Mapping a strategy for public safety LTE

Phil Marshall/Tolaga Research
CommunicAsia Show Daily

Mobile networks are designed primarily to serve mass market consumers, assigning each user equal priority over available network resources. But LTE solutions are also being developed for mission-critical connectivity, where prioritized access is needed. Demand for business-and mission-critical connectivity solutions is growing rapidly and will become an important revenue stream for mobile over the next five years.  

Mission-critical LTE solutions operate today for public safety, mining, transportation, utilities, and the oil and gas industry. Each have unique connectivity demands. For example, public safety agencies such as law enforcement, fire and rescue and first responders, have deployed their own trunked radio networks using a variety of technologies including analog, TETRA, Tetrapol and P25.

This has created large tapestries of siloed networks - in the USA alone there are over ten thousand public safety networks. These networks performed terribly on 9/11/2001 and during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

South Korea’s legacy public safety networks performed poorly during a ferry disaster in 2014. These tragic events serve as primary drivers for the US and South Korean governments to spearhead LTE network deployments for public safety. 

In some European countries, nationwide TETRA networks have been deployed to consolidate legacy networks and address interoperability challenges. But these networks are inherently narrow-band and can’t support the slew of broadband data and video applications being developed for public safety.

It’s not surprising that LTE is the lead contender for next-gen mission-critical networks, but the technology has challenges. Suitable radio spectrum, network resources, and funding are required. Advancements to the LTE standards are needed to achieve feature transparency with TETRA, Tetrapol and P25 for voice services. 

In most cases, funding resources and business models are insufficient to support dedicated LTE network deployments. This drives some government regulators towards innovative strategies on public safety. 

The first strategic step for regulators: determine whether dedicated public safety spectrum should be allocated, or whether public safety networks should rely on licensed commercial spectrum. In many markets, 700 and 800MHz spectrum is earmarked for dedicated public safety licenses. While this spectrum has favorable coverage characteristics, we believe that regulators should also pay attention to the 450MHz spectrum because of its improved coverage for public safety networks. 

Once spectrum resources have been identified, LTE networks and their associated funding models are needed. In some cases, such as in - Korea, Qatar, Dubai-dedicated LTE networks are being rolled out for public safety. But most markets can’t afford dedicated networks solely intended for public safety. Instead, other services such as consumer and enterprise broadband and business-critical applications are used, and direct government funding supports the costs to implement mission-critical functionality.

As the mission-critical functionality for LTE voice services requires further standardization to achieve feature transparency with TETRA, Tetrapol and P25, some public safety network providers, are opting to limit LTE to data services and continue to rely on TETRA or P25 for delivering voice services.

It’s not a matter of if, but when, public safety LTE is ready for prime-time. We believe that all nation-states must establish public safety LTE strategies that align with their local demands. In addition, it’s important that the industry as a whole recognizes that use-cases will change as a new generation of public safety agents take over the reins.

Dr Phil Marshall is chief research officer for Tolaga Research

This article first appeared in CommunicAsia2017 Show Daily Newspaper

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