Next generation technology and the future of TETRA

Anil ShuklaDagfinn SjovikDamian ParkinsonDavid Charter LeaLee OliverTony Antoniou
James AtkinsonMalcolm QuelchNeil StoreyNeil WiffenSam SimpsonTony Gray




Sponsored by WirelessThe TETRA standard has developed a sophisticated range of functionality for voice transmission, as well as some data capability.

But with broadband technology now widely available to consumers, how can that be used to serve the mission-critical and wider public safety community?  

Wireless teamed up with Motorola Solutions, the TCCA and British APCO to discuss the future of mission-critical communications.

James Atkinson: How do you see technology progressing for public safety communications? We are largely looking at Europe here, but what’s happening in the rest of the world? Are we seeing evolution or revolution? 

David Chater-Lea: The question is one network or two networks? And evolution versus revolution. Part of it will depend on what we are trying to do with broadband technology. And part of it will be what we see as being the actual end game.

The Americans have gone down the route of trying to get a high-speed data network as soon as they can. They started 10-15 years earlier than us. That led them to put themselves on the back of 4G/3GPP technology, which has led to LTE. They’ve also gone down the spectrum route and increased their spectrum holding to 2x10MHz, which should provide some serious bandwidth.
In Motorola’s view, and as the ETSI chairman [ETSI TETRA WG4], if you pick up a broadband standard that has arisen from the commercial route, it doesn’t have the hooks and bits and pieces that you need for running all of the TETRA services over it.

So, if you see this as being a total replacement for TETRA, it doesn’t have the capability to do that right now. The Americans, in their parallel universe with Project 25, have come to the same conclusion. The existing APCO 25 networks will continue to supply the voice services and narrow band data services. That broadband is going to supply a high-speed data overlay, the streaming video services and all the good things that LTE brings with it.    

James Atkinson: Are we looking at two separate networks then?

David Chater-Lea: Where the technology is now and if spectrum was magically available today, there’s no alternative than to go down the route of using it as a second overlay on what’s already here. The long-term view is to sort out users’ requirements and map them into the technology.

What is it going to take to map the services we have today with TETRA – with all the different speech services? Then be able to run those over a broadband network? Perhaps starting afresh in 20 years time, all of it could be done over a broadband backbone. Technologically, the end game is a single network, but we are not there yet.

How we get there and what decisions people take in the intervening period is a mixture of economic decisions and decisions based around what we’ve started out with today. If you wanted to provide 99% coverage of land mass like the Airwave network does, then the jury is still out. Whether it is ever going to be economically feasible to do that with LTE technology isn’t clear.

That’s not to say in 10-15 years it won’t be. Today, the cost of high bandwidth connections back into the core networks is too expensive. Of course, in 10-20 years’ time there could be a different answer. You’re still going to see a mixture of technologies. There’s going to be a phasing and a blurring of technologies, but until we get some way into the future, you won’t see LTE as a replacement for TETRA.

Neil Wiffen: Taking a longer-term view, the way LTE is progressing it may happen sooner rather than later. There will need to be economic and political decisions made to get there. If you look at it from a pure capacity perspective, LTE can give more bits per second; per Hertz; per square kilometre than previous systems.

The LTE networks that are out there incorporate technologies that are well understood from the Wi-Fi and WiMAX ecosystems. There are the chipsets and apps already sitting on those networks. Plus, there are open discussions with user groups about providing something more fitting – in this instance, for public safety.

There are a lot more organisations eager to get into that game. With the military and commercial sectors, the ability to incorporate weird and wonderful applications is a lot faster than five years ago. There are a lot more people playing in that space. There’s a lot more applications from fixed networks being brought into the cellular network arena. It could be evolution or it could be revolution,
but there’s a different landscape out there, leading to the progression of these systems.    

James Atkinson: Is there more willingness to share IP? 

Neill Wiffen: There’s certainly more innovation and more willingness to co-operate with third parties. There’s an awareness of broadband capabilities hitting the streets. Whereas, traditionally, with conventional networks the vendors were very much tied in with the operators and consequently there were a small number of players in that space.

James Atkinson: How are things evolving towards a broadband future and how does TETRA fit in with that?

Dagfinn Sjøvik: From an operator’s perspective, there are a couple things that have come out. The focus is on the user experience and not a technical one. There’s a tendency to forget the user experience. For example, we’re still dealing with a single pilot test and there are a lot of things to do from a technical perspective. Right now, we need to make decisions about frequencies. Currently we need to get what we have now to work. We need to have apps and terminals seamlessly working together with data. So, in our project, it’s more evolutionary rather than revolutionary. We’ve seen apps from commercial networks that could form part of a TETRA data future. The problem is with critical apps running over commercial 3G or 4G – they haven’t needed security. That’s one of the dangers and we need to make the right decisions.

James Atkinson: Do you sense an appetite amongst your users for things to move faster than the existing TETRA networks can cope with?

Dagfinn Sjøvik: Is there really a user need? We’re dealing with Motorola and the option of TEDS (TETRA Enhanced Data Service). What are we going to use TEDS for if it only offers 80Kbps to max 157Kbps? We’ve not decided yet whether video is critical. So, in Norway we really don’t know right now. 

James Atkinson: Are end users demanding high definition video applications?

Neil Storey: Having just come from discussions of Next Generation 909, an ability to add in different video streams is there. Users will employ it more and more from a health perspective. From a telemedicine viewpoint, the ability to send patients’ images back to a central command point will prove useful. At the less acute end, there’s less of a desire for it but more a requirement for all kinds of mediums. 

James Atkinson: In terms of the ambulance service, what would you like to see? 

Neil Storey: The ability to have a protected network as well as video. We also do need a separate data network for patient confidentiality and the type of information we’re moving.

Malcolm Quelch: It’s an evolution not a revolution. The TCCA’s Spectrum group has been lobbying hard for a spectrum allocation harmonised for European broadband data, but there is nothing set aside yet. That lobbying has met a degree of success, but there’s no piece set aside for public safety. That’s a long play getting the spectrum identified and released.

The other thing that the TCCA has recognised is that there’s a lot of technological opportunity. It seems there’s a need to set up a different kind of body for the sort of users the TCCA represents, such as PMR users. They’d want no degradation in the experience from where they are now. They want to move forward seamlessly into a new environment. There will need to be changes to the LTE standards for that type of market. It’s a fairly long play.

We recognise that users today have other bearers for data besides TETRA. They use 2G and 3G alongside TETRA as an overlay on networks. As LTE is rolled out, those overlays can be extended to include LTE. The issue is when that becomes mission-critical. It’s like GPS, for example, which becomes mission-critical in certain circumstances.

The worry is that as people start to use apps and data, quite quickly that becomes mission-critical. The commercial LTE networks are not set up to support that. That will take some time to put into place and deliver. That’s why it’s about evolution. It’s partly spectrum and it’s partly about moving forwards in a way that builds on existing systems without starting afresh.

It’s about bringing data alongside voice rather than moving towards Voice over LTE (VoLTE), as that’s not LTE’s strong point at this time. There’s got to be time for LTE to deliver the sort of features that public safety services would want,, which supports the view that it’s evolution rather than revolution.

Sam Simpson: Agreed. It’s an evolution and it’s important that we approach it in a methodical way. It’s important to get our ducks in a row – whether that means looking at the US and then taking on-board the lessons they learn. It’s important to recognise what the US had to have in place in order to progress to the final product. Major events and disasters are central here and principal for this is voice not data.

For the police, it is different from the ambulance service – voice is key for immediacy of response. That’s all you have time to do – voice. You don’t have time to look at images or data. You have to rely on control staff managing the situation by voice. So, whatever evolves, it must have voice as the principal method of communication. It does need to be separate and dedicated to the public service –definitely.

Les Oliver: The question is, is there really a requirement for broadband data? The Strathclyde Police Authority use video and they send it via a dedicated bearer to the command vehicle. You can’t be sure if that is mission-critical. It’s clear that as facilities and features become more available to society in general, then the expectation is that emergency services have them. This starts to make them mission-critical.

If an incident occurs and streaming video helps contribute to limiting the loss of life and property, then it starts being seen by society as mission-critical. It seems inevitable that this demand for mobile broadband will continue to grow. It is evolution – many years and much work has been put into the TETRA specs.

TETRA broadly does what the public safety community needs it to do and that is reflected in its global popularity. TETRA provides the key functions of group talk and emergency calls – with LTE alongside as a high capacity data layer on top of that. That layer could be dedicated or it could be commercial, it’s difficult to be certain.

TETRA reaches 99% of the land mass but none of the commercial networks do that. So Ofcom’s latest thoughts on the LTE license [the forthcoming 800MHz and 2.6GHz UK spectrum auction] is that there will be stipulations which should require at least one license holder at 800MHz to either deliver to 95% of the population or provide coverage to match GSM coverage plus coverage for ‘not-spots’.

Legislation may drive a requirement for such systems, creating some synergies for a system like Airwave working with a commercial provider. If a version of commercial LTE supports the key features of reliability, security and the prioritisation of traffic, then there are no real arguments against it other than from a security perspective.

Damian Parkinson: I’d say we’ve already been through a bit of a revolution. There’s a challenge that we face with end users all the time. Anyone can walk into a shop today and buy a GSM mobile phone with an IP soft phone app. They can then communicate with a PC, tweet or go onto Facebook over the internet. They can do all that in 15 minutes.

So why does it take so long to get a TETRA radio to a user? They know what the phones can do and throw that straight back into our faces. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that within fire and rescue services (FRS), people aren’t using mobile phones for mission-critical purposes. They are sending mission-critical data across commercial bearers where they are no guarantees. That’s because they will use the tool they feel is most appropriate at that particular time. We’ve already seen a revolution through what smartphones have given them.

There is definitely a thirst for data that we’ve never seen before and the public is driving it. We recently had a major incident and the amount of information sent to us over Twitter and Facebook before our appliances even arrived was amazing. Admittedly, there were animals involved here! We have to be aware that this is the sort of thing the public will respond to.

That’s not to say that it has to be dedicated – it has to be blended, certainly, because of the coverage issue. We wouldn’t have 98% of the metalised roads covered by TETRA unless the Government had paid for it. Would it have been commercially viable for someone else? Probably not.

There’s maybe a need to be smarter with the way we engage with the commercial sector. We could offer to pay more if they can give us some guarantees. As an end user we pay our money and make our choice just like everyone else. If we had some leverage to ask the operators to give us some service guarantees over their commercial paying customers that will drive innovation.

The commercial sector is very, very good at innovation. Everyone knows what the networks can and cannot do – so the pace of change is very fast. It may be possible to slow it down to become more of an evolution, but it’s a revolution right now.

Dr Anil Shukla: What the user wants is a revolution in the way they use the data and what they think they can do with it. Because of their current expectations they are demanding a revolution. We cannot be 100% certain that they are demanding the right things. What processes are they going to be using? How are they going to be using that data and what changes are going to be made in policing structure?

So, there’s an expectation that there’s going to be a revolution in the amount of data they use. They need to manage what savings they make and how their procedures are going to change. The only way we are going to achieve that is through evolution, because we have already got a secure network with voice and some data through TETRA.

It will have to be an evolutionary process because nobody can afford to have a fully dedicated communications system for emergency services, as it will end up being horrendously expensive. A fully dedicated system is actually more vulnerable than a distributed system using different bearers for different requirements. That may give a natural resilience to these communications networks. It has to be an evolutionary process not just restricted to LTE. It has to use whatever bearers are available at the time, and then add security to that. They may come with a penalty in terms of the timeliness of data arriving. Not all data is mission-critical – unlike the defence field, which treats all data as mission-critical and where the highest levels of security are required. Even then it is only mission-critical when one piece of data is added to another piece of data.

So, having a completely separate dedicated network is going to be too difficult. It’s almost like requiring a whole new motorway to be built just for police cars. We need to find ways to exploit the technologies that are coming up. The commercial world is moving towards ubiquitous mobility. So, we should be trying to influence those standards and add in the benefits we want. LTE does not seem to have a suitable method for prioritising the traffic. But if we persuade them to provide it, then it will help the commercial LTE systems to do their load balancing.

Tony Gray: Picking up on the affordability issue, regardless of whether it is evolution or revolution, we have to build the business case and the value proposition for the amount of spectrum we want to take away from the high paying commercial operators. Plus, there’s the investment that the Government or operators will have to make.

The users will always want to have the latest and greatest, but unless we create a value statement that represents real benefit to the community we are going nowhere. There’s been some mention of TETRA 2, but within that standard there’s a wideband bearer capability. It’s not clear whether that particular capability had been fully explored before we headed off in an LTE direction.

We got terribly excited about full colour video from the scene of incidents when that represents a small aspect for critical comms networks. There’s a need for more exploration around what TETRA 2/TEDS could deliver. It’s a huge investment and there’s a requirement for spectrum, both of which are scarce resources. Regardless of the technologies involved, there always comes a point when you need to be able to justify the resources that a system will consume.

Tony Antoniou: Our members are not just the people that catch bad guys and take people to hospital, but the guys who make stuff and take it to market as well. We’re not just talking about the three blue lights – we’re talking second line responders such as beach rescue and those charged with protecting potentially dangerous assets.

The public’s attitude to how to make a 911 call is to hold up a smartphone’s video camera, point it at the scene and say: “Look! Why can’t you just go look?” There comes a point where the public expectations for what technology can provide confronts the reality for end users with words like resilience and security. An evolution is really a series of small revolutions.

During last summer’s riots, various forces had to combat the technology because ‘hoodies’ had amazing technology like BlackBerrys. They can move faster than our people. I saw flash mobs in Philadelphia that were stunningly fast. This speed could be counteracted by WWII tactics of disinformation and misinformation. Getting onto the social networks and providing the odd ‘bum steer’, for example. It’s not a top down, thought-through PSRCP-type (Public Safety Radio Communications Project) action, but just some smart chaps who thought: “We can do some good here.”

Somewhat contentiously, there are so many different technologies emerging that it’s fair to say that nobody represented here could stop them, simply because some good can always come out of them. TETRA isn’t going anywhere because it isn’t broke. The reality is that we have an amazing push-to-talk capability with TETRA, there’s no reason why it could not be supplemented.

The issue comes when technology becomes relied upon and has actually become critical. When an app fails to prevent a fatality, that doesn’t show a failing in the technology – more that we haven’t made that bit critical yet.

Having gone to the US to support the D Block lobbying for Senator Rockefeller, it meant answering hard questions like: “What will happen in Europe?” The answer was that in Europe we’re all a bit broke and we aren’t going to put 4G masts across the continent. There’s no equivalent level of investment in Europe.

Then the question of Quality of Service (QoS) emerges. From an emergency services perspective, how do we know what advances will be made in the next two to five years? What does QoS really mean? In some small US towns they’ve only just got SMS on their phones. There’s talk about areas of no coverage in Europe, but the Americans have some areas the size of an English county.

One of the facilities most tested and researched in the European Union (EU) has been cross-border communications. There’s the mythical case of Belgian blue lights racing towards the German border and suddenly there are no more comms. Some chaps in the EU then asked how often this kind of incident happens, and it has actually only happened twice in five years.

How do you gather your requirements when they are based on an understanding of what is possible? Especially when there are technologists who would say that you are 10 years behind what can be done.

James Atkinson: It looks as though LTE or some equivalent may eventually be used for both voice and data mission-critical communications. But it seems that in the interim a variety of mixed technology solutions will be used depending on national policies, available spectrum and funding.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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