Tait Podcasts: #7 – Will LTE replace LMR?

podcast7Episode 7 of the Tait podcast has arrived. Today, Evan Forester talks with Tait’s Chief Technology Architect, Geoff Peck. Geoff gives us an update on the future of both LTE and LMR, and offers a little more insight into the TLAs within the Telecommunications industry. In this podcast, we discuss:

  • What is LTE?
  • What is the role of LTE in mission critical communications?
  • Will LTE ever replace LMR?
  • Why is it so hard to make mission critical PTT work on a public cellular system?
  • What is the role of LMR in the future?

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast (on iTunes), or you can listen by clicking below.

The full transcript is also available below the podcast.

Podcast Transcript:

Evan: Hello everyone and welcome once again to the to the Tait Podcast my name is Evan Forester I’m sitting here with the chief technical architect at Tait, Geoff Peck. Geoff, how are you?

Geoff: Very good, thanks.

Evan: And today we are going to be talking a little bit about LTE. So, LTE is a phrase we’ve all heard. Three-letter-acronym or TLAs are quite famous in our industry, but Geoff, I was wondering if you could just explain a little bit about what LTE is actually is.

Geoff: Yeah, sure okay. Acronyms are a bit of a problem in this sort of industry, aren’t they? Really LTE stands for Long Term Evolution. And it’s a reasonably new cellular standard, a global cellular standard that really aims to deliver high bandwidth data. And so what it allows for your phone it is things like streaming video, that sort of thing. Most modern smart phones in fact have LTE capability already. And it’s a highly capable new standard that’s certainly got a lot of people very interested. The standard controlled by an organization called 3GPP, Third Generation Partnership Project, that’s yet another acronym that’s is a four letter acronym for you. And almost every part of the creation in these standards is open and publicly available and the benefit of that is that people can see clearly where these are going and what the new standards are going to deliver and in fact you can even contribute to these standards if you want to so it’s really good.

Now 3GPP, like most of these kind of bodies, have very long view of things and standards like LTE are going to be around for a long time, 20 year or more. So it’s quite important to understand how it’s going to impact the mission critical world. I thing the other point about the name, it’s implicit in the name, evolution, is that it evolves over time, it’s a standard that evolves. Now they usually they call them quite unimaginatively through these numbers releases, and most of the commercial networks around the world are currently sitting on release eight and release nine. But obviously there’s going to be these new releases coming up and that’s partly what I want to talk about. And it’s a good thing the content of these releases are signaled well in advanced because that means that we can start to put in place the systems that takes advantage of the new feature sets of these systems.

It’s kind of interesting, these new releases of LTE are going to provide quite a lot of benefit for mission in critical communications. It’s a really fundamental part of the new releases of LTE and I guess that’s really what I want to talk about.

Let me just say a couple of things about 3GPP first though. They are an interesting organization because they don’t really operate like the sort of old fashion standards bodies that people might be familiar with, they’re a bit more like the Borg on Star Trek, you know? It’s not quite resistance is futile, but they certainly absorb anything of value from other standards and the results is they move really fast and so basically when these standards come out, they are ready to go from the get go they are really good, and that’s a key feature of standards like LTE, when they hit the road they really deliver.

Evan: So as you said LTE a lot of people have it on their smart phones already. Now what’s the status of LTE in the mission critical space, because being able to use something on your personal device is a lot different than needing it in a mission critical situation?

Geoff: It’s certainly a fact that mission critical organizations around the world have been using cellular technology for ages, pretty much use it ubiquitously, but the problem is that cellular systems simply the current cellular systems simply don’t provide mission critical capability. They are highly capable and it’s not the fact the cellular systems are not reliable, that’s not really the issue. The issue is that they’re designed for commercial use, not for mission critical use. And so at times of peak load, and ironically this often happens when there is an emergency, cellular systems start to overload and of course if they are overloaded then even mission critical first responders can’t get onto the cellular system.

And so you get this kind of double whammy effect where the system is so overloaded that the people who must get on the system can’t get there. And this is being… this is quite familiar to everybody. Anyone who has been through even a big sports game knows that you can’t access your cell phone because everyone else is, and so imagine what happens in an emergency. And so previous generations of cellular technology have not been able to deliver mission critical capability, but the public safety community has been lobbying 3GPP quite hard over many years to include features that will directly support mission critical functionality.

And these new releases, called release 12 and 13, are coming out soon and they will have substantial support for mission critical functionality. And it’s important to know that it’s not only that the features are being added to support mission critical, but the network themselves, the LTE network itself is being improved to the point where it can offer the resilience and kind of robustness that mission critical needs. Because you’ve got to remember, these are unique needs and not the same as a normal commercial user.

Evan: So Geoff I think you raised some great points and I’ve definitely experienced that at a sporting event where no one can even text each other much less make a phone call or check their, you know, check something online. So we’ve heard that cellular standards that LTE and these things are coming over and they are going to take it over mission critical networks. Is that really true or what’s the different this time because we keep hearing it, but there is still seems to be a pretty important need for LMR?

Geoff: Sure. Well first of all I think we’ve got to understand where the state of these LTE standards are at, and where they support mission critical. Now these new standards that are coming out in release 12 and release 13, there’s a lot of effect going in to support mission critical functionality. I think something around 70% of release 12 contains the features that will benefit mission critical and this is probably the biggest single release that 3GPP has ever released.

Now not all of these features are just in there to support mission critical users. There are things like proximity services which is really there to also support commercial users because it allows commercial retailers and that sort of thing to target you when you approach their shop, they can see that you are in the vicinity you are in proximity to them and they can send you targeted ads on your phone directly and say, “Well you visited us last and you bought this. Well now we’ve got a special on these line items.” So you can see that proximity services has really, therefore, a wider benefit than simply to replicate the direct mode functionality that mission critical users will be familiar with, but it will do a very good job of supplying direct mode functionality, which is a key feature for mission critical users.

A lot of these features are called service enablers and that’s because they are delivering the capability to deliver a service, not necessarily the service itself. So for instance in that proximity services example I gave you is the merchant that’s actually creating the content that’s attracting the person, not the carrier. The carrier is providing the capability of making it happen.

Evan: Yeah.

Geoff: And so this is also a virtual point to understand whether or not LTE is really going to replace LMR systems completely. Fundamentally though the carriers are going to have all of the key features that we think are unique to LMR are going to be available on commercial carrier networks. And this will be available as a capability and I think it will probably start to happen 2016, 2017 that kind of timeframe.

Evan: That’s pretty soon.

Geoff: That’s pretty soon. I think it’s a bit hard to say because some carriers are going to start experimenting earlier, but my personal opinion is that mission critical users won’t like being guinea pigs, and so they will want to see matured developments before they start to commit themselves. But I think I will stick with my dates for the moment.

I think if we just look at this for a mission critical push to talk, which is kind of the key function that first responders are used to on the public safety radios, and this has had a pretty checkered history with cellular push to talk. Pretty poor performance, for the reasons I’ve explained, and this is really because the cellular system tried to replicate the really fast set up and volley times of a true mission critical system. But the new standard that’s coming out inside LTE replicates, very closely, the performance of mission critical push to talk and this is kind of unique. This is something new that’s happening.

Evan: Why is it so hard to make mission critical push-to-talk work on a public cellular system?

Geoff: I guess the previous attempts of really being, what’s called, over the top solutions which means they just basically flow data through a carrier network and the carrier network doesn’t really know what that data is. It’s just a data stream coming from phone going to some other device and we’ve all experienced this. I mean if you try Skype, and Skype works really well generally, but we’ve all experienced a drop outs that happens over the internet with things like Skype. Well that’s really not acceptable in a mission critical situation of course, and so it’s really fundamental to the way that those older cellular systems are set up compared with the new LTE systems which are designed to deliver mission critical grade performance, and fundamentally the network itself is contributing to this performance.

It’s been quite interesting because the carriers and the standards body haven’t really understood the key needs of mission critical, and even 3GPP fell onto this trap early on and their early attempts of delivering a mission critical push to talk standard really didn’t progress very well because there was a lack of fundamental understanding from the mission, of the mission critical communities needs to make it work. That’s actually been changed now and 3GPP have created a whole new body, a whole new working group, should I say, to address this need and look at applications going forward, and so mission critical push to talk is well on truck for release 13.

Evan: So LTE is going to bring in all these new features that are great for critical communication users. Will there still be a role for LMR in the future?

Geoff: I think that’s a really interesting question. It used to be the fact that all of the critical features that mission critical users needed were solely available over LMR networks. But in the future all of these features are going to be, the capability for these features are going to be available on public cellular systems. In other words the carriers, the commercial carriers, will have the capability of delivering mission critical features and we’ve discussed what some of those features are already.

However, the key point is that simply having the capability to deliver features and functionality does not deliver a solution and there are several reasons why I think that LMR solutions, the sort that Tait provide, are going to continue to serve if their mission critical needs for a long time to come. And the first of these reasons is that these LMR systems all ready meet the standard operating procedures the way that mission critical users operate because they’ve been developed in concert and so essentially you’ve got almost a symbiosis, if you like, between the communication system that first responds use and the way they operate. They are so interlocked at the moment that I think it’s really important to know that LMR delivers that now, so you’ve got a solution right now.

Evan: Sure.

Geoff: And this is, I mean why would that need go away? I’ve don’t think it will. And changing standard operating procedures is a big deal, as we know. And the second one, and the second key point is coverage. Commercial cellular networks target, they are there for a profit so they’re targeting population centers primarily, they don’t target rural areas. And so if you look at typical coverage of a cellular system compared with an LMR system, you’ll see that the cellular systems generally only approach actually a relatively small fraction of what LMR systems can do already, and this is available now.

And so what that means, of course, is that as we know emergencies don’t necessarily take place in the middle of cities they take place anywhere. And responding to an emergency requires people to go into regions where there may be, and frequently, is no cellular coverage. And so that’s a key point and I think that Tait’s response to this is that we are going to continue to deliver world class LMR technology. And we’ve been working with LTEs since 2012, we’ve actually had an LTE system here working since 2012 so we’ve built up a lot of experience with how to make LMR systems and LTE systems coexist. In other words, rather than take the lowest common denominator, the sort of the minimum subset of functionality of each one and try to glue it together, what we’ve come up with is ways of getting the best out of both of those systems.

So rather than simply rely on the coverage of one or performance of another, and having to choose, basically you get the functionality of both, the best features of both are rolled together.

Evan: So a very practical question from what you said the answer seems pretty clear, but let’s say I’m public safety officer or, you know, a radio manager for a utilities organization anyone who is looking, they are kind of on the fence, their mission critical communication system. It’s coming close to the end of life and they are trying to decide do I invest in LMR today, or do I wait a couple of years to see how happens in LTE? What would you do in that situation?

Geoff: Sure I think to me it’s really clear. Anybody’s sensible future communication system will require a combination of different network types, and so the answer is one is not better than the other, but both are necessary to get the capability and functionality that those people need, they will need both capabilities. And the good outcome here is that the LTE systems would be provided by commercial carriers so no need to invest large amounts of infrastructure and resource. You’ve already, these people already have LMR systems which we are improving and augmenting and we’re also providing the glue that joins the LMR system to these future LTE system and WiFi as well, I mean it’s not just limited to public carrier systems.

And if I could just give you an example of what we do. One of the things that we’ve been working on for some time now, and now have fully operational is this ability to seamlessly roam voice calls between networks. So for instance you can start a voice call up on your LMR network, and then in mid call, roam that call seamlessly onto an LTE or WiFi network or vice versa. So what that does the benefit for users any kind of user is that they no longer have to worry about the network and what sort of a network they’re connected to and whether they are in coverage of this or that or the next thing. Basically they just pick up their favorite device, start a call, it will then operate over whichever network is available or appropriate at that moment, they don’t even have to think about it.

Evan: And they can talk when they need to talk and they’re always connected.

Geoff: And surely to me that’s the essence of mission critical.

Evan: Yeah.

Geoff: It should always work everywhere the same on all networks.

Evan: Okay. Well Geoff I thinks you’ve helped me understand a lot more about the situation with LTE and LMR. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Geoff: Yeah, I think that the original point that you asked just now was to talk about should someone choose LMR or LTE. I think that the point to make here, or the answer is really that LMR systems are going to be around for long time and going to provide key value to you for a long time and so the best answer I think I can make is go talk to your vendor, go talk to Tait and understand how these systems can be joined to provide benefit and future proofing going forward.

Evan: Yeah, and you don’t to worry that if you are going to buy an LMR system today in three years time, everyone are going to be acting like you are a fool because you don’t need it anymore. It’s going to be around long time.

Geoff: You’re definitely not going to be a fool, they are going to be saying you are really smart.

Evan: Well Geoff, thank you very much. Thank you to everyone who is listening. As always you can subscribe to the Tait Podcast (in iTunes) or you can visit us at blog.taitcommunications.com where you can find this, along with other helpful content about critical communications. Thanks everyone, have a good day.

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