ‘90s the service was also upgraded to support FLEX technology which delivered significantly faster throughput. I remember in the mid ‘90s that a Minicall prepay pager was the hip gadget to have – you had an 026 number that people paid to call (99c from memory) and the messaging centre transcribed this and sent this to your pager. The entire market for such a service died pretty quickly however once mobile phone popularity increased and SMS became mainstream.
While many see pagers as a relic from the ‘90s that is now obsolete, the real world reality is that they still play a very important role for many industries, with emergency services in particular still relying heavily on the technology. Despite advances in mobile technology and SMS, the reality is that there is not, and it’s unlikely there will ever be a replacement for paging that offers all of the benefits that paging does today.
The biggest user of paging right now is the New Zealand Fire Service. Paging is the primary method of turnout for every fire appliance in the country, with over 8000 volunteer fire fighters and 1700 permanent staff across the country relying on a combination of both Spark paging, and in areas that are so remote that coverage doesn’t exist, local in-fill transmitters (typically on a fire station or a local hill) relaying pager messages via satellite to a local paging transmitter that rebroadcasts the messages. Paging is also used as the a means of turnout for every ambulance in the country.
There are other users of the paging network such as hospitals who could easily deploy their own internal paging systems to replace the Spark network, but the NZFS finds itself in the unique situation of needing to have a nationwide solution.
Over the last few years the NZFS have looked at alternatives, and SMS based solutions have formed the basis of this. It was only a few years ago that Gen-i (who handle the NZFS technology solutions) proposed giving every volunteer in the country a new mobile phone to carry around to replace their pager. Such a backwards solution shows the problem of trying to replace old with new. It really was the world’s dumbest idea expecting every person to carry around another phone just to replace their pager. Such a solution also relies on SMS, which is a significant downfall.
Unlike a mobile phone a pager has a battery life of upwards of a month. Coverage is also a lot better indoors due to the much lower frequency in the 155MHz band (vs 700,800,900,1800,2100 or 2600 used by your mobile phone), and more importantly the pager network is rock solid - outages are so rare they basically don’t happen. Lastly, but most importantly, the paging network doesn’t get flooded with messages that can cause delays, or suffer issues with cross network connectivity. When was the last time you saw delays with SMS messages? Despite the best efforts of carriers, issues with the SMS service (and mobile networks in general) are something that has happened on a fairly frequent basis. As the service is best effort, no guarantees can be placed in delivery times, and as a result at times of busy network loading delays can occur. If phones were to replace pagers, a delay of a minute could well be the difference between life and death. We also know what happens to mobile network during a natural disaster such as the recent Christchurch or Wellington earthquakes – the networks grind to a halt due to overloading. Technology to give certain phones priority in such instances can work well in the TDMA world, but struggles in the world of WCDMA and LTE networks where the noise floor becomes critical and air interfaces can easily be overloaded. In the UK a system known as Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme (MTPAS) exists – but is designed primarily for voice calls.
There have also been attempts over the years to build app based solutions that would actually offer benefits – a notification of a call that would allow the end user to reply saying whether they are responding or not responding and would allow a brigade to know exactly how many crew were responding to a call. Solutions such as this rely on the mobile network which is the weak point. Many benefits exist with SMS, and SMS has replaced pagers for a huge number of users, but for time critical messaging the reality is we don’t have a modern solution that can replace the paging network. When time is critical, nothing beats the distinctive tone of the pager to let you know that an immediate response to the station is necessary.
The only downside of paging is a complete lack of security – messages can easily be intercepted by anybody with a radio scanner and software running on a PC.
All of this poses the question of what solution the NZFS will adopt, and what this will mean for the 8000+ volunteers who rely on the current paging network. Whatever solution is adopted, it’s safe to say it will not have the reliability and performance the current paging network offers. It’s very much a case of something new not being able to replace 30yr old technology.
In the meantime does anybody want to put in an offer for my pager collection that has been used for parts and reprogramming over the years? :-)
Update: I’ve been told that the NZFS are looking to deploy an expansion of their current infill paging and expand this nationwide. RSM shows a lot of licences in the 160MHz band that have been recently been allocated to them.
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