Chair, TCCA Critical Communications Broadband Group: “Acceptance of LTE… has created an opportunity for critical communications”
Tony Gray, chair of the TETRA & Critical Communications Association (TCCA) Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG) will be speaking at the LTE World Summit, the premier 4G event for the telecoms industry, taking place on the 24th-26th June 2013, at the Amsterdam RAI, Netherlands. Ahead of the show we speak to him to get a snapshot of why LTE is proving to be such as great fit for Critical Communications.
What are the most fundamental requirements for a Public safety/critical communications network and why does LTE fit the bill rather than any other proprietary technology?
It is important to appreciate in considering this question that, traditionally, public safety and other critical communications markets worldwide have employed a variety of different standards-based, but nonetheless somewhat application-specific technologies, such as TETRA, TETRAPOL, P25, and in the rail sector, the GSM variant GSM-R.
All of these technologies are primarily defined to provide highly efficient and effective voice communications services, and in some cases narrowband data capabilities such as short messaging, status, etc. They have been, and will continue being, successful because they deliver demonstrably well against the particular needs of critical communications users. For example these include reliable, resilient, primarily groups-based operation, fast call set-up, and off-network, device-to-device working.
Such demanding requirements are not well met by more mainstream, consumer-led commercial market standards such as GSM and UMTS, which has meant that the more critical communications-specific solutions have only addressed relatively lower volume markets, counted in millions rather than billions of users globally. Consequently, overall ‘cost per user’ in critical communications markets has traditionally been relatively high, both for infrastructure and in particular terminal devices.
The increasingly widespread acceptance of the LTE standard over other mobile broadband technologies has created an opportunity for the critical communications sector to potentially benefit from economies of scale in a far wider global market, by leveraging the relatively vast ecosystem being opened up by commercial LTE deployments throughout the world.
For example, if critical communications devices of the future could be based around the same core chipsets as commercial market LTE devices, with additional market-specific functionality and features perhaps being added as necessary at the application layer level, this could dramatically impact the likes of new product development costs and timescales, and thereby widen the overall market and reduce prices.
Similarly, if the LTE standard supported fundamentally required features such as group working, device to device operation, etc., commercial operators could potentially offer critical communications services as well in the future. That is, of course, always assuming that it were to prove practical and cost effective for such operators to enhance their networks and service delivery standards to provide adequate levels of, for example, coverage, security, reliability, resilience, and guaranteed access to capacity on demand.
So all of the foregoing assumes we ultimately succeed in the current efforts to adapt the LTE standards to incorporate those fundamental functionalities that are absolutely required by critical communications users, such as groups-based operation, with fast call set-up and off-network, device-to-device working.
Can LTE really offer all the security, reliability and resilience necessary for critical communications?
In practice, all things are possible in terms of delivering adequate levels of security, reliability, resilience, subject only to the availability of sufficient resources.
By ‘resources’ in this context I mean not just the necessary funds for investment in and operation of critical communications mobile broadband services, but also in terms of the industry time and effort necessary for standards and product development, plus, crucially of course, the assignment of adequate spectrum in appropriate bands in which to operate such services.
In the latter respect, our colleagues in North America and most recently Australia have already had some successes in persuading their administrations’ politicians and regulators of the value and importance of critical communications to the safety and security of their communities and critical infrastructures. Thus in those regions, suitable spectrum has been assigned, and considerable effort and investment has already being expended, towards delivering a common, standards-based solution for critical communications mobile broadband services.
We in Europe were lagging somewhat behind in these terms until last year. However we are now organised and mobilised, for example through the Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG) which I chair, and we have been working hard in close collaboration with other stakeholder groups worldwide to meet our common goals. These essentially boil down to:
- a common, global standard for critical communications mobile broadband, based on the inclusion of critical communications required functionality within the core LTE standard, and
- adequate, plus as far as possible harmonised, spectrum in which to operate it.
What are the key challenges around setting up an LTE network for critical communications?
The challenges in setting up a critical communications network are not fundamentally different to those for any other network. The differences are mainly in the vital need for enhanced levels of capability for critical use, for example in terms of depth of network coverage, security, reliability, resilience, and guaranteed capacity on demand, over and above those traditionally considered adequate for mainly commercial use networks.
To be effective, a critical communications network must be available ubiquitously wherever its users might ever need to have access to it, at all times, and most particularly during times of crisis, natural or man-made disasters, security alerts and so on. These are exactly the types of situation that traditionally cause problems of overload and / or outage for commercial networks.
For example, natural disasters such as storms, floods and earthquakes, plane or train crashes or other such crisis situations can and do occur in the most remote of geographic locations. Just because it’s a sparsely populated area doesn’t mean that emergency services, critical infrastructure engineers, security personnel and the like will never need to work there.
So the challenges in critical communications are about designing in and delivering those key elements that set such networks apart from run-of-the-mill commercial operations.
What are the key challenges around reserving spectrum for Public Safety uses?
Developing and presenting to administrations, politicians and regulators the arguments around the fundamental value and importance of critical communications to the safety and security of our communities and critical infrastructures is to my mind the key challenge. These arguments have to be concise, cogent and compelling enough to clearly define the strategic value proposition for allocation of such relatively scarce and valuable resources as spectrum.
That’s why the CCBG has assigned a specific working group to the task we’ve defined as developing the ‘Strategic Case’. I personally see this as perhaps one of the most important work streams we have to deliver, and some very knowledgeable and capable people in the sector are working hard on it as we speak.
Voice is surely vital for critical communications – how important is the VoLTE standard to you?
Voice is indeed, and we believe will continue to be, fundamental to critical communications operations. We don’t expect this to change for the foreseeable future, with or without the introduction of critical communications mobile broadband services.
In Europe and many other regions of the world, critical communications voice and narrowband data service requirements are already very well met by current PMR/LMR standards and technologies such as TETRA, TETRAPOL, P25 and in the rail sector GSM-R. Some of the older of these networks are coming to end-of-life and will require refresh in the 5-10 year timeframe, however others are very recently in service, or even still in the process of being implemented today. The latter class of network owner will require that the considerable investments they have already made be amortised over a number of years hence before they consider further expenditure on a technology refresh.
For these reasons, here in Europe particularly we do not see a particular urgency specific to implementing voice services over LTE, whether by VoLTE or any other means. VoLTE remains a relatively immature technology, and it is noteworthy that even several commercial operators have recently been scaling back or delaying their voice over LTE deployments.
The main imperative from the majority of our users’ perspective for the meantime is for critical communications mobile broadband data services, including but not limited to the likes of video, telemetry, and real time access to other such rich data sources.
All of the foregoing having been said, we are however conscious that some other regions, in particular the USA, have slightly different imperatives and drivers regarding the importance of delivering voice as well as data services as soon as possible over a critical communications mobile broadband bearer. We will work with those partners and closely follow the related developments to try to ensure that our common aim of a single, global standard for critical communications mobile broadband is delivered, whatever the application.
Is the LTE hardware community up to speed on the needs of the critical communications sector?
Through 3GPP, where all the relevant major telecoms standards development organisations, manufacturers, operators and other interest groups collaborate, equipment manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware of the particular needs of the critical communications community.
Indeed, some of the main traditional suppliers to the public safety/critical communications world have been working hard as part of the 3GPP standards specification process, and in many cases including through their involvement in the CCBG, to bring their more mainstream commercial market counterparts up to speed on the user requirements and use cases for particular critical communications features, including group working (3GPP GCSE_LTE) and device-to-device operation (3GPP ProSe).