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LTE isn’t good enough for critical communications… yet

Emergency Services Safety TETRA Critical Communications

LTE has the potential to revolutionise emergency services communications, but it needs to be nothing less than 100% reliable, according to CEO of the TCCA, Phil Kidner in an interview with Telecoms.com at AfricaCom 2016.

The feasibility of LTE network infrastructure in the critical communications world has long been debated. Indeed, LTE has become pretty much the perfect technology for consumers, but mission critical communications is an entirely different beast.

There are many facets of the professional mobile radio (PMR) industry which make for an intriguing set of challenges, not least the absolutely fundamental requirement of ensuring constant, ubiquitous and instant communications and narrowband data transmission.

At the moment, the majority of the industry utilises the TETRA standard, which serves all PMR markets but is seen most prominently in the public safety and emergency services sectors.

Over at AfricaCom in Cape Town Telecoms.com sat down with Phil Kidner, who is the CEO of industry trade association the TCCA. The TETRA and Critical Communications Association is the body driving the entire communications industry surrounding the emergency services.

The PMR market is a fraction of the size of consumer mobile services – latest numbers say global users sits at 44 million. It is a small market, but one of incredible value and importance. Many would argue that the 44 million PMR users exist to protect the lives of the 7.6 billion mobile users around the world. The difference between consumer-ready IP-based mobile broadband and the PMR market is the core functionality, as Kidner explains.

“It’s not like your mobile phone, where if you can’t get a signal over here you can get one over there,” he says. “If you’re a police officer on the street with a potential criminal nearby, you need the instant communication but you also need it in a very specific place, whether that’s inside or outside.”

But, that is not to suggest there aren’t a number of benefits that an LTE-enhanced PMR network would possess. Workers in the critical communications industry can benefit from deploying mobile broadband, with features such as video or interactive applications being extremely useful in the field – but everything needs to be specially tailored.

“An iPhone is of no use to a police officer on the street,” says Kidner. “An iPhone does offer some very useful functionality, so we’re trying to make sure we get all the benefits of PMR, but have them in a broadband world as well.”

This isn’t just about leaning on the functionality of an IP network, as Kidner goes on to explain.

“The basic requirement of PMR is voice – everywhere, instantly, private etcetera. A lot of the technologies, particularly TETRA, are voice and narrowband data. So with traditional TETRA devices you can do basic database searches, you can send images to your phone, but it’s all narrowband data. We want to be able to do all the things broadband offers, like video and more interactive applications. We want to do more and do it better, but at the same time we need to keep the cardinal requirements of mission critical communications.”

So where does LTE sit in the mission critical communications market, and how will its integration into PMR go ahead?

“LTE is definitely part of the future of communications for critical communications,” says Kidner. “We’ve managed to get involved as a market representation partner in the 3GPP process. We are trying to work with those seven billion consumer users so that we can make sure we deliver critical communications involved as part of the standard.”

That mission is well under way, with Release 13 of 3GPP standards including mission critical push to talk features. Despite this, though Kidner says only one handset model has been described as ‘release 13 compatible’, so it’s still very much in the process of development.

There are three primary territories around the world who are developing an LTE-enhanced mission critical communications infrastructure; those being the USA, the UK, and Korea.

The Americans are in the process of deploying a nationwide LTE network for data, first and foremost but may be used for voice too. In the UK, EE is on the case with deploying a nationwide LTE-based PMR network. According to Kidner, that presents a lot of challenges.

“In the early days they’ll use part-standardised part-proprietary equipment; they’ll have to invest millions of Euros into enhancing the coverage and resiliency of the network,” he says. “I think the country that will make it first is South Korea. They are driven by the ferry disaster a couple of years ago and have the political will to make sure they’ve got the best communications available, and they have companies like Samsung who are able to help deliver this. Korea will be the first country to deploy mission-critical LTE infrastructure.”

In Africa specifically, where Telecoms.com met with Kidner at AfricaCom, there exists a great challenge in bringing a traditionally analogue infrastructure into the digital era. With that in mind, Kidner confirmed to Telecoms.com that the Critical Communications World series of events will be launching an African-specific event next year.

“A lot of users on this continent stull use analogue technology. Some are looking to go from Analogue over to LTE; but it might be the case that you should really go from analogue, to digital, to hybrid, then on to LTE.”

The single biggest challenge for LTE is coverage – especially in rural areas – and it cannot be understated how significant a problem this is. While there exist a plethora of potential routes for expanding LTE coverage, a definitive, de facto and open standard is essential, according to Kidner.

“Putting LTE in cities isn’t a problem, but rural areas is the real challenge,” he says. “When you look at the UK, it’s a very small and crowded island, yet EE’s current network covers about 74% of the geography. So what’s going to happen in South Africa where it’s so much bigger? We can put LTE in Cape Town, that’s fine. But what about the road from Cape Town to Durban? You can cover it with LTE if you’re prepared to spend the money.”

Basically, where there’s a likelihood of emergency services needing to respond, LTE needs to be there with full reliability, and that’s still some way off yet.


One comment

  1. Wally Hariz 20/11/2016 @ 5:06 pm

    Redundancy is one way to increase 4G reliability. In other words, critical services should be able to connect thru all available 4G PLMN and not be limited to one.
    National roaming is one way especially if devices and machines too are able to benefit from such. The perfect IoT platform.

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