In its latest five-year strategy plan, the TETRA + Critical Communications Association (TCCA) sought to restate its commitment to open standards as one of its key messages.
TCCA CEO Phil Kidner (pictured) says: ‘I understand people have to go on a journey to get to the eventual standard and we want to work with people while they get there, because without them we will never arrive at a standard, but we do not want to promote proprietary products.’
Principally here, we are talking about the development mission critical standard for LTE, but as Kidner points out later this year or next year the problem will have largely gone away, as the standardisation work will have been done and the industry will be promoting LTE Release 13 compliant products.
Many of the key applications and features around mission critical push-to-talk voice over LTE standards were finalised by 3GPP for LTE Release 13 in March this year.
That still leaves mission critical video and data for Release 14 (work on which is due to close around March 2017). There is also the question of addressing an interworking standard between narrowband technologies such as P25 and TETRA and LTE.
So, there is still work to be done on the mission critical LTE standard, but Kidner says he is very pleased at the progress so far. ‘I think the critical communications community has been hugely successful here.’
Kidner notes that if you look at the numbers - 44 million PMR users in the world and 7 billion consumer mobile phone users – the odds that the giant mobile phone community would be interested in seriously engaging with the tiny critical community did not look good.
3GPP SA6 success
All the industry investment is going into the consumer mobile phone world, so as Kidner points out, the fact that the critical communications community managed to get 3GPP to set up the SA6 Mission Critical Applications Working Group – the first new Working Group they have put in place for at least 15 years – was pretty astonishing.
‘SA6 has attracted a huge amount of support from right across industry and the end user community and they amount of work they have put in has been phenomenal, so I am delighted 3GPP has taken us on,’ says Kidner.
‘They might have said we are not interested as we have 7 billion customers to look after, but they didn’t and they are working with us just the same. And some of the work that people have gone into to write the mission critical part of LTE Release 13 has really gone beyond what could have been expected,’ says Kidner.
He adds that 5G has probably helped give impetus to the work, as many of the use case being proposed for it require ‘mission critical’ style criteria, such as highly reliable, highly available, highly robust networks with minimal latency.
Kidner says: ‘I thought if we managed to mission critical LTE 4G standardised that would be it, but now as far as I can see we need to be part of the 5G standardisation process too. People in the critical communications industry have been really stretched in getting this work done, but it has been necessary and the only way forward.
‘The other thing we need to do is try and ensure these standards are global and that has not always been easy, continues Kidner. ‘Every region in the world has its own ideas and interests, so getting people to work together has been a challenge.
‘We have achieved a lot in getting the Americans to work with the Europeans and so on, but there are some issues with national standards still. I think the critical communications community is too small to have national standards.’
As an example, Kidner points to the B-TrunC LTE broadband trunked standard developed by the China Communications Standards Association (CCSA), which was recognised by the ITU in 2015.
As he points out, China has a huge domestic market, so it can afford to deliver whatever it wants, but Kidner thinks they are wrong to do so. ‘I think they need to be part of a global standard and increasingly I see Chinese companies getting involved with the global standardisation work, so I hope that is a realisation on their part.
‘It would better if it was part of the 3GPP process. We have tried to say to them, B-TrunC is great, now share it with 3GPP. Many B-TrunC members are also 3GPP members too, so I think that will happen.’
He adds that Ms Wang Zhiqin, who represents the CCSA, is now also chair of 3GPP PCG (Project Coordination Group) so this is likely to help the adoption of global standards across all regions.
Critical comms end users
Kidner says that the other thing the TCCA wants to do is to change the emphasis from a particular technology to something that focuses more on the mission critical users.
‘Our heritage is TETRA and we will always be involved with TETRA to a greater or lesser extent,’ he says, ‘but critical communications users today deploy a variety of technologies and it is important for us as an association to support those users whatever technologies they use, although without supporting proprietary solutions.
‘If a mission critical user with a DMR system came to us, for example, we would welcome them. We would say our heritage is obviously in TETRA, so we are not sure exactly what we can offer you, but we might, for example, help you make the journey towards broadband technology. The DMR Association is an industry group, which does not have end users, but we do, so maybe we can help them there, for example.’
The issue of spectrum, dedicated or not, for critical communications users is still clearly very important. ‘There are arguments that critical communications should share spectrum and/or networks with commercial networks, but that has not been a good experience in the past. It will be interesting to see how the UK copes with its new Emergency Services Network running on EE’s network,’ observes Kidner.
He thinks critical communications users around the world would like the option of having spectrum in 700MHz, because most of them are convinced that the only way forward is to maintain control over their own destinies by having their own networks.
He points out that all the European countries except the UK seem to have a different view. The Dutch have just bought a new TETRA network for their C2000 system, which will probably run alongside a public LTE network for non-mission critical data.
The Finns have outlined their strategy, which again is to upgrade their VIRVE TETRA network and then increasingly use LTE over the years, perhaps starting off with some form of SIM card, upgrading to a full MVNO, and then perhaps moving to a full LTE solution.
FirstNet in the US is adopting almost the same model, whereby the P25 narrowband system will remain for mission critical voice with a 4G data network on top. The Hong Kong Government has just approved a budget for a new TETRA network, which will take the form a hybrid network.
The TCCA is currently undertaking another study on hybrid networks, which Kidner says it hopes to publish later this year. ‘For me, the big issue remains coverage,’ he says.
He notes that in the UK, where the Home Office is paying the bills, even the biggest UK mobile network EE needs to increase its geographic coverage by about 25% in what is a small, crowded island.
‘How are they going to do that in France and Germany?’ Kidner wonders. ‘And even if you have got coverage you need a lot of capacity.’
We may find out the answers at the Critical Communications World 2016 show at the RAI in Amsterdam from 31 May to 2 June.