Reflecting on how the industry has evolved during his 10 years as CEO of the TCCA, Phil Kidner, observes: ‘I think the critical communications world has changed in the last 10 years, but that is not unusual as it keeps changing. When I started in 2006 the TETRA two-way radio standard was at its peak. There were a lot of national networks going in with the first ones only four or five years old at that point.’
Asked how the TCCA changed over the period, Kidner says the key evolution has been from a sole focus on the TETRA radio standard to a wider focus on critical communications of any ilk. Hence, the change of name in 2011 from the TETRA Association to simply the TCCA.
‘As we know the PMR market is tiny relative to the consumer market,’ he says. ‘The Chinese might want to use PDT, the Americans P25 and the Europeans TETRA, but the issues are the same, so it is in our interest to co-operate for the benefit of those critical communications users.
‘In 2016, we reviewed where we are again and made a significant change,’ he continues. ‘Now we’re not focused on the standard – as long as it is an open standard - we are here to support and deliver solutions for critical communications. Clearly our heritage is TETRA and that is our expertise, but we would be happy to support the user choice.’
The change to a wider technology focus has partly been prompted by the development of other digital PMR standards, such as DMR, dPMR and PTD, and partly by the advent of 3G and 4G LTE broadband technology, driven by the rapidly evolving mobile phone industry.
Some believed that broadband would decimate the PMR industry. Kidner has no doubt that broadband technology will be used for mission critical communications, but he feels its predicted dominance has been overstated. ‘What we have seen in the last couple of years is the realisation that LTE, or whatever shape of broadband it is, is not the panacea,’ he says.
‘I do not see PMR, whether it is TETRA, Tetrapol, P25 or DMR being completely replaced by LTE. There will be a continual role for PMR for a long time to come. That is evidenced by countries like The Netherlands and Finland, which are renewing their TETRA networks. Even FirstNet in the USA, which is a broadband LTE network, can be regarded as a hybrid network - in the medium term anyway,’ Kidner points out.
‘Broadband will undoubtedly be part of the future,’ he affirms, ‘but I think it will be delivered in conjunction with PMR. You can already see PMR manufacturers positioning themselves in different ways to deliver that. Some offer dual mode devices, others are trying to join the two together, for example.’
TCCA’s key achievements
Beside the wider focus, if he was to point to the main achievements of the TCCA over the last 10 years, Kidner says he would highlight a number of key changes. ‘Clearly getting TETRA approved in the USA in 2012 was a huge step forward as it is an enormous market. It was a long process as it was in the interests of some people to drag negotiations out for as long as possible.’
Another major achievement was the TCCA becoming a market representation partner for 3GPP, which writes the technical standards for the mobile phone industry. ‘We see that 4G or 5G broadband is going to be a key part of what we do in the future, so we have to make sure that our 44 million PMR users have a voice in 3GPP alongside the seven billion consumer mobile phone users.
‘That disparity in numbers makes it hard,’ he acknowledges, ‘but I am very pleased that 3GPP has listened to what we had to say. The creation of the SA6 Working Group looking specifically at critical communication requirements has been a huge step and we should not underestimate that.’
Kidner also cites major changes to the Association’s events programme. ‘In 2006, there was no TETRA World Congress, just regional events,’ he recalls. The TCCA now runs its Critical Communication World event once a year, alternating inside and outside Europe, and it holds satellite regional events in Middle East and North Africa. It also still runs stand-alone TETRA events: for example, it held two events in South America and others in Cambodia and Vietnam in 2016.
Spectrum for broadband
The other activity Kidner is very proud of is the TCCA’s lobbying campaign to secure additional spectrum to deliver broadband services for critical communications users. ‘Nobody has been pushing for spectrum for critical communications users, as it has always been seen as a national issue,’ he explains.
‘We focused on trying to get some harmonised spectrum for critical communications users in Europe because that involves 28 countries. But the lessons we learned from obtaining spectrum for Europe relate to the whole world. However, more still needs to be done on this subject.’
Last, but not least, Kidner points out that although the TCCA has widened its focus, it has not forgotten its TETRA origins. ‘We have kept TETRA relevant; it has not stayed still,’ he says.
‘People say it is old technology, but that it not the case. The original specifications were published around 2000, but today TETRA is a much better product than it was then. We have taken all the new developments, put them through the standardisation process and then incorporated the changes into the testing process.
‘For example, you can now buy TETRA pagers and know they will work on any network, so that is a virtuous circle. And that still happens today as we have a very active Operator and Users Group who are still bringing in new requirements today and putting them through that process.
‘We think having these common standards has been the key to the success of TETRA. We run an interoperability process for TETRA with about 20 manufacturers involved. You can therefore buy TETRA equipment and radio terminals with confidence,’ asserts Kidner.
He notes that this has created a global market place for TETRA where all the manufacturers are engaged in the process, as well as competing with each other. The consequences of this has driven up the functionality and pushed down the price - to the benefit of the end user.
Future of PMR and TETRA evolving
Looking ahead, Kidner says: ‘The first thing I really genuinely want is for critical communications end users to make their own decisions, so they have the best tools to do the job. If they want to deploy P25 or DMR Tier 3 rather than TETRA, that is their choice.’
However, Kidner believes that in many parts of Europe at least we are most likely to see hybrid networks of one sort or another emerging in the next 10 to 15 years. A number of European countries, such as The Netherlands, are upgrading their TETRA network for mission critical voice services and then accessing some kind of broadband technology to provide users with data services.
‘In 15 years’ time the Dutch will have another decision to make: stick with PMR, or migrate to LTE 4G or maybe 5G. It is the same for the Germans, Norwegians, Belgians, Finns and Swedes. So, a hybrid model of some sort seems to be the immediate to medium term future, possibly even the long-term future,’ says Kidner.
He points out that even countries with easy access to both finance and spectrum, such as the Middle East, are following the same hybrid path, rather than moving everything over to 4G LTE.
‘That shows it is not just about the money and availability of spectrum, it is about the functionality,’ argues Kidner. ‘If you are a mission critical user you want proven technology that works first time, every time. So, as good as some of the LTE promises are, we want to be able to see them, touch them and feel them in an operational environment first.’
TETRA still growing
Despite all the talk of 4G LTE, Kidner is quick to point out that TETRA sales are still on the up. There are 3.6 million TETRA terminals being used today and research organisation IHS is forecasting this will increase to an expected five million by 2020. The biggest growth areas are Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, but overall the technology is still seeing year on year growth.
‘Broadband is definitely part of the future,’ he reiterates, ‘but it is not the whole future and PMR does still bring critical needs to the table: coverage and capacity where you want it, when you want it. If you can’t get LTE coverage where you want it, you will need to find an alternative,’ says Kidner firmly.
Finally, Kidner says: ‘Our members are organisations and we have 150 or so of them, but it is the hundreds of staff who work as volunteers with us who make all these things happen. They all have day jobs and they do not have to come and support us and help us do what we do, but they do. Without them we couldn’t achieve anything, so I’d like to say a big thank you to all of them.’
Critical Communications Europe takes place on 8-9 February 2017 at the Bella Centre, Copenhagen, Denmark