Users first, technology second

Iain Ivory speaks to Sam Fenwick about the issues surrounding the evolution from PMR to mission-critical broadband, and the lack of incentives for first responder organisations to transition to the Emergency Services Network in the UK

SF: What are your biggest concerns around the transition from narrowband technologies to mission-critical broadband?

II: It’s that the industry is replicating the narrowband systems and devices used by public safety organisations with LTE and we’ll assume that they will work in exactly the same way. Operationally, police officers work based on how the systems work, so we’re trying to almost replicate the limitations of a narrowband PMR system within a broadband data pipe.

I have two concerns with this approach. One is whether the factors that today require the use of direct mode operation (DMO – back-to-back mode for TETRA terminals) are applicable to LTE. For example, in the UK (where Airwave is not required to provide in-building coverage), an ambulance will drive to a tower block, the ambulance will act as a TETRA gateway and the paramedic(s) will use TETRA’s DMO function to talk back to the ambulance.

However, cellular coverage is likely to be present in the tower block because the mobile network operators (MNOs) have a commercial incentive to serve their customers within it. So, the restrictions that have driven the ambulance to use TETRA in a certain way are not the same in LTE. I’m not doubting that there will be some users who will need a device-to-device connection, but nobody has really investigated what the use-case is.

My other area of concern is around the terminals. If you look at all the LTE terminals that have come out recently, they’re smartphones with knobs on. That’s great, but are they appropriate for a fireman? They may or may not be, but has anybody asked them? Similarly, solutions have to accommodate the needs of police officers who might be wearing short-sleeved shirts and a stab vest one moment, and full riot gear the next.

With the transition to LTE, we can’t afford just to say we will replicate PMR. There needs to be a lot more discussion with users and innovation to get the best out of it. It’s almost as if we’re looking at the technology first, rather that starting with the user story and developing the features that address it.

SF: Where do you think we are in terms of the transition and what more needs to be done?

II: Effectively there was no real device at the first ETSI MCPTT Plugtests event, and while they were present at the second one, they weren’t mature.

In the case of ESN, yes there’s a Samsung device, there are a number of handhelds around, but a handheld doesn’t make a system, and if we delve into ESN or FirstNet or any of the other projects, there’s a handheld but there’s no mobile terminal. Consider the different needs of police/fire/ambulance – you might be able to take a handheld device and accessorise it so that it fits the needs of each user group, but you can’t do that so easily with the vehicles. ESN has certified one mobile terminal/data modem, but that doesn’t give you all the functionality. While you could theoretically run voice over it, taking the view that voice is just an application using the data pipe, you mustn’t underestimate the complexity of the audio interfaces and PTT controls to replicate the existing vehicles. While the Home Office is running the pre-procurement exercise for the air-to-ground terminal, there’s been no discussion of fire appliances, or covert users.

If you go back to the Airwave roll-out, it started with a pilot in one region with a handheld radio and a mobile radio. each of the manufacturers has a handheld and a mobile and the frontline users within police used that, but they did not turn the analogue systems off until other users could migrate onto Airwave. The covert users didn’t move onto Airwave until multiple years down the line. Within a region, ambulance and fire migrated after the police force.

That wasn’t completely driven by technology – a lot of it was politics and timing and process, but the first Airwave
roll-outs and the TETRA roll-outs in Belgium, The Netherlands and other countries were all driven by a handheld and a mobile. There were other user groups that didn’t switch to TETRA till later, and the first ATEX TETRA radios did not arrive on the market for some years after the initial roll-outs.

If you look at what it would take to mature the MCPTT standards so that user groups who were on TETRA or user groups who want to buy a new system can go and buy MCPTT or MC LTE across all the features, you need those components there as well.

The dilemma for all countries, whether it’s the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands or Korea, is that the volume is not there to make it attractive for the vendors to develop the products, and it takes a number of years. I expect that we’ll see small MCPTT pilots, people will try the devices, they’ll develop the solutions, that will happen for a number of years and then you will get to that tipping point where the solution, the terminals, the individual infrastructure components, the applications are mature enough to say “go”.

The UK is at the pointy end of the problem because it has decided to transition to mission-critical LTE before everybody else, who are all going ‘I’m glad it’s not me’ and waiting to see what happens.

SF: Are there any parallels with the Internet of Things (IoT), which is taking a long time to ramp up?

II: IoT is more complicated because there are multiple technologies. It’s interesting to see that operators are trialling different low power wide area (LPWA) technologies in different countries. The difference between IoT and mission-critical broadband is the latter’s public safety aspect – it’s one of the things that governments will get behind.

If you look at France, the government is very much behind it, they’re saying to the cellular operators, we’ll modify your licence terms if you commit to providing support for mission-critical services. That addresses the need at a network level. The French model is radically different from the UK’s as instead of one operator providing services, the French model is ‘we want all operators to provide mission-critical services and the users will have a device that will operate across multiple networks to make sure that they’ve got coverage’. In exchange, the MNOs that commit to providing support for mission-critical services will receive more favourable spectrum licensing terms.

I think the French approach is a sensible one as it addresses resilience, gives all the MNOs greater commercial security, but it requires the political guts to effectively mandate it from all the MNOs. However, that doesn’t address the lack of terminals.

Until the devices are there, there won’t be adoption and it’s chicken and egg. There’s enough statements from European governments that they will invest in mission-critical LTE to eventually replace their TETRA systems, but the timelines are not firm enough for the manufacturers to commit to the investment to develop lots of terminals.

I believe the case hasn’t been made strongly enough for why public safety as a whole should move to LTE for mission-critical voice. I think the industry, the end-users and everybody has to build the case that says “this is why we should all move, these are the benefits, we should all get behind it”.

SF: What are your thoughts on mission-critical LTE terminal procurement?

II: While some expect the shift to mission-critical LTE, which will bring the public safety communication sector into the wider telecommunications market, to result in more competition and eventually cheaper devices, this misses a huge point around how public safety organisations procure them – they’re not just buying a radio, they’re buying a five- or seven-year managed service. It’s worth noting the strength of the established vendors’ support infrastructure in this regard, which for the most part is lacked by the vendors that could supply low-cost terminals.

It would be a very brave public safety agent that says “yes we will go for the cheap device that’s got hundreds of bells and whistles that’s claimed on the spec sheet”, despite there being no local distributor or support, nor any proof that that company will still be there in three years’ time to carry out software and security patches, along with maintenance and repair services.

SF: What do you make of the Emergency Services Network (ESN)’s new strategic direction?

II: Because everyone is still waiting for the full review to be released [at the time of going to press – Ed], it’s difficult to comment on it without hearing more, but from what we’ve heard, I think it’s the right approach, given the phased roll-out, the work to prove the coverage and the data-first approach, which will allow EE to start to see a return on its investment, and the use of the Kodiak standards-based PTT solution, which will also be used with FirstNet in the US.

However, it does mean that the timeline is even more fluid and there’s a lack of certainty over when user organisations will be buying the first voice-based terminals, which makes it hard for manufacturers to plan their investment. There’s also the question as to why users wouldn’t keep using their existing smart handhelds for ESN data service. I’ve heard anecdotally that the ESN sim monthly charges are going to be higher than for bulk data from Vodafone, and I know of an end-user organisation that is contracted with Vodafone for two or three years.

A lot of police forces have already procured and deployed device management solutions to underpin their mobile working initiatives, but the ESN service mandates that users have to move to the VMware AirWatch solution, and you cannot have two different device managers on the same phone.

Because of the above, I’m concerned that the ESN data service will go live but nobody will use it and the Home Office will have to get a big stick and a bigger carrot and make it attractive for people to move over onto it.

There’s also the fact that the cost savings that have been projected for ESN assume that all the user organisations get rid of their mobile phones and shift to ESN devices, but then you’ve lost some of that resilience because you’ve only got one device. Nobody is looking holistically at the impact of the ESN service on operational practices in police, fire, ambulance… that’s one of my biggest fears.

Nobody knows what the user devices are because the manufacturers haven’t developed them yet and they haven’t been allowed to engage officially with the end-users to talk about what user devices will look like because the Home Office is looking after that. When Airwave was rolled out there were police, fire and ambulance working groups that looked at the operational impact of the service and how it could be used to improve service delivery, but there’s no evidence of that so far. There are the user leads, but these feed into the Home Office, who seem to be trying for a ‘one size fits all’ approach at the moment.

SF: What are the implications of 5G from a mission-critical perspective?

II: I expect that the costs associated with 5G deployment will lead to more and more mast sharing, which will mean increasingly that when one site goes down, it will affect multiple networks and reduce the resiliency created from being able to use multiple cellular networks. However, a large number of 5G use-cases require resilient networks, so eventually network resiliency will become a matter of course, and while mission critical will be one of the drivers for it, all network vendors will have to make investments in making their networks resilient.

SF: What happens once public safety organisations have access to secure and resilient high-bandwith networks?

II: The question as to what mission-critical users can do with high bandwidth is not new. It started when the TETRA industry was trying to do TEDS. We’ve been marketing all this joined-up capability for 10 years, but it’s frustrating how few police forces actually think about it.

Mission-critical LTE could enable AI/natural-language-processing-based services that provide officers with unrequested but useful information regarding their current or next task, as it will have the necessary bandwidth, but in that scenario, the computer is in control as opposed to the officer, and this would mean a fundamental change in operational processes, given that current legal constraints require officers to have valid reasons for making all database queries.

SF: What could mission-critical LTE mean for the wider PMR industry?

II: The challenge for the PMR industry is that it is getting squeezed at both ends – with low-end customers switching over to cellular and the high-end value-add side of things running up against cellular’s greater bandwidth, which has allowed it to capture the mobile working market.

PMR will be around for many years, but in the early 2020s, it will be hugely challenged by 4G/5G services if we get to the point where MCPTT has matured. If the spectrum issue for private LTE systems gets addressed, there is a fundamental threat to the PMR market – in five to 10 years’ time it will be a shadow of its former self.

SF: Is there anything that has surprised you?

II: I’ve been on ride-alongs with police forces and I was struck by how little they used their radios. We like to think it’s a lifeline that they use all the time. It is, when they need help, but (while it does vary) in their day-to-day operations they don’t use them much at all.

Iain Ivory CV
In 2016, Ivory founded Hermitage Comms, a specialist telecoms and IT consultancy that primarily works with government and public safety organisations to help assess the benefits and impact of the rapidly changing industry. His work covers evaluation of emerging standards, assessment of existing systems and future strategies, and he has supported clients in developing strategies for migration of systems to the cloud.

Prior to founding Hermitage Comms, Ivory held a number of roles over 16 years with Motorola Solutions, including five years as director of Motorola’s TETRA Device business. With Motorola he was involved in the development and deployment of TETRA across the world. He has been an active contributor to TCCA for many years and is currently a member of the Critical Communications Broadband Group within TCCA.