There is a view among some people in the communications industry that professional mobile radio (PMR) vendors are facing a very uncertain future. Narrowband radio is on its last legs they argue and broadband solutions such as 4G LTE are going to take over.
A more level-headed view is that, yes, one day that may indeed happen, but not for some time yet and quite possibly not for a lot longer than the broadband advocates believe. What this does mean is that there will be an interim period of co-existence between narrowband land mobile radio (LMR), as PMR is also known, and broadband radio.
Speaking to Wireless at PMR Expo in Cologne in late November 2015, Jeff Spaeth, Corporate VP - Systems & Software Enablement, Motorola Solutions, says: ‘The big theme is that broadband is not replacing LMR; instead, it is complementing, enhancing and extending it.
‘LMR was a niche sector in the communications world with its own manufacturers, distributors and resellers,’ he continues. ‘But now customers no longer see LMR as being in a separate bucket from broadband, they see it as part of a wider communications world.
‘Customers are thinking about us differently,’ he asserts. ‘They used to know as much about our products as we did, but now it is the IT department doing the buying and not the communications guy. That change is being driven by the expectations of IT departments, which are used to buying software.
‘They buy things on a pay per use basis. They buy in managed services and so on, so there is a paradigm shift coming from this trend where we are moving from a pure communications world to an IT world and we need to adapt to that,’ says Spaeth.
How is Motorola adapting?
Motorola Solutions is the dominant player in three major narrowband PMR standards: P25, TETRA and DMR, which it markets under the Mototrbo brand name, so seeing its views on this communications paradigm shift and how it is going to respond to it will be interesting to watch.
One major change already underway is the increasing role software is playing compared with traditional PMR hardware. ‘When it comes to core systems we are seeing more value in software,’ notes Spaeth.
‘A lot of the features we sell are software based and we expect customers to buy that and to buy a managed service contract along with that, as we have to upgrade the systems we sell and keep them up to date. As a result we have to think about our business models to keep pace with that.
‘It requires a mindset change for us and for some of our customers, not the IT-centric ones but the communications-centric ones, who need to adopt a more software orientated mentality,’ he says.
The natural extension of this is that in the future certain types of Motorola products will be provided and managed in different ways. ‘For example,’ says Spaeth, ‘features-as-a-service can always be kept up to date in the cloud. It is similar to the Internet model of services supply. This kind of requirement may not be true today for many of our customers yet, but it is how we see the world changing in the future.’
A telling illustration of this trend is that Motorola now employs more software engineers than hardware, as the ratio of software engineers has grown to meet these new demands – and that requires a change of approach.
The software future
‘We have to get good at software releases, software release management and keeping things current,’ points out Spaeth. ‘The approach of buying software for £100, plus an £18 per year maintenance fee is not very common in the hardware communications world, so we have to train our people to understand this world.’
Spaeth believes this change is exciting one for the company. He argues that meeting future communication needs is not a question of stopping the legacy business of selling base stations and devices, but rather Motorola must augment that side of the business with more software features and service maintenance offerings if it is to grow.
‘For example, we have a contract to manage the new Nødnett TETRA network in Norway for which we have supplied and installed the infrastructure. But whereas before we might have sold a simple maintenance agreement, we now help them run it and keep it current, so it is a revenue stream business now.
‘We will see more of this kind of thing,’ he continues. ‘The IT industry has evolved to providing in-house IT management where the likes of SAP, IBM or HP run IT departments on behalf of enterprises and other organisations.’
But he acknowledges that Motorola cannot supply all this kind of expertise. ‘As we go forward and the lines blur between communications and IT you have to have more partners,’ he says. ‘We have a lot of domain knowledge, while major mobile phone infrastructure providers such as Ericsson have the eNodeB technology for 4G LTE networks, for example.’
As indicated earlier, this kind of approach requires a major mind shift. ‘We need to think of ourselves not as LMR providers, but as work group communications providers,’ says Spaeth.
‘So, we need to understand that new domain; understand how they use two-way radios interacting with smartphones and how to provide push-to-talk (PTT) communications over both LMR and LTE using interoperability solutions like our WAVE technology.
‘We need to make those kinds of voice service applications more and more seamless and then you have data, messaging, group management and so on. In the past work groups were co-ordinated by the talk group - the basic unit of measurement for LMR systems.
‘But now we need to provide seamless work groups across two-way radios, smartphones and other devices, so people can share videos, images and messaging – and all this needs to be as seamless as voice services,’ argues Spaeth.
Extending the communications value proposition
Public safety and mission critical communications are arguably a niche sector within the broader world of communications, but to have communications that really work in the moments that matter is very different to the way consumer mobile networks are designed and managed. What Motorola is doing is extending its communications value proposition into other domains.
Spaeth points out that utilities, power, transportation, ports and airports are all industries that require critical communications with a common set of needs. It is, after all, no accident that they are the traditional users of PMR. PMR systems give them the ability to provide customised coverage, capacity when and where they need it, and to have control of the communications systems they are using.
‘The next 25 years will see these principles expand into different business models; hybrid networks mixing voice, data and video applications. How, when and where these will evolve will vary according to geography and the verticals concerned; there will be lots of different hybrid models,’ says Spaeth.
He notes that you could make the argument that critical communications 10 years ago was relatively homogenous. Everyone used PMR, albeit with different protocols such as TETRA, Tetrapol and P25, but with PTT at the core. However, he believes networks will be much more heterogeneous in the future mixing different types of technology and business models.
‘Diversity will be the word,’ he says. ‘Some countries may remain much the same as today or even 10 years ago, others will be very different. We aspire to evolve with that and meet all those types of need.’
Historically, what PMR vendors provided was communications principally for voice. ‘We are expanding on that to include intelligence tailored to meet the three different scenarios of prior, during and post incident,’ says Spaeth.
Analysing what the different business models that can meet the requirements of these three scenarios are, Spaeth says they will be very IT-led involving data science and data mining. In short, it requires more of an IT solution and Motorola therefore needs to use more IT-type business models. This will see the company move from being just a communications provider to being an intelligence provider and this will mark its shift into the IT world.
‘For example, take shared whiteboarding where you can share images or maybe the map of a football stadium with lines or circles you’ve drawn on it among different types of mobile devices. You can have a work group using 50 LMR devices and 50 smartphones, so only the latter will be able to see the whiteboard images, while other functions can be shared across both types of device,’ says Spaeth.
The ability to support big groups and dynamically change who is in those groups, a functionality long available in narrowband technologies, will extend into the world of broadband, but it will take time he believes. ‘Hence, work group communications, which we do for firemen, oilrig personnel, construction workers and the like.
‘We need to look at how they use their communications and see what the implications are for the broadband world and how we can evolve the capabilities we have developed in the narrowband world.’
These mission critical standards developed in the narrowband PMR world are now slowly being incorporated into the 4G LTE standard by the global standards writing body 3GPP. But 3GPP’s work will not be finished for several years yet, so industry and customers are facing a considerable standards gap when it comes to mission critical broadband.
‘What this means is that we have to develop pre-standard solutions for 4G ahead of the standards to meet requirements right now,’ says Spaeth. ‘Everyone will evolve on different paths depending on how you structure the contracts, how much money you have, how you plan your coverage and capacity issues and so on.’
Another element that will cause LMR to continue in certain countries is the lack of available 4G spectrum for private networks. That means if a private customer cannot access any dedicated spectrum they will have to turn to those who hold the spectrum licenses – usually commercial mobile phone operators. But how much appetite is there among mobile network operators to provide critical communication services?
Spaeth notes that some operators in some countries are more interested in providing critical communications services than others. He says it is impossible to make sweeping generalisations as to whether this approach is good or that one is bad. It is a multi-variable equation and the needs of each customer and each country will determine the solution.
The company certainly has a head start in providing mission critical services on 4G as it is involved in data-only 4G projects in the USA for first responders in the Los Angeles area and it has supplied two 4G networks for emergency services in the Middle East.
But its most testing project will be the UK’s £1bn Emergency Services Network, which will replace the current TETRA PMR system with a 4G service running on UK mobile operator EE’s commercial network. Motorola was confirmed in December 2015 as the Lot 2 User Services provider for the system managing applications and devices.
This is the first time any country has opted to move its emergency services communications off a dedicated network and onto a commercial one shared with 24 million consumer subscribers. Whatever the outcome of this bold experiment, it will certainly put Motorola at the learning forefront of broadband critical communications.
‘We aspire to be the leader in broadband communications as well as LMR and that is why it is an interesting time to be in this industry,’ Spaeth. Interesting times, indeed.