We are witnessing rapid and unprecedented developments within the mobile communications sector. Technological advancements have never been as important as they are today. Regardless of what is driving these changes, the outcome cannot be ignored: keep up or get left behind.
The developments we are witnessing are all encompassing and can impact every single aspect of our lives, whether at home, on the move, or at work. The ability to communicate quickly, over a reliable network, at any location in the world has become a priority for consumers and users of Mission Critical Communications (MCC) alike. As a result of this, MCC solutions providers are facing pressure to keep up with developments like never before.
To create smart cities that are safe, MC infrastructure must be taken into consideration at the beginning of the process, instead of at the end, when it will be costly to deploy. In an ideal world, smart city technology will be based on open standards, reducing the users’ reliance on single vendors, while increasing functionality and competition. As MC users move towards FirstNet in America, and ESN in the UK, the kind of forward thinking and infrastructure planning required for this kind of nationwide system will grow in importance.
TETRA has been the narrowband technology of choice for MC users over the past 15 years. This dominance has come because of the standardisation of MC features and functions for all vendors, which was driven by the need for interoperability between subscribers. Although TETRA is a proven, reliable, and robust solution around the world, the pressures from technological advancements, and the ever-changing needs of MC users mean that it is falling behind, particularly in comparison to its up and coming counterpart, LTE.
LTE is one solution capable of filling in the gaps where traditional TETRA services are falling short, as it has the potential to offer high speed mobile services and smart applications. Although LTE has primarily been positioned toward the consumer market, 3GPP is working with manufacturers and users to push for LTE MC standards. However, the formal process of standardisation is not a quick one, and LTE standards for MC users are arguably several years away from full maturity. It has been suggested it could take between five to seven years for LTE MC standards to reach full functionality, to be fully tested and compliant, and for manufacturers to have made the required enhancements. Given the nature of the MC industry, this process is not something that can be rushed, or else safety and reliability may be compromised – something that is simply unacceptable to those relying on it.
As the MC landscape becomes increasingly complex and challenging for all those concerned, whether within aviation, oil and gas, mining, security, transport, or the emergency services, organisations are increasingly working together, sharing knowledge and specialisms. This kind of collaboration is likely to continue as large-scale issues continue to shape the world in which we live. Arguably, a convergence of TETRA and LTE within the industry should be considered instead of taking the approach that one should replace the other. A combination of the two technologies could be used as part of a transitional period, over many years. This kind of phased update would allow for complete testing to be carried out, allowing for any issues to be fixed, therefore preventing interruptions to coverage.
Ensuring robustness and reliability
An approach combining the best of both technologies will ensure the robustness and reliability of TETRA works with the additional broadband services and capabilities of LTE, including new streaming and advanced data applications. This can increase situational awareness and further build relationships between users, such as those working within blue light services. The ideal situation would be for a limited number of applications to be released and tested, ensuring applications that are in demand get preference over those that are potentially not relevant, or useful.
In the example of a smart city, a TETRA base station would be connected directly to the LTE Core, and the system would be enhanced using LTE small cells for situational awareness applications, advanced data applications, and eventually, once LTE MC standards are more mature, full MC voice and MC data services. The TETRA system may be retained for certain users who would be able to communicate seamlessly to 4G/5G users, or retained as back-up services. The deployment of LTE is highly dependent upon the frequency spectrum available and the rules imposed by the local comms regulator. These regulations will largely determine whether a private or public system will be possible.
For remote monitoring requirements, there are several technologies for smart device communication, including; LoRa, Zigbee, SigFox, and LTE. The technology which becomes the dominant solution will be determined by market forces, however, private LTE is arguably the only solution that can match the high quality of service and the voice features expected by MC users. In addition, LTE has the benefit of being able to add narrowband IoT services – something that is likely to grow in demand over time as the IoT, the Industrial IoT (IIoT), and an unlimited, wireless, 5G connected society, begins to take shape.
In conclusion, it is the view of ETELM that LTE has a significant future for MC users and smart services, however, these services will take several years to be introduced and fully tested. For this reason, technologies that combine both TETRA and LTE applications should be strongly supported, particularly those that give professional users the choice as to whether to use a public operator based infrastructure or a private system, which would be managed outside of the public network.
Paul Ward, International Sales Director, ETELM
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