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A TETRA diet

Main_copy.jpgRichard Lambley reports from Singapore on new products, developments and fresh thinking at Critical Communications World 2014

Switched at a few weeks’ notice from Bangkok to Singapore because of political tensions in Thailand, this year’s Critical Communications World – successor to the TETRA World Congress – suffered somewhat reduced attendances. Nonetheless, the event attracted 2,600 visitors from 97 countries to three days of discussion, conference presentations, technical seminars, a product showcase and an exhibition hall highlighting the latest products and services.

Subject areas covered in the conference streams included energy, industry, public safety, public transport, business models and critical infrastructures. But, as last year, the major talking point was the increasingly urgent need to build a migration path to broadband mobile communications; a road map to video for the kind of mission-critical and business-critical user organisations who rely on TETRA technology for their voice communications. But users of other narrowband radio technologies such as GSM-R, Tetrapol and P25 find themselves in a similar predicament, and the congress addressed their needs too.

Long Term Evolution (LTE) has emerged as the favoured technical solution, and many exhibitors at CCW were already demonstrating advanced LTE broadband radio systems. But any migration to it will throw up a mass of associated problems, and the congress provided a unique forum to consider them. How soon will essential features such as push-to-talk and group calling be available in LTE? Is broadband genuinely necessary? When will the technology be mature enough? Should user organisations operate their own LTE systems, or dare they risk outsourcing to public networks that might prove fragile in a crisis? When will frequencies for private LTE systems become available? How can narrowband and broadband radio systems be integrated successfully? Will broadband systems displace narrowband entirely, and when?

c.jpgThe first conference session began with a look back at one of this year’s big TETRA achievements – its role in the smooth running of the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Employing infrastructure manufactured by Selex ES, the Russian systems integrator MS-Spetstelecom designed and operated a secure network of more than 100 base stations, spanning the mountain site and the coastal strip. With mobile terminals from Sepura, this supported some 10,000 users across almost 3,000 talkgroups, with more than 170,000 group memberships. A four-level engineering hierarchy connected 6,000 users in the coastal area and 4,000 in the mountains.

“All those special requirements and needs presented by the customers were satisfied and we succeeded in our job,” said Andrea Pratesi, director of homeland security for Selex ES, outlining the system.

Showing charts of traffic loads on the system, he revealed that the number of calls peaked at around 115,000 on the first Saturday of the games, with more than 6,000 terminals active on the network. All of these were group calls – to economise on network resources, person-to-person calls were not allowed.

“There are two messages here,” he commented. “On one cell, an incredible number of calls with so many differing call groups – but at the same time, those calls were not just in one cell but in more cells. So when we are thinking of LTE, we have to bear this in mind, with all the inconvenience associated with LTE when you have group calls over more cells.”

And he ended with three key points:

Speed is not a panacea for professional mobile radio users: “There are other more important functional contents for them.”

To support a special event, an appropriate organisation must be in place: “It’s not simply a matter of technology.”

Though TETRA was designed to be an exact fit for the needs of public safety and security users, they cannot now ignore LTE: “LTE is a complementary technology to TETRA and it must be properly integrated in order to provide a real synergy.”

How TETRA and LTE will play out over the next 10 years was the puzzle addressed by Bruce Brda, senior vice president of government solutions at Motorola Solutions. But first he congratulated his audience on having made the right choice of technology. “In the past 12 years since the first TETRA systems were deployed, there has been huge investment by manufacturers as well as TETRA users,” he said. “Last year the industry experienced 8 per cent growth in infrastructure and deployed roughly 600,000 new TETRA devices into the marketplace. By the end of 2017, we expect that there will be about four million active TETRA devices in use in the industry.”

Main.jpgA world map of Motorola’s own TETRA deployments shown by Brda demonstrated that this success now extends almost globally – the one major region still unserved being, paradoxically, his company’s homeland in North America. He credited this spread to three factors: “Number one, very deep interoperability; number two, a focus on safety and security; and number three, the pressures that all of us feel to do more with less. TETRA is an excellent technology to enable you to do more with less.”

But while steady improvements in TETRA products, and the addition of TEDS (the TETRA Enhanced Data Service) would ensure a long and useful life for these installations, the need for broadband is becoming more acute as applications grow increasingly data-intensive. “The discussion really is not whether or not public safety will utilise LTE, it’s how it will be utilised,” he declared. “Motorola firmly believes that LMR and broadband are better linked together. They are optimised for different purposes. Really you don’t want to envision data pipes replacing voice in the foreseeable future. We believe
that these are complementary technologies that will operate together.”

For the foreseeable future, then, Motorola envisages giving the user the best of both worlds in the shape of a purpose-built LTE device which links via secure Bluetooth to a mobile radio terminal. This would allow the best use of existing investment. 

But the critical question, Brda went on, was whether dedicated public safety spectrum would be made available for LTE (an area of uncertainty which may be clarified somewhat by next year’s World Radio Conference). “If the answer is yes and there is dedicated spectrum, I believe almost all agencies will opt for a purpose-built, dedicated network that will give high levels of control and capability that will rival an LMR [land mobile radio] network. If dedicated spectrum is not available, I believe agencies will use the only viable option, which is to ride on top of a carrier network. And the performance that a carrier network will be able to deliver from a public safety perspective, as well as the willingness of public safety agencies to accept those compromises, has yet to be seen.”

More views of the next ten years emerged during the first of several panel discussions, a frequent feature of the conference. Two of the participants, both of them involved in the latter stages of deploying nationwide TETRA networks, were firmly convinced that the technology still has years of life ahead of it, and that the right decisions have been made. “We have invested approximately US$1 billion in this, and this is quite a lot for a nation with 5·1 million inhabitants,” said Tor-Helge Lyngstøl, head of Norway’s directorate for emergency communications. “We have air-ground-air connections, countrywide coverage, we have coverage in more than 300 road tunnels – and of course it is important for us to take out whatever is possible from that investment. We are also introducing TEDS for mission-critical data.

“We will look into the possibility of introducing an MVNO. That is not a big investment. And we are looking into the possibility of integrating with commercial LTE. But presently I cannot see any way that we could switch off our TETRA network. We will have to use that for at least ten, 15, maybe 20 years.”

“In Germany, we expect to finalise the setup of our network somewhere during 2015,”said Barbara Held, of Germany’s BDBOS, operator of what will soon be the world’s largest TETRA system. “We have at this point in time 435,000 users, and we still expect our network to grow to up to 500,000 users, adding on top another 200,000 pagers that will be used by our fire brigade. At the end we will have something like 4,500 base stations all over Germany and I think we already have the core network in place, which has 64 switches. So don’t ask me whether I believe in the future of TETRA: it’s just a huge investment we’ve made, and we expect a return. We are already getting it now, being at the beginning of the operational phase, through user satisfaction.

“So, yes, it’s there to stay and we will get our return on investment from it.”

Another contributor was Mike Norfield, chief executive of the technology supplier Team Telecom Group (TTG). “We can’t just switch off the TETRA networks today,” he said. “There will be a migration to new technology over the next five to 15 years. And it will be different from commercial users to public safety users.

“It’s clear that there has been a step change in this industry because we have seen Huawei for the first time move into this sector, after many years. And these guys don’t sell TETRA networks. There are obviously reasons why they see this as a step change in putting things like public safety on to commercial networks. I think you will see much quicker change.”

Even so, he continued, existing networks would still be needed for mission-critical voice. “When you speak to public safety users around the world... one of the first things that a police officer will say is: ‘I have to have ruthless pre-emption and millisecond access into my network for voice’, because that is what officers rely on. Data applications are great – but when it’s busy on the commercial network, you’ve got to still ensure that you have ruthless pre-emption. That’s why the Americans have gone into FirstNet for dedicated spectrum.

“So a lot of this is going to be driven by business models of commercial networks who provide public safety communications. It’s a much, much wider question.”

Also on the panel was Jolly Wong, chief technology officer for the Hong Kong Police Force, which is currently hosting a trial of LTE technology. He emphasised the advantages to users of waiting for technology standards to be agreed. “As everyone will know with proprietary systems, it hardly gives you the choice of peripheral equipment, competitive price, and most importantly, innovation and continuing improvement. These are quite natural consequences when you are locked into a proprietary system.”

LTE, he said, was commonly recognised as potentially the next technology standard, and questions now are about the maturing of LTE to cover all the functionality needed in public safety, and the emergence of products from multiple vendors. “There’s still quite a long way to go,” he observed. “So, probably 2020 or even 2025. Who knows?”

Phil Godfrey, chairman of the TCCA, added that the use of open standards and the creation of a competitive market place had been at the centre of the TCCA’s aims since its beginnings in 1994.

“To a degree, the onus is on end-users to ensure that whatever they install now can eventually become open-standard,” commented Thomas Lynch, of analysts IHS, summing up. “I guess we can’t regulate this as a body. It has to be the end-user who controls the market.”

“Absolutely,” Godfrey responded. “If they ask – in the case of TETRA, for example – for interoperability certificates, then they will be comfortable in the knowledge that equipment is available from multiple suppliers.”

Next the discussion touched on the UK’s Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme, a bold government plan to transfer emergency services communications to an LTE-based service delivered by commercial mobile phone operators, and to abandon the present national TETRA network operated by Airwave. Service over LTE is planned to begin as early as 2017, even though essential mission-critical functions such as group calling and ‘direct mode’ proximity services are not yet included in the 3GPP standards. Finished radio products carrying interoperability certificates may be several years away yet.

“Bizarrely, the issue we have in the UK is that the politics are already driving the future of technology, and the government don’t even realise that,” commented Mike Norfield, group CEO of TTG. “Their view is they want to leave behind their existing business model, which is the Airwave solution, under a contract that doesn’t really suit them, and they are driving the future by moving to LTE. Their view is: ‘With a move to a new standard and new technology, we can really start again.’

“Everybody around the world is looking at it from afar because it will potentially be a big public safety network and that in itself will drive the technology.”

But in Norfield’s view, there are serious problems to solve in using commercial networks for critical public safety services. Who will be answerable if the service fails, or does not provide adequate radio coverage? And how can a public service requiring high availability be compatible with network operators who are largely dedicated to pleasing consumers?

“The likes of Vodafone and Everything Everywhere [EE] in the UK have run business models to see if it will work for public safety,” he continued. “On one network in particular they ran six business cases for LTE public safety, and it failed every one.

“Public safety requires the absolute utmost availability. So you are mixing a professional user group that is sometimes critical to people’s lives against a user group that like to play with their iPhones. And that is going to be a big struggle for how you make that business model work.”

After an update from Tony Gray of the TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group on its continuing efforts in 3GPP and other forums towards embedding mobile radio features into the core LTE standards, another panel of experts explored the possibilities for deploying LTE for professional users.

“We are building some large systems now in the US,” said Scott Mottonen, vice-president for private broadband at Motorola Solutions. “Those networks are operating in conjunction with LMR for mission-critical voice while LTE provides mission-critical data. So I think we’re starting to see traction as those pilot networks roll out. People see the benefits of them and I think we will see the traction accelerate.”

But Félix de la Fuente, chief marketing officer for Teltronic, said: “It’s not a question of switching from TETRA to LTE. If the driver is video, we should leverage the capabilities of our TETRA networks and then add video functionality for our customers. So from my standpoint, let’s go and leverage TETRA plus LTE.”

Robin Davis, chairman of the TCCA Transport Group, asked the panel whether it was realistic to expect
mission-critical push-to-talk voice over LTE in the next five-to-ten years.

“We actually promote our voice-over-LTE into the standard,” said Norman Frisch, business development leader at Chinese manufacturer Huawei. “ So now it’s a matter of how long will it take until these specifications are ratified by the organisations... Realistically, it may very well happen that in one to one-and-a-half years, we’ll have a situation where PTT voice-over-LTE is actually complete.”

“In the US, the legislation dictates that solutions deployed for public safety in the FirstNet spectrum are based on open, interoperable standards,” put in Mottonen. “I think the challenge today, the battle that we’re fighting, is how do you get the standards moving fast enough that you don’t end up with de facto proprietary solutions widely deployed around the world? Because it takes too long to get the standards.”

Jérôme Brouet, innovation director at Alcatel-Lucent, added: “It’s key that the end-user community, either from the TCCA or from the US side, is actually pushing.”

Then came the question of whether to build dedicated networks or to ride on commercial services. “Dedicated provides the ability to give the resilience that everyone is looking for,” volunteered Brouet. “But then we are in different situations, different constraints, and I guess all the end-users need to adapt to those. But why not start
using a commercial network and get a handle on the applications?”

“This is a twofold question,” said Teltronic’s de la Fuente. “First, for the big customers, they don’t really want to hang on something that is public... And then, how much do you want your system to be customised? You don’t really have two customers with exactly the same configurations and the same users.” 

“I think ‘dedicated’ lines up with the needs of the user community quite well,” said Mottonen. “The value in the markets where they are pursuing this over carrier networks, will bring the industry together on what is actually possible, and how that would actually play out. So it will take some of the hot air out of the debate and get more concrete discussions about what needs to be done, and whether it can be.”

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