Mission critical LTE is important, on the cards, but not there yet

Written by on April 11, 2017 in Opinion with 0 Comments

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For some time now, the mobile industry has envisioned LTE as more than just the next evolution for 3G networks – it can also serve as the next generation of mission critical communications networks that could also benefit from LTE’s advanced IP-based capabilities. However, it’s been slow-going for several reasons, not the least of which is the industry’s focus on the more lucrative consumer market.

The Mission Critical Communications Alliance (MCCA) hopes to change that. The industry organization, founded in September 2016 by Nokia and over ten service providers and agencies, is a global collaboration of cellcos, national and local-level public authorities and first-response agencies which aims to formalize standards in the use of LTE for public safety, while enabling new ideas and partnerships.

Following its debut meeting in October 2016 in Seoul, the MCCA held a roundtable at MWC17. Its goal – apart from recruitment – was to sound out important topics for mission-critical communications to focus on going forward, and suss key requirements to serve the public safety and mission-critical sector.

The general takeaway of the meeting: the technology part is relatively easy. The hard part is finding the right business models and pulling together an ecosystem that can drive standardization and meet the expectations of all stakeholders – many of which exist well outside the technology arena and simply expect a network that is as reliable as existing trunked radio networks and delivers more functionality.

Digital natives

Thorsten Robrecht, VP of advanced mobile solutions at Nokia, said that public-safety LTE networks is a matter of “when”, not “if”, simply because the rest of the world is already moving towards digitalization to varying degrees. Put another way, many of us have already become digital natives where smartphones are at the center of our lives and broadband is classified as a human right.

Police, firefighters, emergency rescue crews and other first-responders are no exception, said Robrecht. “A growing number of police, firefighters and other emergency responders are digital natives – there’s more demand from them for data to help them do their jobs, but they’re not allowed to use private phones, and in some situations they would be unable to do so.”

Meanwhile, added Robrecht, governments themselves are going digital with e-government initiatives and smart city projects leveraging mobile broadband and IoT technologies. It only makes sense that public-safety networks will be part of that evolution.

Technical requirements

From a technological standpoint, the MCCA says LTE has a lot to offer over existing trunked radio technologies like TETRA in terms of deployments (i.e. it’s faster and more cost-effective), spectral efficiencies and, of course, data throughput capabilities.

However, Robrecht said that there’s far more to public-safety LTE than straight mobile broadband access. “We’re already looking ahead at the next steps for services, such as situational awareness, where responders can use drones to transmit live video of disaster areas, and apply analytics to images so you can determine if an object floating in a flooded area is debris or humans.”

Other public-safety LTE apps would make use of technologies like push-to-x, positioning and sensors, he said.

In the meantime, however, at the very least, public-safety LTE must replicate the experience of the existing public safety network, which means it must be just as reliable and ubiquitous.

Business models

This raises the issue of business models. If LTE is the future of public-safety networks – and if this essentially implies replacing the old trunked radio network with a new LTE network – how exactly does one go about deploying it?

There’s no single answer, and it’s a current area of contention with public-safety LTE. There are four basic options: (1) a private dedicated network (i.e. the current trunked radio model), (2) a network built and operated by a commercial operator, (3) a hybrid of those two, or (4) an MVNO model where the public-safety network leases space on an existing LTE network.

The dedicated network option might seem like a no-brainer, but only if you have the budget for it – and some cities simply don’t have the funds for a dedicated network.

Zoltan Losteiner, Nokia’s head of sales development for Asia Pacific and Japan, speaking on the same panel, added this is how he sees it playing out in Asia now.

“In Asia, it starts with dedicated networks where they are used to it and can afford it,” he said. “In emerging markets without much existing infrastructure, we see the ability to leapfrog to LTE. But the dedicated model is expensive for them because the cost of spectrum is so high.”

Losteiner added that models will vary even within a particular country. “There’s a lot of fragmentation – even in Australia, some networks are dedicated, and some are hybrid.”

This is already playing out in Asia-Pacific, where cities that already have dedicated public safety networks are taking the same approach with public safety LTE, while emerging markets without much existing infrastructure have the opportunity to leapfrog to LTE – but a hybrid model makes more sense because it’s not as capital-intensive as the dedicated model.

In cases where commercial operators are involved, they have to remember that public-safety LTE has to do things that commercial operators wouldn’t normally have to consider, such as ruthless pre-emption – which means that in an emergency situation, the operator must boot every consumer off the LTE network in under 50 milliseconds (although this wouldn’t result in customers within the affected area being unable to phone for help as long as there is an existing 2G/3G network to fall back on).

Ecosystem challenges

The above illustrates that there is demand for public-safety LTE, and some agencies are already deploying it. The problem is that it’s happening largely in the absence of standards – hence the creation of the MCCA.

One key area affected by this is devices, commented Mansoor Bu Osaiba, deputy chief executive director of NEDAA.

“We’re not a big market compared to the consumer market, so it’s difficult to get the manufacturers to deliver a limited number of devices,” he said. “If they don’t see the commercial benefits, they won’t do it.”

Part of the device problem is related to a lack of standards for mission-critical chipsets required for such devices. “If the 3GPP isn’t incorporating things like direct-to-direct into the chipset standards, that’s a challenge,” commented one audience member.

Another challenge, said Declan Ganley, chairman and CEO of Rivada Networks, is getting mobile operators to accept certain business models that public safety agencies want. In the US, for example, he said, “public safety agencies want the ability to provide sub-commercial use of the network because it generates revenue for them – that’s why they want hybrid. But the carriers don’t want that, so they fight them.”

Ganley said this is why it’s crucial for the MCCA to have input from public safety agencies. “A lot of carriers don’t understand the specific needs of this market. We need them here telling us what they want, and we have to listen to them.”

The next step

Wrapping up the MCCA roundtable, Danial Mausoof, head of Marketing & Corporate Affairs of Asia Pacific and Japan at Nokia, said: “The discussion at the MCCA roundtable illustrated the long road ahead for mission-critical LTE, particularly on the standards front.”

The MCCA’s own roadmap for 2017 includes a number of action items, such as investigating MCCA governance, determining subset areas to focus on, and launching a formal MCCA portal for members. It will also look at fostering collaboration with its TETRA counterpart, the TCCA. And, of course, it will be focused on member recruitment and building up that voice. The organization plans to use the Critical Communications World event in Hong Kong in May as a platform to get its message out, and is also planning its first annual Summit in Q3 this year.

Roundtable attendees were optimistic, pointing again to the digitization of pretty much everything as a bellwether of where public-safety networks must go – and it will happen, indicating a clear need for initiatives that provide a cohesive voice in the industry.

This article was first published on our sister publication, Disruptive.Asia.

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John C. Tanner

About the Author

About the Author: John is editor of Disruptive.Asia and was previously managing editor at Telecom Asia. He has been covering the Asia-Pacific telecoms industry since 1996. He has two degrees in telecommunications and has worked for six years in the US radio industry in various technical and advisory capacities, covering radio and satellite equipment maintenance, studio networking, news writing and production, the latter of which earned him several regional and national awards. .

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