Public services pull together for spectrum

06 Jun 2012

Public safety agencies are starting to join forces with other public sectors, such as airport authorities, transport systems and utilities, to gain more of a critical mass when lobbying governments for additional broadband spectrum, which most would prefer to auction off to commercial carriers to generate revenue.

This was a key issue raised at the TETRA World Congress in Dubai last month. TETRA, for those not familiar with the standard, is private-trunked radio used by the public-safety sector as well as industries such and transport and energy.

Jolly Wong, chief telecom engineer with Hong Kong Police Force's information system unit, told that his strategy is to look at all essential public services, not just the police but public transport - as it moves to fully automatic operations (FAO) or driverless trains, which need video surveillance - as well as public utilities with the move to smart grids.

"If it's only public safety, it will be hard to justify our fair share. If all these public services come together, it will give us more influence to get our fair share of spectrum," Wong said.

In the US utilities are being encouraged to partner with critical-infrastructure providers to gain access to the broadband frequencies that support smart grids. Together they would gain financial clout and reduce the required capex and opex each has to cover.

The TETRA sector is tiny compared to commercial mobile networks -- with fewer than 2.5 million users globally (under three million expected by 2022) and annual device and infrastructure revenue of about $1 billion. By sharing spectrum and networks with users from other sectors, public-safety operators will have greater economies of scale, which can bring down prices.

With rising data usage among public safety professionals who use PMR (professional mobile radio), many are turning to public high-speed mobile networks. A recent IMS Research survey found that 14% of PMR users have used commercial networks to exchange data.

TEDS, the TETRA high-speed data service, is currently their best option for "mission critical" data, but has limited bandwidth (with data rates of up to 500 kbps), thus the interest in LTE. While it can handle location and many web apps, it can't support high-resolution content.

What is developing in the industry is the use of two different devices for voice and data, mixing the private and public networks. Users increasingly have a secondary device for data services, which runs on public networks.

The increasing demand for data and the trend toward LTE raise the question of how the PMR industry can support data in the future. "We have to be realistic. In Europe we need spectrum -- in the 700-MHz band, which could become available but is six to seven years away," says Airwaves Solutions CEO Richard Bobbett.

Most insiders say it's not realistic to have harmonized frequencies in Europe by 2020 -- later that decade is more likely. Harmonized spectrum for public safety is on the ITU's agenda in 2015, and some countries in Asia are looking at the 700-MHz band for public safety.

Agencies in Europe and Asia are certainly envious of the US, where the government recently allocated 2 x 10 MHz in the 700-MHz band and $7 billion in funding to start to build out a nationwide public-safety LTE network.

IMS Research expects the private LTE market to develop slowly over the next ten years, due mainly to limited spectrum as well as tight government budgets. But everyone agrees the long-term future of the market will increasingly be LTE.

The TETRA + Critical Communications Association doesn't forecast deployment of mission critical LTE until 2026. That's a long time and certainly good for TETRA vendors working to extend the life of TETRA before the final migration to LTE in the later half of the next decade.

Seems the typical timeframe to migrate to a new technology is still 15-20 years -- although with competition from Wimax, LTE managed it quite a bit faster than that. As soon as LTE supports voice, there is little doubt that the TETRA sector will see that 2026 date pushed forward. Just look at the gap between the cycle-out time of a secondary data device, which is just two to three years, compared to five to six years for TETRA devices. The wonders of economies scale!

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