TCCA: standing the test of time

As TCCA is celebrating 25 years since it was founded as The TETRA MoU Association, there is no better time to hear from Tony Gray, its chief executive, about the association’s past, present and future

How has TCCA’s role evolved since it was first founded?

Clearly, we are not the same organisation we were 25 years ago. We’ve grown substantially for a start – from the original handful of founders to more than 140 members worldwide today. That said, the core principles of support for and promotion of the benefits of international standards have remained unchanged. From our beginnings when The TETRA MoU Association was dedicated to the development of one specific critical communications standard in ETSI TETRA, we have evolved to endorse a range of global standards for mission- and business-critical users, not least of course the 3GPP 4G/5G critical broadband suite.

Furthermore, our structure and composition, for example of Working Groups and task forces, has also grown and evolved over time to encompass today and tomorrow’s requirements and realities, and we have extended our reach through a number of active partnerships with other relevant organisations around the world.

What do you think are the main factors that have contributed to TCCA’s longevity?

I believe we have been recognised as an independent expert advisor and supporter to our membership. For example, in this role we’ve been successful in assisting end-users and operators to make informed and co-ordinated choices in a world where commercial competition and proprietary solutions will always necessarily compete with standardised alternatives. At the same time, we support and enhance the development and promotion efforts of other vital stakeholders in the critical communications sector, including the likes of industry and standards bodies. Thus as an overarching non-partisan “umbrella” across the whole global ecosystem we have gained and retained a peerless reputation and standing as the go-to authority in all aspects of critical communications.

Which upcoming technologies are you most excited by?

Let me say from the outset that 45 years in the mobile communications business have taught me the hard way that even trying to look and predict around the corner by a few years to future technologies can prove difficult, if not impossible. So, in my experience it’s best not to get too excited or over-hyped before reality is achieved.

With that said, of course, I’m keen to see the fruition of the work we and our members have been doing on critical broadband over the last seven years or so in 3GPP, and particularly what impact the use of applications such as
video, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, etc can have on
the daily lives of our user communities once adequately hardened mission-critical broadband bearers for such services are in place.

A huge chunk of the sector’s value lies in communications infrastructure and the services that support it. With the use of dedicated broadband networks looking less likely due to spectrum and cost constraints and public safety agencies looking to use public networks, what can narrowband vendors to do to ensure that all this value isn’t captured by the large telecoms vendors that currently supply public mobile network operators?

As you say and, as usual, it’s primarily all predicated on the lifeblood of any mobile communications solution, ie, spectrum. If current initiatives to persuade regulators of the benefits of making narrowband spectrum in sensible bands available for private networks bear fruit, I’m confident there are plenty of applications and vendors standing by to support those vertical market solutions that seek them. 5G may be something of a watershed in that respect, insofar as it introduces more and different bands, plus features such as network ubiquity and slicing, massive IoT and so on. I wonder whether the future may see less of a clear divide between network-operator-provided services and dedicated private networks. Perhaps in the long term the technology will enable a gradual melding of the two hitherto entirely separate and clearly differentiated paradigms.

Utilities, railway operators and public safety agencies are all looking to use mobile networks, but require coverage in remote areas – do you see any potential for innovative business models that allow them to share the costs of this extra coverage with each other and with operators?

Absolutely – one always hopes and believes that sharing in whatever form makes sense and can be employed to the ultimate benefit of all. That said, there are to my mind still too many siloes of parochial interest and so on which need to be broken down for the community as a whole to truly reap the benefits of sharing.

I hope that breaking down barriers to sharing might represent an increasing role for TCCA as time goes on, acting as an entirely independent honest broker between the various interest groups.

Which of TCCA’s recent achievements are you most proud of?

I’m particularly proud of the results TCCA, and more particularly a number of its members and other stakeholders who are active in 3GPP, have achieved in getting critical broadband features included in 3GPP standards for 4G, and now the work that’s ongoing for 5G. TCCA has been the nominated 3GPP Market Representation Partner (MRP) for critical communications since 2012 and over the ensuing seven years we’ve seen standardised features like the MCX series (MCPTT, MCVideo and MCData) gradually included in 3GPP releases since R13. The fact that those and other standards relevant to critical communications are now being implemented and demonstrated gives the sector a wonderful platform for the long-term transition between narrowband and broadband.

Do you foresee major turning points in the near future for the critical communications industry?

We’re entering a critical phase in the development and roll-out of solutions implementing the broadband standards such as MCX, to which I was just referring.

Deployments will need to be done in a way that demonstrates that all the benefits of standards, such as interoperability, economies of scale, multisourcing, etc are retained, and so gives user organisations and operators confidence to enter the market.

Having pioneered and operated the TETRA interoperability certification programme throughout our 25-year existence, TCCA is now working with partners such as GCF (Global Certification Forum) to develop and implement a global MCX interoperability and conformance certification regime. If we can achieve our goals I believe this will prove to be a significant turning point in generating confidence and hence act as a catalyst for MCX adoption and roll-out.

What do you think the critical communications sector will look like in 25 years’ time?

What did I say about the perils of prediction!? Basically, all I believe I can predict with much certainty is that this sector will always be a crucial contributor to the wellbeing and safety of society – albeit relatively small, nonetheless a vitally important niche among the many and growing vertical and horizontal applications for wireless services.

One thing’s for sure: I will have hung my mobile devices up and handed over the reins to someone
younger well before the next 25-year anniversary, but I’m encouraged to see that there are some great young people such as our Young Engineer of the Year, Angelene Koid, coming through with all the commitment, enthusiasm and capabilities to keep delivering the best possible communications technologies to those that need and rely on it most.

Tony Gray CV
Tony Gray is chief executive of TCCA, the global representative body for professionals with an interest in the provision of wireless communication services in mission-critical or business-critical environments. He has worked in the mobile communications industry throughout most of his career of over 40 years to date, during which time he has held senior engineering, management and consulting posts throughout Europe, the Middle East and around the world, and worked as a consultant on a wide variety of public safety and other critical communications related projects globally.

Prior to his appointment as TCCA chief executive in 2017, Gray served as a board member and director of the association, and was founding chairman of TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG)