Huawei is chiefly associated with the commercial mobile network infrastructure sector and mobile phones for consumers, but for some years now it has also actively targeted the rather more niche critical communications market.
It has, however, opted to do so as pure broadband player without recourse to the critical communication sector’s traditional narrowband technology base. The company clearly saw that critical communications users would want to harness the benefits of broadband technology readily available to consumers, so it developed its eLTE mission critical portfolio to provide professional mobile radio (PMR)-type functionality for broadband.
The eLTE solution is necessarily proprietary, as it was developed ahead of the 3GPP mission critical LTE specifications, which are still being written. The company also set up the eLTE Industry Alliance to establish a partner ecosystem promoting international collaboration and co-operation to help grow the overall market place in sectors such as public safety, transportation and energy.
Norman Frisch, Chairman, eLTE Industry Alliance at Huawei (pictured below), told Wireless at CCW 2016 in Amsterdam, that the company is evolving its products to keep in step with the 4G LTE mission critical open standard being written by 3GPP: ‘Our eLTE solution will be 3GPP LTE Release 13 compliant and commercially available by the end of the year,’ he says.
Expanding the ‘e’ in eLTE
‘Enterprise LTE (eLTE) is just a Huawei branding term,’ explains Frisch. ‘It is being done for vertical markets where you can have anything from a very small dedicated system you can put in a backpack, right up to a nationwide system the size of a cellular mobile operator’s network.’
As far as the public safety sector is concerned Frisch describes it as moving from a very niche, albeit open, standard, into a mainstream technology – 4G LTE. This, he says, will provide a lot of flexibility and options for the public safety sector in terms of providing a wider choice of suppliers and improvements for future developments.
‘R&D costs a lot of money, but that cost is shared between billions of LTE consumer subscribers to provide much better economies of scale for RoI,’ points out Frisch.
At Huawei’s eLTE Industry Alliance Summit, held in Amsterdam on 30 May, Jianhua Peng, President of Enterprise Wireless Business Unit at Huawei, commented that the rapid advancement of the LTE-based industry has evolved the meaning of the ‘e’ in eLTE to now represent: enterprise, extension, enhancement, and evolution.
Peng explained that Enterprise relates to eLTE private networks specifically designed for government and enterprise customers supporting mission critical applications. Extension involves moving eLTE network into more diverse industries, including public safety, rail transportation, chemicals, water metering, electricity metering, and manufacturing.
It also means harnessing a wider variety of spectrum options, covering licensed spectrum and unlicensed spectrum, and including human-to-human communications and industrial connectivity.
Enhancement refers to designing solutions for specific industries to provide a variety of industry terminals to cater to different industry needs. Finally, evolution means eLTE fully complies with 3GPP standards and is capable of evolving to 4.5G and 5G when that is developed.
Frisch elaborates the point by noting: ‘Customers should not go into a situation where they have a proprietary solution that may have a lot of flexibility and does what they want, but which limits significantly the amount of competition they have to install their system. If it is going to be in place long term, 10, 15 or 20 years, you want to have a rich supplier ecosystem.
‘For that reason, we strongly support the standardisation effort from 3GPP and TCCA (TETRA + Critical Communications Association),’ he continues. ‘Huawei has been a strong supporter within the 3GPP SA6 Mission Critical Applications specifications group for a couple of years now – and we are also a strong supporter of LTE standardisation in general.’
He points out that Huawei decided to provide voice trunking and LTE data long before the standards were ready. 'We work very hard with the standards bodies and so we have a good idea of where they are going. It is similar to what you see in the Wi-Fi industry where some of the access points come out ahead of the standards being finalised, but which can be quickly be made compliant.’
He adds that the whole eLTE Alliance had a big discussion about pre-standard at its annual meeting last year, after which it published a mission statement that clearly says eLTE Alliance members will promote 3GPP compliant standards.
Frisch says that the most important message for now is that in March this year 3GPP Release 13 was frozen with work complete on mission critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) applications for voice. ‘We now have a clear picture of what MCPTT and proximity services look like. Mission critical voice features in LTE are defined and standardised now.
‘This means when you compare TETRA and LTE now the voice features are comparable – the previous Release 12 just looked at broadband data. The TCCA pushed strongly to achieve that and they have achieved it.’
Mission critical video and data still need to be addressed by 3GPP and are scheduled to be done in Release 14, although it remains to be seen if everything will be included in time. Frisch says that Huawei has taken the same approach to video and data, as with voice.
‘We already have MC broadcast and PT Video, but pre-standard. We are working with SA6 to define those standards,’ says Frisch.
Huawei’s views on public safety LTE are outlined in a whitepaper prepared by IHS entitled: LTE in Public Safety. However, Frisch says Huawei sees LTE for critical communications being used in a much wider context.
‘We are already preparing the next step,’ he reports. ‘Sure, voice trunking is important, as is having broadband information to improve situational awareness, but the next steps coming slowly now are things like Safer Cities and the Internet of Things (IoT).’
Smart Cities and IoT
As regards IoT, Huawei has also been heavily involved in adapting the 4G LTE standard to make it technically usable at the right price point. 4G is not suitable for low power, wide area network IoT applications, such as smart meters, which only need to send tiny amounts of data every now and again.
‘Those kinds of applications do not require broadband – they require narrowband IoT (NB-IoT),’ he says. In June, 3GPP announced it had completed the specifications for NB-IoT, which will allow mobile network operators to use their existing licensed spectrum holdings and network infrastructure for low power wide area IoT applications with only a software upgrade on the base stations.
‘We are demonstrating how to integrate IoT into eLTE. The exciting part is that the solution brings together all three areas you need for a smart city into one infrastructure,’ says Frisch.
Currently, the three areas are provided by: narrowband TETRA, Tetrapol or P25 PMR solutions for voice; a wideband system for the broadband data; and then some form of low power IoT standard, such as Zigbee, Bluetooth Low Energy, Sigfox, or indeed NB-IoT, which form a third layer to collect the narrowband data.
‘The capex of those three systems might not be that high in themselves,’ concedes Frisch, ‘but the opex over 20 years to operate and maintain, and train people for three systems is expensive. Bringing those three systems together to provide interoperability involves a complex process to enable all three to interconnect and exchange information. But if you use LTE instead, you have a perfect converged platform, as it gives you all three in one.’
Frisch suggests that NB-IoT networks can be used to provide information from sensors on temperatures in tunnels, lights working or not, counting cars passing traffic lights, or indeed if the traffic light bulbs are working – in short, a host of different applications sending small amounts of information driven by battery operated devices in the field.
‘We think the NB-IoT opportunities are great, so we are working together with our eLTE Alliance partners – and today we have 88 industry suppliers within our Alliance – to develop this. The majority are looking at voice and broadband today, but many companies also see the opportunities provided by a converged LTE network for narrowband IoT applications,’ says Frisch.
LTE for transportation
Huawei is also keen to bring the benefits of LTE to the transportation industry, railways in particular. Frisch, who has a background in the current GSM-R European railway communication standard, says: ‘It is a no brainer in 2016 to move from GSM-R to LTE, because there is virtually no work to be done.
‘What we did in 2010 was to offer our first LTE product for the rail industry, although not for voice; it was for broadband data inside the train. In 2014, we launched in partnership with one of the eLTE Alliance members the world’s first GSM-R/LTE dual-mode cab radio and our GSM-R/eLTE multi-mode infrastructure in Berlin. A customer today who buys a GSM-R system from Huawei can be migrated to LTE through a software upgrade; it is easy enough to do.
‘We are promoting the upgrade of GSM-R to LTE,’ he continues, ‘but it takes time and it is a very complex field. We are talking about 48,000km of just Huawei GSM-R stuff alone – and here are hundreds of thousands more kilometres of GSM-R.’
Different business models
Like many others in the industry, Huawei sees a number of different LTE critical communications strategies emerging. The first is a like for like replication of what a TETRA radio system provides today. The customer buys the base stations, puts in the antennas, and uses this for voice and broadband data on a private dedicated system.
‘At the other end of this spectrum of choice would be: I buy a SIM card and I have a piece of paper with corporate obligations which I have to follow up with SLAs for availability, security, and so on, set according to the amount of money I am willing to pay.’
In between we are likely to see many other different options, he believes. ‘For example, you could have a professional LTE network operator, who runs a professional network in the country, and offers services into different pillars in the market: fire, police, ambulance, even ground to ground support for airports.’
As an example of the latter, he points to eLTE Alliance member UK Broadband, which runs LTE systems on behalf of others and offers professional trunking and data services to ground staff at Heathrow Airport in the UK.
‘Greenfield TETRA deployments do not happen much in Europe now, as it is a mature market. It is more about how to migrate from an existing TETRA system to a future LTE system. Here we have two different worlds coming together,’ he says.
In the UK, the emergency services are migrating from TETRA to a Release 12 version of LTE for now (although network provider EE has said it expects to upgrade to Release 13 during the contract). However, Frisch worries that there a risk these proprietary, or pre-standard, implementations may become a commercial dead end.
‘So, our strong recommendation is to integrate existing TETRA networks into a Release 13 compliant LTE system. You can enable hybrid group calls and hybrid communications between TETRA and LTE subscribers through a gateway. These gateways are part of the specification being worked on in Release 14.
‘The important thing again is to ensure interoperability in Europe,’ he emphasises, ‘so ensuring adoption of Release 13 and 14 is a must. Narrowband and broadband communications is proprietary at the moment, so it could lead to complications regarding the subscriber base and feature issues, as well as issues in the supplier base.’
eLTE case studies
An example of how hybrid narrowband and broadband networks can work is the city of Nanjing in China, which maintains a TETRA radio system in the core of the city, but in the suburbs and outside the city it uses an eLTE system. Frisch refers to this as a ‘brownfield’ scenario.
‘The officers who have TETRA radios retain and keep using them, while the others just use eLTE enabled smartphones. The latter users can do group calls and messaging, but only they can see broadband video and data. The gateway manages the functions between the two radio standards,’ says Frisch.
In 2014, the solution was used for the Youth Olympic Games, which took place outside the city beyond the TETRA coverage range. ‘The city didn’t want to extend the TETRA system, so it just used our eLTE solution and ensured seamless interworking between the two systems,’ says Frisch.
In 2015, Huawei implemented more of a greenfield scenario in Kenya when it connected 196 police stations together with a single eLTE-based communications system. Frisch adds that the solution is also considered a smart city solution.
‘We provided 3,000 handheld radio terminals (with two cameras on each device) and there are 1,800 fixed installed video cameras, which either communicate over cable or eLTE depending where they are. Many of them are using eLTE, as you don’t want cables visibly hanging around,’ he says.
‘There is a new command and control system in place capable of handling 25,000 calls per day. Now the police are much more reachable by the public and so they are now much better equipped in terms of situational awareness and they have the ability to exchange information with their colleagues much more easily. As a result of this the crime rate has dropped,’ reports Frisch.
Huawei has 180 contracts across the world for eLTE together with its partners. The majority of these contracts, some 61 of them, come from the government and public safety, while another 23 come from wireless internet service providers (WISPs).
The third largest portion comes from the transportation sector where eLTE is used for live streams from vehicles into control centres and for providing data on the trains and for passenger information and display systems.
There is little doubt that Huawei is taking the critical communications sector very seriously indeed, as are its mobile infrastructure peers at Nokia, Ericsson and ZTE, all of whom will be looking to take market share in the fledging mission critical market, either by themselves or in partnership with the traditional PMR suppliers.