As first responders look toward Long Term Evolution (LTE) broadband, converged devices can be the catalyst to accelerate adoption of new data-centric capabilities, while still ensuring users have reliable voice communications. Broadband technologies are key elements of future mission critical communications, so for mission critical organizations, that means starting the adoption process in the near future. Michelle Johnson, Director of LTE Advocacy and Business Development at Harris Corporation, takes a closer look.
Traditional voice communications via Land Mobile Radio (LMR) will continue to be the bedrock mode of communications for first responders (fire, police, EMTs and utilities). LMR is popular among first responders because, as private dedicated networks, the coverage and reliability of LMR meets the standards for mission critical communications. It’s what first responders are comfortable using and accustomed to relying on. LMR’s limitations are also its strengths: it is relegated to primarily voice communications with very limited integration of data or multimedia into the first responder workflow.
However, still images and video, as well as the purpose-built applications that bring new levels of capability to end users, can benefit first responders greatly. Because LMR cannot effectively transmit images or video, it is currently being supplemented for non-emergency communications by commercial broadband technologies.
In essence, first responders across the globe are at a major inflection point in mission critical communications. While some departments are already sprinting towards LTE, the shift from LMR to LTE will take many years, and thus will require a carefully planned migration. This will be made easier by converged technologies that enable end users to leverage both LMR and LTE.
“…first responders across the globe are at a major inflection point in mission critical communications.”
It is helpful to think of this inflection point in two stages. In the first stage, where we are today, there is a heavy reliance on LMR with LTE only as a complement to the baseline voice capability. The second stage will be the inverse, in which LTE will be the primary service, with LMR as a backup. The most likely scenario is that the transition to the second stage will happen slowly at first. But once confidence in LTE builds, adequate coverage in urban and rural areas is achieved, and applications and LTE-capable devices become more compelling to organizations, the transition will occur quickly.
The importance of convergence
The best way to approach future communication procurements is to think in terms of converged networks, devices and applications. Convergence means that services are delivered to the user in the same way, and with the same features and operation, regardless of the network that delivers the services.
For example, traditional LMR Push-To-Talk (PTT) voice service includes prioritization, encryption, emergency declarations and talk-group patching (allowing different groups to talk to each other). A converged PTT network would deliver these same services to broadband users, with the same level of encryption/decryption and with no loss of end-to-end emergency declarations and prioritization. All of these PTT features should be built on standards-based voice coding, encryption, and messaging formats to ensure that Public Safety can interoperate on a vendor-agnostic basis.
The same also holds for converged devices, which should support a mix of services across LMR, commercial LTE and private LTE networks. Notably, the market is now seeing excellent converged devices for first responders, which provide LMR Project 25 (P25) and LTE capabilities. Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) and LTE converged devices are particularly compelling for utilities organizations.
An example of converged technology available today is the Tait Unified Vehicle platform which provides a vehicle area network that combines LMR (DMR or P25) and broadband connectivity with an on-board edge computing and application platform.
When considering such devices, you need to think about how user equipment will support a variety of services as users move through different network coverage areas. Even in urban areas with many broadband service providers, agencies should consider how these devices will support communications when catastrophic events result in a simultaneous surge in usage, and a reduction in capacity due to network outages. Multimode devices which fall back to secondary networks – LMR or LTE or enterprise WiFi – will be ideal.
How to get from here to there
The buildout of FirstNet, the nation-wide LTE network built by AT&T is under way, and other carriers have stepped up with plans to provide nation-wide service built for mission critical end users. This multi-year process is just beginning, as LTE networks will need to be proven ready for the demands of the first responder community.
For the time being, communications network planners will continue to rely on and incorporate devices, applications and services that allow for converged communications across a variety of networks – including LMR and LTE/WiFi broadband.
The steady pace of adoption of new converged products will continue, but until nationwide LTE networks are fully proven to provide public safety-grade reliability, first responders will seek solutions that include LMR/LTE converged devices that deliver the best of both worlds.
This article was originally published in Connection Magazine. For more articles, check out the latest edition of Connection Magazine online, or subscribe today to receive new issues of Connection as they’re released, along with other informative content from Tait.