TCCA exclusive: ruminations on retirement

Prior to standing down from his post, outgoing TCCA chief executive Tony Gray offers some thoughts on the development of critical communications over the last 50 years.

As I contemplate my upcoming retirement, sitting down to draft this piece, I’m prompted to set the scene via a whistle-stop review of a career in telecoms spanning almost 50 years. More than half of this time was focused on the critical communications sector.

One unavoidable conclusion from such glorious hindsight is that all those ‘Moore’s laws’ and other prophecies, about the dramatic rates of change in the power, size and capabilities of technology are undoubtably true. Somewhat incredibly, when I first started work back in the early 1970s, the commercial computers we used probably had little more raw power than the subsequent, and now legendary, Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer.

They filled a two metre-high equipment rack, had terminals with green monochrome screens, anything up to 64Mb of ferrite core memory, and ran on 10Mb removable hard disks with platters the size of outsized dinner plates. Teletypes running at 110 bps were the universal means of printed data communication and fax machines - let alone mobile phones, the Internet or GPS - remained still to be invented.

The first radio project I worked on was for voice-only train radio communications, based on a VHF analogue system. Then came a radio data system for the security services, which was also VHF analogue, with tiny monochrome CRT devices in vehicles communicating at a whopping 300 bps! That was pretty much state of the art at the time.

I don’t recall we aspiring young engineers knowing, much less caring, about standards in the technologies we worked on in those early days. Most systems were proprietary to their manufacturers and rarely, in any real sense, interoperable.

In fact, the first standard I became properly aware of was probably MPT 1327 for trunked radio, which was first published in 1988, with the ETSI TETRA standard following later in 1995. Of course, TCCA’s predecessor organisation, the TETRA MoU Association, - and all those pioneering individuals and organisations involved in it - became the vehicle for advancement and promotion of the standard globally. Their success in this undertaking can be clearly seen in the dominance TETRA achieved, and its continued standing as the pre-eminent solution for critical voice and short data communications.

Since then, and certainly throughout the subsequent independent consulting and TCCA parts of my career, standards have become my mantra and form a fundamental basis for the technological world we live and operate in.

TETRA could not have become the global success story it is without its basis in standards, as well as the many manufacturers who saw it as an opportunity to grow a market through competition, innovation and, perhaps most importantly, interoperability. The world renowned TCCA IOP programme has been, and will continue to be, a basis for independent certification that equipment from vendor ‘A’ properly interconnects and interoperates with that from vendor ‘B’ in a standardised way.

Users and operators have learned to trust and require this certification and the TETRA market as a whole has benefited hugely from the assurance it gives. Hence why TCCA together with GCF and other interested parties are now pursuing an extended and enhanced form of device certification for the critical broadband standards generated by 3GPP.

TCCA’s partnerships and collaboration with the likes of 3GPP, ETSI and GCF have become vital contributors to our continued work in catalysing, developing, evolving and evangelising standards for the future of critical communications globally. Without 3GPP there would be no single forum for the creation of state-of-the-art mobile standards, and without GCF there would similarly be no trusted single point of focus for the testing and certification of functioning and interoperation of devices designed to conform to 3GPP standards. I’m proud to have played a small part in nurturing TCCA’s relationship with these and other important partners, and have full confidence that they will endure and develop long after I’m no longer at the helm.

There is another area of TCCA’s partnerships and collaborations specific to standards and conformance which is bearing considerable and valuable fruit. This is with TCCA member the University of the Basque Country and the various other companies and organisations involved in the consortia which delivered the MCOP (Mission Critical Open Platform) project. This is now well advanced towards the conclusion of the MCS-TaaSting (Mission Critical Services Testing as a Service) development. Both of these projects benefited from funding provided by the US NIST Public Safety Innovation Accelerator Program. Our friends and colleagues in the USA such as NIST, and also, of course, FirstNet have been hugely important in catalysing developments in critical broadband as a whole.

Beyond standards writing, equipment development and conformance testing there of course sit the end users who need and want the latest solutions to deploy as vital parts of their work and operations. Here again TCCA provides a platform for collaboration, information exchange and cooperation, perhaps most cogently exemplified recently by the Government Authorities Global Village (GAGV) which formed an integral part of the highly acclaimed Critical Communications World (CCW) event held in November in Madrid. The information exchange and dialogue enabled by the GAGV on topics such as plans and strategies for broadband deployment appears to have been very well received by all parties involved in CCW ’21. It will undoubtedly become a fixture for future such events.

In conclusion, it’s clear that 50 years is an awfully long time in tech terms. However, it’s exciting to see just how much benefit can be achieved through collaboration and cooperation between like-minded individuals and organisations towards the common good. Onwards and upwards towards an even brighter future TCCA - and the whole critical communications community!

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