North America's critical comms market: jumping the hurdles

(Sponsored by PowerTrunk) This year’s roundtable in Las Vegas focused on the obstacles facing US public safety agencies when, or if, they seek to migrate to mobile broadband for mission-critical voice. Sam Fenwick has the details

Once again, a group of critical communications professionals met on the sidelines of IWCE in Las Vegas to discuss the key issues facing the North American market. Chaired by TCCA chief executive Tony Gray, and sponsored by PowerTrunk, the participants in this 2019 Critical Communications Today roundtable were:

Richard Davis, business development manager, Collins Aerospace
John Monto, director – radio technology solutions, Collins Aerospace
Ken Rehbehn, founder and principal analyst, CritComm Insights
Neil Horden, chief consultant, Federal Engineering
Mark Pallans, general manager and COO, Pallans Associates Communication Consultants
Jose Martin, CEO, PowerTrunk
Keith Rhodes, VP sales, commercial markets, PowerTrunk
Peter Clemons, founder and managing director, Quixoticity
Steve Barber, acting CEO, Sepura
Terence Ledger, sales and marketing director, Sepura
Hannu Aronsson, chair of TCCA’s applications working group and head of application technology at Sepura
Harald Ludwig, chairman of TCCA’s technical forum

Gray kicked off the roundtable by asking the attendees to consider FirstNet’s progress and its implications for the LMR market and what might happen to the appeal of two-way radio systems once MCPTT has been successfully proven.

“I don’t know when the impact will take place because I don’t see LMR disappearing from public safety for another generation. [Broadband is] nice to have, it’s a nice adjunct, it’s not critical communications,” responded Mark Pallans.

Ken Rehbehn highlighted the well-known issues with a direct mode replacement for LTE and also a business challenge: “We have large-scale system suppliers that also provide devices and there’s limited motivation in those companies to transition handheld devices from the existing system technologies to an LTE primary technology because it will end up reducing demand for base stations on home technology. Technically there’s probably no reason why you can’t have a blended system, it’s all software and we know the evils that come with that, but it’s a solvable problem.”

He added that there is therefore a need for major customers to push the issue forward and said “[it’s] not going to happen in the US in all likelihood because we’re so fragmented”, and noted that large government customers in Europe and Asia might be able to ‘apply the power of the purse’. Rehbehn concluded that as public safety is “a conservative segment because lives are at stake, this will be a slow transition. So I think the folks who are making traditional LMR systems [will] probably be in pretty good shape for a while.”

Neil Horden emphasised the need to think in system lifecycles, adding that the typical lifecycle is 12-20 years, which is also the time it would take to achieve 50 per cent uptake of LTE “even if you said ‘[throw] the switch today’”. He noted that the industry as whole has only recently hit the point where digital technologies’ install base exceeds that of analogue. He also said in the US, public safety communications and LMR grew up in a symbiotic relationship – “so it is more than just a technology and a user group, their operation, their procedures and so on are built around it [LMR] and that puts a pretty high hurdle to MCPTT, it’s got to be [able to] not just replace what you imagine PTT on [LMR] does well, but even a lot of the things that it doesn’t do well that people are used to. We saw [that first] with direct mode.”

He concluded by predicting that as the US population is “very lumpy” in terms of its geographical distribution; this “makes covering wide areas with the density you need a difficult proposition”. He predicted that the suburban doughnuts around urban areas will be first to move to MCPTT as they have “enough density to justify the coverage, enough economic activity to justify the cost and small enough agencies to turnover equipment quickly”.

Rehbehn drew attention to one huge advantage that FirstNet possesses – “[Its] model takes the CAPEX commitment away from the [public safety] agency” – and he noted its appeal to some impoverished rural areas where AT&T will provide “good enough coverage”.

Horden responded by observing that an OPEX-based model is out of sync with the classic funding model for public safety communications, which like agencies’ communication procedures has evolved symbiotically with LMR – it being CAPEX-based and taking the form of a grant or “a state allocation from the state budget at a much higher level”.

John Monto said he believes the transition to MCPTT will take place once technology, funding and the lifecycle aspect all align. Peter Clemons added there is also the need to consider the “new generation of younger people with different mindsets [and] ways of operating… so even [though] I don’t necessarily disagree with what we’ve said, that LMR is going to be around for a long time, there will be pressures from the younger generations”.

In response to Rehbehn’s point that this is enabled by a hybrid environment, Clemons said: “But then it comes down to narrowing it down to as few hybrid options as possible. Because as soon as every country
[has] its own hybrid option, then that nullifies a lot of the whole global standardisation process that we’ve pushed.”

PowerTrunk’s CEO, Jose Martin (left of centre), said that his customers are not interested in services from commercial operators

PowerTrunk’s Jose Martin said the feedback he had received from his customers and potential ones is that they “are not interested in services provided by commercial operators”, due to the need for their supplier to meet five nines (99.999 per cent) availability: “There is no commercial service capable of doing that.” He added that customers such as New Jersey (Transit) or the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, among others (which have public safety-like requirements) had been investigating the market for years and concluded that TETRA was the right technology for them as its data capabilities support automatic vehicle location (AVL), “unlike other previously available technologies in North America” and due to the way that “commercial systems are never designed – that’s a matter of business model, it’s not technology – to be available 99.999 per cent of the time”.

He added that the same companies had also performed studies on CAPEX versus OPEX with respect to critical communications equipment procurement, and determined “that with commercial services there is no CAPEX, but the OPEX is much bigger, so in 10 years’ time they would pay much more for using a commercial service rather than buying [their own LMR system]”. Martin added that PowerTrunk offers integrated broadband/TETRA solutions which have a common single network management system for both technologies, as certain user-required applications may need broadband. “Clearly LTE has real value, but in our view it’s not a technology that will replace LMR, at least not in the foreseeable future.”

Gray noted that the consensus around the table was “that LMR has a lot of life left in it but that some level of coexistence and parallel running is the way to go for quite some time”. Horden noted that as the majority of public safety users switched to commercial 3G/4G services 15 years ago for data, this “parallel path started some point in the past”.

Interoperability – more than just the air interface
The conversation then moved on to the importance of ensuring that mission-critical broadband equipment is standards-compliant. Harald Ludwig said “only standards-based solutions give you interoperability” and noted that in this case, there is only one standard, which is MCPTT – in contrast to LMR, which has seen competing standards such as TETRA, P25 and Tetrapol. There was some discussion of the ETSI MCX Plugtests, which are working to validate the MCX standards (MCPTT, MCData and MCVideo), but as they focus on early implementation testing, they do not provide successfully participating vendors with an interoperability certificate. Ludwig added that “currently everyone can claim ‘I’m MCPTT-compliant’, but nobody can prove it”.

It is worth mentioning here that TCCA and the Global Certification Forum (GCF) are working to address the issue of MCX interoperability and certification. Gray discussed his recent visit to Mobile World Congress Barcelona where he spoke with test equipment manufacturers and the GCF, saying that “there is light at the end of the tunnel”.

Clemons added: “It’s a much more complex environment that we’re moving into and complex environments can always be taken advantage of by certain incumbents.” Steve Barber agreed with him and said that as a broadband device supplier, Sepura is being “forced in some cases to use applications that don’t necessarily have the APIs or interfaces available to a device supplier, are mandated that they run on certain operating systems which are restrictive from a functionality perspective and, therefore, if you’re not careful with this unstoppable drive towards broadband, you’re going to end up with a product and a service that doesn’t do half of the functionality that an existing narrowband LMR product [can do].”

He added: “We have a lot of customers around the world that are giving us that exact feedback – they’re really concerned because they’re driven down an Android route or whatever, they’re driven to a certain PTT application, but there isn’t the interfaces within the application to allow us to supply the functionality to link it to audio, link it to other parts of the data, which an LMR user is used to; he’s used to all these different accessories and interworking with local data accessories, which you can’t do. There’s a long way to go with MCPTT and mission-critical applications before we’re anything [near] the level of LMR.”

Barber also highlighted that air interface IOP testing and certification doesn’t deliver the functional interoperability that a user “does to operate efficiently day in, day out – it just says one device can talk to another over an air interface and that’s it, so there’s a more complex layer behind that which needs to be solved as well”.

There was then some discussion of how to achieve interoperability between LMR and LTE networks. Martin said “this is not too difficult” and that PowerTrunk is “proposing solutions to make LMR and TETRA configurable with FirstNet”. Gray then asked the attendees to consider the migration path from LMR to LTE in North America, the region’s specific challenges and how coverage and resilience can be delivered affordably.

Sunk costs, adjacent agencies and bravery
Mark Pallans said that historically the commercial/business segment has driven LMR development, given the much smaller number of public safety users, with radios being designed for business users and then adapted for first-responders. While he added that this will hold true for LTE, “you’re going to have millennials that want all these features, that’s going to drive the development of that product a lot faster than it would if it was just FirstNet, so when that starts occurring then the public safety market is going to not see a need – but they can see the availability of [those extra features]…and [this] has to be discussed and thought about”.

Another issue, this time raised by Horden, is that in US public safety, “you’re always working with your adjacent agency that you don’t have control over, so even if your agency were to make the cut[over to LTE], you’re still going to be in a coexistence world because the guy next to you didn’t”. He explained that there is also the problem of affordability during the transition as costs will be higher than normal when using two networks rather than one – “my concern is there are challenging questions nobody is even asking”.

Gray queried this, given that public safety agencies’ investment in LMR at this point is essentially a sunk cost. However, Horden noted that the shift to a software-based world has meant that there is now a significant OPEX component to LMR “that’s in the 10 per cent range – it’s not going to [be that] you can shut off the spigot and switch over, it’s going to be a costly transition that needs to be addressed”.

Federal Engineering’s Neil Horden (sitting at the head of the table) highlighted the way that the transition to mission-critical broadband is complicated by agencies’ need to interoperate with their neighbours

Clemons chimed in: “It will be interesting when some of the large state-wide systems come up for renewal at some stage and then there’s pressure from government, FirstNet, and [their] finance department[s].” He added that once a jurisdiction makes the switch to mobile broadband for voice, in the same way that some are closely watching the work to roll out the Emergency Services Network in the UK, “everyone will look to see the relative success or failure of that jurisdiction to see where they go for the future”.

He also asked: “Which fire chief, police chief, or local authority governor, is going to be brave enough to make that decision, knowing that it has consequences at some stage for [their] re-election? That’s when [it’s going to] start [getting] interesting.”

I said that it may be the case that if that initial transition turns out to be a success, public safety agencies might be able to switch quickly, given that it doesn’t require them to roll out a new network.

Richard Davis said an interesting example of a hard cut-over from LMR (iDEN in this case) to mobile broadband “from the commercial side that bleeds over into public safety” is Southern Linc’s CriticalLinc LTE network, which covers very rural areas, “and they support a lot of the public safety in those rural communities” – mainly small agencies that cannot afford their own systems.

The coverage question
Keith Rhodes highlighted the need for any mission-critical system to work inside buildings and in fringe areas. “[If you] grab a radio it needs to work immediately, it cannot work halfway or officers won’t do their job. We saw this happen in South Florida back in the 80s when the state started building out a radio system and they failed to [specify] a portable coverage area. Officers, state troopers refused to stop vehicles because their radios would not work. That’s the reality of public safety and first-responder communications in the US today.”

He also said that until what FirstNet promises “is proven and documented, it’s not going to happen. I just don’t see the rural buildout, and where’s the oversight for that? Who is bearing down on FirstNet to say [it has] to reach these counties?” I highlighted the competition that AT&T/FirstNet has with Verizon, and Rhodes agreed that this will help drive this.

As a sidenote, John Monto drew attention to the fact that several large cities now require, as part of the construction permitting process, that public safety communications have to be proved to work inside new buildings. Horden added that while this works very well when the jurisdiction setting the code is tightly aligned with the jurisdiction that owns the radio system, in the case of the most popular model for distributed antenna systems (DAS), the neutral host model, the unit is not owned by the building owner or managed by the “code enforcement group, so you’ve got this dichotomy [that] hasn’t been forced through the process yet to see how it’s going to work”.

This point was picked up by Rehbehn, who noted that every jurisdiction takes its own approach and that “there’s been nothing publicly stated as to how we’re going to make that transition. The LMR frequencies used today at the local level are controlled by the local agency. They own that frequency, can approve a repeater on that frequency and can supervise testing. The agency cannot do that with AT&T’s frequencies. So until AT&T and FirstNet Authority provide some guidance to an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) for local fire code regulations and enforcement on how to incorporate FirstNet into the Emergency Responder Radio Coverage System (ERRCS), we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Moving away from in-building coverage, Martin said that in the US, at least 50 per cent of police officers are still using analogue radio because “the dominant technology for public safety is extremely expensive”, adding that a P25 radio can cost around $5,000-$7,000. Horden later added that the price of a mid-line radio, in the quantities that public agencies buy them in, is around $2,500-$4,500. Martin went on to say that his company can offer narrowband complemented with broadband at a fraction of this price and that TETRA-using public safety organisations elsewhere in the world are paying significantly less than the sums mentioned. Sepura’s Barber added that at the high end of the market, it is possible to buy 15 TETRA radios for the cost of a single P25 radio. Horden noted that part of the reason analogue continues to be used comes from operational requirements (as is the case with firefighters) or economic reasons. He added that agencies, particularly in rural areas, are adopting other technologies such as DMR or Nexedge to go digital in a way that they can afford, and this “then creates another [interoperability] issue at the edges”.

Barber said part of the cost issue revolves around “standardisation and IOP and unless both are strong, you won’t have a very competitive market to keep the price down”. Horden added that there are less expensive P25 radios on the market, but agencies tend to opt for high-end builds: “Whether they need all the ruggedness they’re buying or whether they’re just impressed with it is another discussion. The competition in the TETRA market has driven a lot of that out. I have customers that have looked at radios that work identically technically and still choose the more expensive radio because that’s the one they trust.” He added that the person making the purchasing decision “gets very little reward for saving a few dollars but is in significant risk if something goes wrong”.

The direct mode conundrum
Gray shifted the conversation to the current thinking around how the need for an equivalent to LMR’s back-to-back/direct mode will be addressed by mission-critical broadband. He noted that while 3GPP had delivered ProSe (Proximity Services), “it’s not suitable. They’re not going to do anything else in 3GPP, it’s up to us.” While some have suggested that there might be some potential in the V2X communications being developed for 5G, Gray said that “with the experience of ProSe, I’m not putting too many of my eggs into that particular basket”. Horden highlighted that a different product to address this issue would break up the “volume numbers that drive the cost down, which is one of the big promises of moving to LTE”, while also slowing down the pace of technology revisions.

Clemons added: “In the meantime, you’re looking at imperfect solutions perhaps, such as tactical networks, deployables that have to be taken out on the fire truck or the police car to the incident and placed appropriately, because we know the limitations in the device itself.” Federal Engineering’s Horden added multi-network devices to this list, “which does increase the cost”. Ludwig emphasised the need for a standard: “The volumes are simply too small in mission-critical that we can afford to fragment this further into niche markets.”

Gray agreed with him and asked if simply hanging on to current LMR devices after their supporting infrastructure is switched off is an option. Horden replied, saying that this model already exists, with firefighters using direct mode analogue radios on the fireground, with the link between the team and dispatch being the incident commander who also has a trunked radio. Rehbehn added that this approach is shared by London Fire Brigade. Ludwig chimed in, saying that this approach doesn’t solve the interoperability issue: “If one [organisation] goes for DMR direct mode [and] the other goes for TETRA direct mode, they can’t work together. The second issue I see is you need [spectrum] for this.”

“There are a number of ways of killing this cat at the moment,” said Gray, “but unless everybody is killing the same cat the same way, we’re not going to have the interoperability and we’re not going to have the volume in the market, so we’re losing a huge amount of that promise of LTE being the global standard.”

North American project update
The last topic of discussion was the recent progress on TETRA projects in North America. Martin kicked this off by drawing attention to PowerTrunk’s recent win with Cooperative Energy – the resulting radio system will cover roughly two-thirds of Mississippi. It counts Diverse Power’s similar system, which PowerTrunk also supplied, among its neighbours and, according to Martin, the latter currently covers 60 per cent of Georgia. He added that public safety users are likely to join Cooperative Energy’s network, like they have with Diverse Power’s. Martin also said PowerTrunk has a project to provide Invista, a Texan polymer manufacturer, with critical communications and that it requires intrinsically safe devices.

Turning to the work that PowerTrunk is doing on behalf of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Martin said his company is supplying TETRA equipment certified for use in the 700MHz band (which is allocated to public safety) and the radios are capable of making P25 group calls to comply with the requirement for radios in that band to be able to operate on the nationwide interoperability channels. As the MTA holds spectrum in 700MHz and 800MHz, the radios are designed in both bands. Martin added that some of the handsets (around 1,300 – the project involves circa 8,000 buses) have already been shipped and that the first phase of deployment will begin this year with Staten Island.

Pallans briefly discussed the project to provide Bermuda with a new mission-critical narrowband network. He said the request for proposals (RFP) has been out for some time and that at the time of the roundtable, he was hoping to see the procurement process (which had been put on hold due to elections that replaced the entire government) resume within the next few weeks, as this would allow it to be completed before the end of this year.

Monto explained that as Collins Aerospace has completed its big push of replacing its airport customers’ iDEN systems with TETRA, it is now focused on meeting the needs of its existing customer base. His colleague, Richard Davis, added that one issue they have encountered is that “the airports tend to want to interoperate with the local jurisdictions and a lot of times it drives them towards a P25 solution; we fight that on [a regular] basis”. He added that airports have begun adopting PTT over Cellular apps on their employees’ smartphones at the low-end, non-mission-critical part of the market.

Martin said one problem with the debate around broadband versus narrowband is that “customers [are] putting investment on hold for years because they believe LMR is going to be replaced with broadband [and are] waiting for something that will never happen”. Gray added that this is a generic problem as the “gluing effect” resulting from the current hype around 5G is frustrating for “the people just trying to get things done today in today’s market”.

Clearly, while this debate is a fascinating one, it does have real-world consequences for the industry as a whole. It will be interesting to see how the conversation will have evolved in a year’s time, given the ongoing work of AT&T, the FirstNet Authority and Verizon and the mission-critical broadband projects under way in the UK and South Korea.