The long road ahead

(Sponsored content) This year’s roundtable at IWCE focused on how the US LMR market will adapt once FirstNet and mission-critical LTE mature and are adopted by many organisations

In what has become an annual event at IWCE – this year held in Orlando – a group of leading critical communications professionals gathered to discuss the progression of the market in North America.

Chaired by TCCA chief executive Tony Gray, and sponsored by PowerTrunk, the participants in this 2018 Critical Communications Today roundtable were:

• Rockwell Collins director John Monto and business development manager Richard Davis. Rockwell Collins has recently completed two more US airport conversions to TETRA – John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty, adding to the completed projects at Los Angeles and San Francisco.

• Dean Ginn, owner of Dean’s Commercial Two Way. Ginn implemented an 11-site TETRA system for Diverse Power, and now has 51 sites serving three co-ops in the state of Georgia – Diverse Power, Cobb EMC and Flint Energy – with another entity due to join shortly.

• Neil Horden, chief consultant of Federal Engineering. Horden is a consultant on public safety and critical communications, land mobile radio, wireless, optical networking, and moving into dispatch with Next Generation 911.

• Stephen Macke, principal consultant at Advent C3. Macke specialises in critical communications, land mobile radio, optical, microwave and call centres.

• Keith Ammons, VP market development at PowerTrunk. In North America, PowerTrunk is completing the roll-out of a TETRA network for New Jersey Transit, and beginning to deliver equipment for the New York City Transit project. PowerTrunk supports Rockwell Collins’ aviation projects and Dean Ginn’s network in Georgia, and is also working in Canada delivering TETRA networks in the mining and transport sectors.

Gray kicked off the roundtable by asking the participants for their views on how FirstNet will affect the LMR market and how the appeal of two-way radio systems will change once MCPTT has become a proven technology.

Federal Engineering’s Horden said the impression he was left with after attending the IWCE session on LMR/LTE coexistence is that there will be a slow transition from LMR to LTE. “Like most technology shifts, everyone is ready for and [expects] some sort of quick cutover.” However, he said the reality is that new technologies supplant their older counterparts at such a slow rate that nobody can believe it, and “the old technology never completely goes away”.

Horden added that public safety organisations are very risk-averse and try to hold their capital in reserve; these combine to extend the working life of equipment beyond initial expectations. “If you buy a system with a 15-year lifespan, and somewhere around the 15th year start replacing it, in reality it has a 20-year lifespan.” He also noted that there are systems that have just been implemented using traditional LMR technologies, while there are others “in the planning cycle and being implemented, and that progression really has not slowed down much. So that means [that] what the outside world might think is going to be a three- to five-year switch is probably a seven- [to] 20-year switch.”

Macke said “voice is king in a critical communications event – I don’t think you’re ever going to get rid of that”, and thought that the need to have dedicated voice networks “will be here for a very, very long time”.

Rockwell Collins’ Monto agreed that “traditional voice isn’t going to go away any time soon” and added that the timeframe for FirstNet’s deployment and the shift to MCPTT in 2020-2025 will cover a few generations of technology, “so it’s going to be very interesting to see where it all goes”, but he still expected traditional technologies, such as TETRA, DMR or P25, to be present.

Turning briefly to hybrid handsets, Macke said they “are going to be problematic. I don’t believe they will have the battery life or give the end-users that great service.” Moving onto the adoption of MCPTT in the US, he said: “As cities start using the LTE network, they are going to start demanding other issues or other applications that are going to be mission critical that will drive MCPTT down the priority list, because they are all going to come to the realisation that voice belongs in an LMR environment.”

Horden noted the increased interest in bringing public features from the LMR world into 3GPP. “When public safety was trying to push things into the standard they were two people in a room of 1,000, of which the majority were global carriers who had all the voice. Now at last one of the major global carriers has a financial vested interest in having this be successful.”

Ginn highlighted the lack of knowledge about the coverage, capacity and cost of public safety LTE and questioned when FirstNet will truly be implemented in the rural parts of the US, adding: “When we can actually see it and talk on it, then that’s going to open it up.”

Moving onto resilience, Macke said without significant hardening, public networks are “not going to meet public safety standards”.

“I don’t think that AT&T is going to be up for doing that. It is not going to put a generator at each [site]. Maybe it will put [in] more robust battery back-up, but that’s not much.”

TCCA’s Gray summarised much of the comments made so far: “The LMR industry is not feeling too threatened right now. There’s plenty of life left in it yet.”

Rockwell Collins’ Davis highlighted Motorola Solutions’ decision to buy Kodiak – the PTT over Cellular provider for AT&T – as a sign that the company is planning for the transition to MCPTT.

What about back-to-back?
The next couple of questions focused on the issue of back-to-back operation, given that LTE and the FirstNet service don’t currently have this capability, and there is no apparent possibility of this, at least in the short term. What then will be the back-to-back solution in the FirstNet environment? Will people accept it if they can’t have back-to-back?

Federal Engineering’s Horden noted the use of back-to-back mode in the fire service, and added that the second-strongest use-case in a public safety context is “in very rural areas where two officers in the field are far away from the infrastructure”.

Macke highlighted the low power of LTE handsets compared with their LMR counterparts and said that because of this and the resulting poor in-building penetration, pushing the handling of calls to the network edge, thereby allowing a single cell site to co-ordinate a call between two handsets without going back to the network core, would probably be a better option than direct device-to-device communication. He added that it is incumbent on cellular infrastructure manufacturers to push this functionality to the edge. “If you do that, you please a lot of people really fast because you don’t have to do much to configure it that way.”

Monto questioned how much influence end-users have in defining standards – “it’s going to be manufacturer- and industry-driven. The firefighter in the street, the police officer… how will they react? Will they love it or hate it?”

Come hell or high water
Given that Verizon is and will be competing with AT&T/FirstNet for public safety users, the panel then discussed how they see this contest developing and the other hurdles that FirstNet faces.

“Verizon, especially in rural areas, has better coverage than AT&T,” said Macke. “It provides an awful lot of services today to public safety and it is not going to give them up easily. It’s not going to be brass knuckles or knives, it’s going to be guns and bazookas, a bloody battle. It is going to keep its customers come hell or high water, and it went out and purchased a lot of other frequencies that it is willing to give priority to public safety.”

He believed that this will result in a price war between the two companies and that we’ll have more clarity on the extent of this competition next year.

Horden noted that Verizon is currently the biggest provider of cellular services to US public safety organisations and that its incumbent provider status has implications for FirstNet. “Public safety being a risk-averse world, you deal with people you know and trust. If your agency has been on Verizon for several years since when you gave up your private data network because the speeds weren’t good enough, it’s a shift to go to FirstNet.”

While he added that FirstNet’s government connection provides it with some degree of built-in trust and credibility, “you still have incumbent versus new vendor and it could be a price war. People could be enticed to go with FirstNet early on because it is the thing to do; it’s the interoperability. But two to five years later, a couple of budget cycles, all of a sudden budgets are tighter and if Verizon comes in just a few dollars less…

“We’ve seen [organisations] in the past change carriers for a few dollars, so we know that city managers will do that. The few dollars will have an impact because even if [the number of first-responders in a force stays the same], the number of radio IDs keeps going up. It used to be one per car with two people, then it was [a portable and a mobile], then it was three because the car still had a mobile radio. In a FirstNet world, a car with one or two people might have five devices. So all of a sudden, a two-dollar saving becomes a 10-dollar saving.”

Turning to the other hurdles that FirstNet might face, Horden highlighted the need for the gateway function to work well, adding that in “the P25 world the ISSI [Inter RF Subsystem Interface – which allows P25 users to communicate with those on networks using P25 equipment from different manufacturers] has been a challenge. In every technology market, things just don’t fit together well in the early days.”

He also raised the issue of products and devices, noting the way that today’s public safety radios are very tailored to the specific needs of first-responders and that manufacturers can’t develop a universal product that does everything.

Rockwell Collins’ Monto said there has been a shift in the way radio systems are defined and procured. “Back in the day, communications networks were being designed by radio people for radio people; everything is IT now.” To him, this means that the people designing the networks now have a different mindset from those determining what’s acceptable.

Proven coverage with TETRA
Ginn then discussed the work that Dean’s Commercial Two Way has done for Diverse Power and other power co-operatives in the state of Georgia.

“We have a geographical footprint that meets our day-to-day operations for utility companies. We’ve built for mobile coverage, which entails less sites, using the SRG3900 [Sepura TETRA mobile/gateway/repeater] and STP9000 [Sepura TETRA portable]. [This combination works]. You go into a basement, you go into a substation, you’re using the portable, you get the same data from the portable. You know where it’s at with GPS reporting. TETRA is very mature, robust, and feature-rich.

“We took a very conservative approach when we built our network. We spent a lot of labour and time on the design of RF projected coverage. We can test actual coverage – we have the maps, and we can show proven coverage. That’s a huge asset that the DMR market does not have; it’s a night and day difference in technologies. TETRA’s very robust.

“When we give any potential customer the demos of our units, the number one comment is that ‘it’s crystal clear and we have not heard this clarity with any DMR, P25 or any other product’. The audio is superior.”

Can DMR fill the gap?
The topic of discussion turned to whether or not DMR could act as a possible stopgap between P25 and mission-critical LTE. TCCA’s Gray provided some context: “The current estimate for the arrival of 3GPP Release 14 is – from my knowledge – around mid-2019, while Release 15 is about late 2020. How does the estimate for the arrival of devices, conforming to those releases, mesh with the current age of most agencies’ LMR systems?

“Everyone has a different age of existing LMR. Some have recently invested, some are time-served. What are people going to do regarding waiting for devices that will conform to Releases 14 or 15 because they want those particular features? Or will they [go with] something like DMR in the meantime if their P25 system is reaching the end of its life?”

Monto believed that this won’t be an option. “They [DMR and P25] are two completely different universes. Regarding people in the P25 world, it’s a political decision more than a technology one. The idea of them going into DMR only as a transition point is never going to surface.”

“When you source any technology or any project like this, you hope technology takes the lead,” added Macke. “However, many times it doesn’t as there’s a political aspect. Price will drive people to DMR because it’s a P25 ‘Mini-me’. You see people today opting for something more cost-effective, because when you have a full-featured P25 handset the price could range anywhere from $5,000-$7,000. It’s just absolutely out of the budgetary reach of, I would say, 30-40 per cent of municipalities and jurisdictions today.”

However, Horden added that there are P25 handsets in the $1,500 range and that when it comes to agencies that use P25 and “are already leveraging interoperability, especially in the public safety world, unless their system just failed and they are in budgetary crisis, I can’t see any of them ever transitioning to DMR as a fix.

“There are smaller public safety, budget-strapped agencies that are on DMR who historically maybe had a goal to move to P25. With MCPTT coming, they may say ‘OK, we’ll just stay where we are, there’s no reason to do two switches’. I can see that happening but that’s a pretty small community.

“[Regarding] the traditional DMR users, some of the critical infrastructure, public works and the whole business world… a lot of them may have thought about P25 at some point. However, DMR does a lot today. For most users, other than interoperability with public safety, it’s not as big a gap as it was five years ago.”

Rockwell Collins’ Monto added that critical communications is about more than just public safety and noted: “You don’t see many manufacturers of P25 trying to sell P25 solutions to non-public-safety entities. They are not going to do the business there. It’s cost-prohibitive to do so, and they know that.”

PowerTrunk’s Ammons said: “We’re not looking at owning the public safety sector as far as mission-critical communications is concerned. Public transport, utilities, oil and gas, they all have their mission-critical requirements as well. TETRA is not being targeted to the public safety market here in the US, even though it is capable of doing so. It’s just too much of a [fight going up] against P25 in this market.”

Interoperability and vendor dependency
The conversation then switched to interoperability, with Federal Engineering’s Horden describing the situation in the US. “We got to the point where neighbouring regions/districts couldn’t talk to each other. [However,] in most areas there is a good bit of interoperability going on.” He added that “we’re getting to the point where the technology” is no longer the main barrier to interoperability, in which case operational issues will become the biggest barrier.

Macke said: “Nowadays interoperability among municipalities within a large jurisdiction tends to be in the handset. If that can be mimicked through a gateway, it makes more sense.” He also noted that “if you look at the culture of people who do the technology acquisition within a given municipality, they have grown up within the organisation. They tend to learn all of their technical savvy from the vendors, so usually there’s a long-term relationship with a specific vendor. To go off the reservation is very scary, so in that particular environment you just don’t do it.”

Horden agreed with this sentiment, adding: “It goes back to the old saying from the 60s and 70s – ‘nobody got fired for buying IBM’. It’s a risk-averse market so it doesn’t matter which legacy vendor is there; the incumbent, like [in] politics, has an advantage.”

Realising economies of scale
Given all of the above, what’s the best course of action for public safety agencies with obsolete LMR systems at this point and in the next couple of years? Can they club together for economies of scale, or are they limited by regulations and grant funding?

Focusing on the potential for economies of scale, Horden said: “Because of different systems bought at different times, there are a lot of variations of public safety radio [in the US]. We are seeing [some consolidation] as radios become more flexible, so now we have two or three bands on the same radio and we get some scale there. But on the other side, fire and police want different things. As large as the market is as a whole, it functions very much as a lot of little niches, and it just keeps the blinds down, which keeps prices up.

“With FirstNet coming, one of the hopes is to get on the consumer bandwagon, get fast technology turns, low prices and so on. However, the market is still going to demand specialty units that are not consumer units, and you have got to pay for that. There are some barriers to the driving down [of] price due to volume.”

Rockwell Collins’ Davis added: “The airport environment is a kind of metropolitan city unto itself. Then there’s police and fire, who have a big need for interoperability with the local and regional cities’ [emergency] services. A lot of that drives them towards P25. But there’s a whole airport operations side that needs probably a more economical solution. So that’s one of the things that we deal with, working on the interoperability between the two solutions as well as finding the right solution for the operations.

“We have a diverse user group within our airport environment, from the airlines and airport operations to the police and fire in the airport. Different technologies fit within that, so as long as we can make them work together, we have a space to play in.”

Ginn said: “The neat thing is with the IP-based networks we now have, it’s a lot easier to bring the two technologies together, whether it be a patch or connect. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have that ability so IP has made our life a lot easier and gives us a simpler migration path.”

LMR-LTE transition’s financial implications
TCCA’s Gray asked the panellists how they expect the North American critical communications market to be structured once public safety broadband becomes a reality. Macke highlighted the role that applications will play and their financial implications. “The people who own the applications are going to become software as a service. You’re going to pay a monthly subscription fee for that. When you look at the business model from an end-user’s perspective, if I’m a municipality that serves 150,000 people and my tax base is just barely keeping up with the public safety radio system… now I’m going to have to not only buy into FirstNet, but also pay all these other vendors a subscription fee for the applications to reside in that gateway and my end-user device.”

Horden also discussed the financial implications of the transition to LTE. “In this world, your opex starts going up long before your capex starts going down. So your spend – even in a perfect transition – is going to be a big bubble. City managers need to realise this ahead of time, and in their biannual budget, one/two/three cycles out [they] are going to need significantly more [funding] than they have today. You may be on a path to renormalisation, but there is significant overlap and increase in cost, and people have to be ready for it.”

What’s the killer app?
Gray then asked the attendees what they see as the most promising broadband applications in the North American market and whether they believe facial recognition is compatible with North American attitudes to privacy.

Monto responded to the second part of Gray’s question by saying: “That’s not a question for the public to answer. It’s being done whether they like it or not – they do it in airports now.”

Horden added: “Video is probably the ‘killer app’. The whole field of video analytics is just exploding. We’ve seen this in the increase in video monitoring in the building industry, where you can’t keep eyes on everything. What’s the use in having 40 cameras around a hotel with one guy trying to look at it all, with each monitor flipping between four different cameras?

“You need an automated system that says ‘there’s a package on the ground in the passenger waiting area which has been there for more than five minutes with no-one staying within x feet of it’. The system then puts a red box around it and says ‘go send someone to check it out’. [Another use-case would be] this individual has circled this block of the city five times, which then sets a flag. Whether it’s general image recognition or licence plate readers, analytics is what’s going to make video so powerful.”

Monto said that the benefits of video analytics extend beyond public safety, giving the example of passenger tracking in airports. He said there is immense value in that environment when it comes to generating more revenue in being able to gather data on where passengers go, which shops they visit, how long they stay there and so on. He also highlighted the need to know where everything is on the ramp and runways, “whether it be an aircraft, tug or towbar”.

Davis noted that in addition to experimenting with passenger tracking to monitor the length of queues in security halls, airports are putting sensors in lights for environmental control and deploying Bluetooth beacons.

Ginn highlighted in-building location services, saying: “We’ll see this more in the education sector – [for example, seeing] where the teachers are in the building.” Horden also highlighted the importance of such systems
to firefighters.

The roundtable concluded with a question around spectrum availability for both TETRA and private LTE systems. Ginn said: “We’re fortunate to have some Part 22 channels that we can build our network on. They give us the 25kHz [channel bandwidth], as well as the reuse and the geographical area as needed. In the rural areas, we’re successful in going to co-ordination and finding Part 90 channels. They do exist, [and we know] they are out there. It’s about getting a qualified person to research and find them for you. I would like to see an initiative to help facilitate spectrum. TETRA’s very efficient – that’s what the FCC is looking for.

“Spectrum is going to be a key piece. We invested into infrastructure that supports LTE through [the] switch, the idea being that if we can secure spectrum, we are positioned to do data down the road. It is absolutely something we are looking at.”

From the comments made at the roundtable, don’t be surprised if the transition from LMR to LTE takes far longer than initially thought; user organisations need to budget for increased spend on two-way communications, though mobile data costs might drop should the contest between AT&T and Verizon escalate into a full-blown price war.