Etelm: punching above its weight

Nicolas Hauswald, CEO of critical comms infrastructure specialist Etelm, speaks to Critical Communications Today about the role that SMEs can play in this market and his company’s work in trialling mission-critical broadband with end-users

It could be argued that given the lack of spectrum available for dedicated public safety mobile broadband networks, there is a danger that in future, traditional mission-critical vendors will end up losing the majority of the infrastructure equipment sales to the large vendors that currently supply the bulk of the equipment used by commercial MNOs. What are your thoughts on that as a provider of both TETRA and LTE equipment?

It’s worth noting the amount of consolidation that’s taken place in the LMR market. Look at how many SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) that were manufacturing LMR infrastructure 15 years ago and how many of them are still here today – the market has consolidated, with larger companies playing a bigger role than they once did.

That said, the situation with LTE is a bit different. The vendor ecosystem that supports commercial operators is dominated by big companies, the equipment they produce is designed and built to support as many subscribers as possible, as that’s how the operators build their turnover. However, if we look at the push-to-talk market, especially the users coming from the LMR world that want to migrate to broadband, the focus is different. They have different needs and requirements, they have their own applications that they’ve developed on LMR and they want to develop similar things running over broadband networks. SMEs like Etelm can develop LTE equipment that is agile and flexible enough to exactly fit these requirements.

Another part of the equation is that LMR users are used to being able to manage the risks and responsibilities associated with their networks. The nature of critical communications is such that if they were to rely on a third party’s infrastructure and an outage had severe consequences, simply blaming it on their provider wouldn’t shield them from the resulting fallout. It is for this reason that we are confident that private mobile broadband networks have a bright future – and it will not just be the big commercial vendors that will provide the equipment
for these.

Can you discuss your current and recent work and that of your partners to explore the use of mission-critical broadband for tactical deployments and firefighters?

We have several ongoing pilots and more will take place before the end of the year. Some of them are full end-to-end solutions that are being deployed, but only in very restricted geographic areas because these customers want to test the new services and to make sure that the reliability is still there. The ongoing pilots are mainly in the transport and public safety sectors and they’re mainly about testing new services – I’d say half of the use-cases are about video to see what they can do with it and the benefits it provides.

From a first-responder perspective, one example of a use-case would be to have one officer in front with a camera on their helmet, which is broadcasting video to the responders behind them. It’s mainly small projects that are trying to prove that mission-critical LTE is reliable and can add much more value to what end-users are doing today. We have tested push-to-video (PTV), but some proprietary protocols were used, as we couldn’t find a partner that had a fully standardised PTV application. There are some challenges with PTV and I know that these are being currently discussed by TCCA and will be taken into account in future 3GPP releases for MCVideo.

Here in France, there’s a good environment from the perspective of innovative SMEs and we feel supported by the authorities.

What feedback have you received so far from the end-users in these pilots?

The feedback we’ve received has been quite good so far. Obviously, there are still limits when it comes to broadband’s bandwidth. For example, in France with Band 38, only up to 40MHz of spectrum is available (and this is sometimes shared among several users), so the bandwidth is not comparable to that of a fibre connection, but for the services that [our end-users] need such as video, it is enough.

For other services including reporting, exchanging information between people as well as some connected objects (telemetry, robots, vehicles and some other machines), the tests we’ve done so far have worked and our customers are happy.

What are your current priorities and what can we expect to see from Etelm in the near future?

We have several ongoing innovation projects; I can’t disclose too much right now, but we [will be able to say a bit more about them] in a few months’ time. We are working on new LTE infrastructure enhancements that can meet our customers’ many specific requirements. Our products are customised standard solutions – standard because it’s all 3GPP LTE, but customised because we provide products that are flexible and agile enough to be configured for each customer and their needs.

For example, we are currently working on adapting LTE so that it can handle some shunting procedures in the transport sector that are currently done with LMR. I should add that we’re not currently involved in FRMCS and LTE-R, but we are following developments
in these areas.

What are your thoughts on the transition from PMR to mission-critical broadband?

There is a need today for broadband, and the market is getting there. It’s taking time mainly because of issues
such as the fact that the necessary spectrum for private broadband networks is not yet available everywhere. That said, more and more countries are providing it and users
are gathering together and lobbying the authorities for
this spectrum. That’s something that we as an industry need to encourage.

Most users understand what broadband can bring to them and many of the users we’re speaking to have already started working on their business case for broadband and thinking about how to smoothly migrate from narrowband to broadband.

Do you have any advice for any organisations that are looking to migrate from PMR to broadband?

Grow smoothly, think about the risks and don’t migrate overnight. It’s easy to change technology quickly, but it’s very difficult to manage the risk if you do so. At the moment, many end-users don’t want to change because they’re happy with their current system, so we need to prove to them that broadband is as efficient and as reliable as narrowband for legacy services and that it can also enable new high-value services.

Going back to the idea of a gradual transition, customers can start by deploying broadband only in some specific areas, and it is possible today to have narrowband and broadband fully unified on a unique platform or interconnected via [a] gateway, so the users of both technologies can communicate with each other. They can still use their legacy technologies for all the services they have today (including voice) and add new broadband-based services like video on top of these.

You became Etelm’s CEO back in January, having previously been the company’s sales and marketing director since 2016 – how have you found the transition?

It was quite straight-forward. My appointment was well received by the employees as well, so the transition was quite easy. It’s also come at a good and exciting time given the transition that’s taking place in the market and in the technology and there’s a lot for us to do. My employees and I are benefitting from the strong foundations that Pierre Minot (Etelm's founder) built over the past 30 years.