Airbus Defence and Space outlines its vision for future critical communications

Olivier Koczan, Head of Secure Land Communications at Airbus Defence and Space, explains his views on the prospects of professional mobile radio, evolving business models and migration towards a broadband future for critical communications to Wireless editor James Atkinson

Airbus Defence and Space outlines its vision for future critical communications

James Atkinson: How do you see critical communications evolving over the next 10 years or so?

Olivier Koczan: Clearly, our industry is on the threshold of major evolution. I would even say that we have already seen the harbinger of the coming years: the evolution from narrowband only to a mix of broadband and narrowband critical communications. First mobile broadband services have been introduced to bring new value-added services to professional mobile radio (PMR) users.

Now, the next ten years will be decisive in developing technological features for LTE platforms, which enable the PMR-user to apply various secure services in the most flexible way.

By combining complex data, video, photos and Mission Critical Push-To-Talk functions, critical communications can offer incredible possibilities. This development sets the stage for innovative applications being used by PMR users and enabled by mission critical mobile broadband communications.

There will obviously be an ‘interim’ period where traditional PMR technology will co-exist with cellular and other technologies. How important will hybrid network mixing narrowband, broadband, WiFi and personal area networks be in this evolution?

The hybrid approach is both pragmatic and indispensable. PMR users want to improve operational efficiency and security with enhanced situation awareness and a variety of sensor-based and data centric applications available in the field and at the command and control centres.

This requires mobile broadband technology, due to the bandwidth needs. Current mobile broadband technology cannot deliver mission critical communications at the levels provided by Tetra and Tetrapol for voice and data. A hybrid approach is therefore mandatory to deliver the best communication solution, depending on application, user and situation needs.

In order to fully unleash the value provided by those new data centric applications, securely integrating them with existing operational procedures and narrow-band based applications is a key issue.

By the way, Airbus Defence and Space has done this already with remarkable solutions, such as the Tactilon Suite and the TSA Application (Tactilon Suite Application). With the TSA at hand, users of smart devices can be securely and cost-efficiently integrated into Tetra communications. Our customer in Qatar, as one of the first using a hybrid solution from Airbus Defence and Space, is very advanced in bridging present and future.

Is this ‘interim’ period likely to last longer than the ‘everything will move to broadband’ advocates think?

Of course, nobody can predict how long this period may last. We are talking about an evolution process that develops rather gradually. Nevertheless, there are some factors that may be accelerating the availability of mission critical mobile broadband services.

Standardisation is a good case to point out, because as soon as our industry figures out a solid ground that the entire PMR broadband technology should work on, R&D efforts can progress with greater steps.

The crucial body that decides on this is the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the standardisation body of the telecommunications industry. We actually work very closely with the 3GPP, as this process has positive impact on our R&D at Airbus Defence and Space.

There are likely to be a number of different hybrid models, but what do you see as the necessary enablers to make this happen?

Essentially, a whole bunch of criteria enables diverse hybrid models. Most importantly, the standard platform has to be created, in order to boost the dissemination of the best model. We need the interoperability between user devices and radio access networks. Efficient integration with existing narrow and broadband technologies must be accomplished.

Also, it is important to have co-operation between traditional PMR solution providers and the LTE industry, to find proper OPEX driven business models that meet today’s requirements and to have in place the appropriate regulatory solutions that will enable mobile network operators to be part of the overall solution. All of this is needed to enable a gradual evolution from narrowband to broadband efficiently, as well as the implementation of hybrid network solutions.

Are we likely to see many critical communications networks moving to broadband technologies for both data and voice services in the near future, or are voice services likely to remain on traditional narrowband networks for some time yet?

In the coming years, we rather expect that the large PMR network operators will continue to run their mission critical voice and data services via narrowband. Our customers have clearly demonstrated that they want to use Tetra or Tetrapol at least for the next ten years.

However, thanks to hybrid networks, they can already complement it with mobile broadband services in the secured and integrated way that their operations require. But, as I said, the functionalities of those broadband services are not comparable yet with what is needed for mission-critical communications.

Indeed, customers appreciate Tetra and Tetrapol, because they offer functions such as group call and Push-To-Talk (PTT) tailored for mission critical situations, which are essential for public safety organisations like police or fire-fighters. It is clearly considered as being the only fully secure option for the time being.

Nevertheless, Airbus Defence and Space has a clear approach with regard to the way in which to evolve towards mission critical applications over mobile broadband communications.

For example, we recently formed a R&D consortium with other leading telecommunications companies and a research institution in France, to push forward such a broadband based solution for PMR (LTE4PMR), and we expect to present the first promising results soon.

How important are the software, applications and convergence with the IT world in enabling this evolution into the broadband critical communications world?

Hybrid network implementations will be built up by merging three major components: narrowband PMR solutions with specific purpose-fit technologies, 3GPP defined broadband solutions and applications & IT solutions.

The first two mentioned constitute the communication layer of the overall solution, and the applications & IT part adds value on top of this layer, by both COTS applications and PMR specific applications. All of these three elements are essential.

Should these be seen as a ‘threat’ to traditional tried and tested critical communications, or as something that can enhance and extend them into the broadband cellular world?

The technology of today, and also the fact that future mission critical communication solutions will be based on 3GPP defined broadband technologies, is enabling the use of various applications and seamless merging with IT solutions. This is more of a natural evolution, which will bring additional benefits to users of mission critical solutions, rather than a threat to anyone.

What do ‘traditional’ critical communication vendors need to do in order to continue to play a relevant part in delivering critical communications solutions in the future?

LTE core technology (base stations, core network and terminals LTE modems) for mission critical communication solutions will be delivered by the same LTE equipment providers that are addressing the mainstream business via mobile network operators. The traditional PMR industry will create partnerships with the LTE industry in order to address future business opportunities and some partnerships have already been announced.

All other business areas will be accessible for the traditional PMR industry (applications, terminals, security solutions, management solutions, integrator services, etc.) – these business areas are representing significant business value.

However, traditional PMR providers need to significantly improve their competence with new technologies and business models, as well as co-operating with mainstream players, i.e., LTE equipment providers and mobile network operators.

Another key activity for traditional PMR providers is the definition and implementation of the needed interworking functionalities between narrowband and broadband solutions - these are essential during the long gradual narrowband-broadband evolution.

The move towards a broadband future for critical communications means that traditional PMR vendors will be competing to some extent with a very different set of players: the big cellular OEMs, the big IT players and so on – how much of a threat, or opportunity is this?

Let me put it this way: commercial operators and big IT players might be ultimately cooperating with us, because we need each other. The big companies could benefit from our know-how with respect to security and layout of mission critical networks, and we might be in a position to learn about sophisticated LTE based applications.

In the past, PMR vendors have tended to produce most solutions in-house, but future critical communications will require knowledge of very different technologies. How important are partnerships with other vendors and suppliers now?

Knowing that they can be surprisingly inspiring and productive, partnerships play an essential role in finding the best solution for critical communications. This is the reason why we signed, for instance, our partnership with the former Alcatel-Lucent (now Nokia) in 2012, and we have a few other partnerships in place.

As mentioned, we lead a new consortium to work on an innovative mobile broadband-based solution for public safety organisations. The French Banque Publique d’Investissement supports the project. This will boost the ecosystem of mission critical communications.

What can you tell us about your vision for the future of Airbus Defence and Space and what is your strategy for making this happen?

Our vision is clear: Based on our portfolio of products and services, our expertise and our unique knowledge of customer needs in secure telecommunications businesses, we further want to be the go-to partner and supplier in our industry. In addition, our long-term target is to become the worldwide leader of a standard based broadband service for secure critical communications.

We have the potential to succeed, because of our achievements in implementing hybrid networks and the continuous evolution of new technology. This includes multimedia emergency communications from citizens. Here, we can leverage our expertise in 911 call taking solutions.

How big a change in mind-set, or business process outlook, will Airbus Defence and Space staff need to undergo in order to meet the anticipated evolution to broadband – i.e., dealing with software releases, upgrades and management, and cloud?

I consider our staff to be well-prepared for the next generation of critical communications. The way of working is the same, no matter what the technology is. People who work for Airbus Defence and Space are open-minded and are proactively seeking new developments.

As I said, we at Airbus Defence and Space already are on that evolution path. We were the first in the industry to seek LTE evolution when we signed our partnership with Alcatel-Lucent in 2012, and we were the first to successfully run LTE demos and pilots - and it shouldn’t be forgotten that we are a significant contributor to the 3GPP project.

Do you see Airbus Defence and Space developing new business models and new business streams, such as: on-going operational management of networks; providing mission critical intelligence as a service; even networks as a service?

I would not rule out business models, which you refer to. Service has been at the heart of our mission since the first day of the inception of our company. We are especially strong in Europe, and we would like to build new close, service-oriented relationships with our partners in the Middle East and the Americas. The business model follows customer service.

What are your thoughts on future proofing mission critical 4G networks for 5G, which at least in outline promises to be a much better solution than 4G for cellular mission critical networks (very low latency, very fast throughput, highly secure and resilient)?

I must admit that astonishing developments are appearing on the horizon. It is part of the evolution though, and we are able to shape it. We continuously discuss in our R&D department the ways in which the newest technology could be applied, in order to serve those who benefit from our products.

Is the projected sale of the Secure Land Communications part of Airbus Defence and Space likely to affect your vision for the future of the company?

Our commitment to customers and to product development remains in force. Secure Land Communications invests in future products and R&D projects that are in accordance with our mission and vision. Let me point out that the continuity of our relationships with customers and partners is highly significant. We keep on working on that with passion.


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