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Decision makers need to consider many layers when determining future role of mission-critical voice over LTE

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Will mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) over LTE replace LMR services for first responders? The answer is not clear, but it is important that decisions are made based on accurate information, not on outdated statements that do not reflect recent technological developments.

Last month, I wrote a column that examined the notion that mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) functionality could be the “killer app” for public-safety LTE systems, including FirstNet’s proposed nationwide public-safety broadband network. It attracted quite a bit of response, both in the comments section accompanying the story and in various phone calls I’ve received since then.

It’s not surprising that the article caught the attention of many in the industry, as the notion of MCPTT over LTE is hot topic. Some see it as a fad that is doomed to fail. Others believe it can augment mission-critical-voice services over LMR networks. Still others believe MCPTT is destined to replace private LMR networks entirely.

It is this last notion that tends to be the real lightning rod. Some LTE proponents tend to focus on mission-critical promises that haven’t happened yet, while LMR proponents often note that two-way radio has saved the lives of countless first responders, so they argue that public-safety personnel would never abandon the technology.

But that’s not how society works, as has been proven repeatedly throughout history. People want and need to get from one place to another, but cars replaced horses as the accepted vehicle. People want and need access to written information, but digital websites largely have replaced print newspapers and magazines. People want and need to have long-distance conversations with each other, but cellular devices are replacing landline phones.

Even within the realm of wireless devices, there have been significant shifts. Several years ago, multiple speakers at IWCE proclaimed that, no matter how much technology changed, they would always use a Blackberry. This year, a speaker asked a crowded audience if anyone still used a Blackberry, but no hands were raised.

It’s not that Blackberry stopped making a quality product or that people stopped reading their e-mail while away from their computers, but users found other devices—typically smartphones or tablets—that provided the service in a more user-friendly package.

And that should be the framework for the important debate surrounding the role that MCPTT over LTE may play in the mission-critical voice arena for first responders and other critical-communications users. The need for reliable voice communications is never going away, but there’s nothing that dictates that it has to be delivered via LMR. What’s important is that the users establish their requirements and then determine which technology best meets those requirements for their situation.

In other words, the real question is pretty simple: Which service works better for the user and the entities they represent?

But to make an accurate assessment, all involved need advance the discussion beyond where it is in many industry circles today: an LMR-versus-LTE debate filled with an undercurrent that someone is about to lose their job, not on the merits of each technology. More important, the conversation needs to be based on accurate information about what exists today and is on the near-term horizon, instead of simply regurgitating statements that have been outdated for years.

With this in mind, let’s examine some common statements tossed about in a typical LMR-versus-LTE debate regarding the subject of mission-critical voice.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

on May 12, 2016

This is a very good article which gets at almost every technical point and user concern in the development and deployment of MCPTT. The one critical area that is not discussed is the "system integrator". No one company can address all the technical changes needed for MCPTT and develop all the equipment and integrate it with a first responder network. This was one of the big causes of the failures of PTT over 3G at Sprint. A well funded well supported skillful system integrator will be needed to tie together the transmission/core/wireless networks, the devices, legacy systems, training, testing, and software. Who could do it???? Motorola? Nokia? Ericsson? AT&T? I don't know but it will be some company of similar caliber.

GBH (not verified)
on May 12, 2016

What I am seeing is that personnel gravitate to more high tech communications for everyday chores, but go to more basic technology when things are happening very fast or when there is a disaster that makes higher tech offerings more iffy!

98112 (not verified)
on May 13, 2016

In your article many points were covered very well, and the discussions will likely follow. Note the amount of times you stated-- in the future, someday, or other similar assurances that something will be available at some time in the future. Problem is first responses are on going and can't wait for FN to evolve to a point of usefulness.

In the rush to Federalize all public safety communications one thing the Board of Directors of FN overlooked is folks do not trust them, believe in them, and have no duty to do so (see the recent CRS report). The respondents to the RFP are more trusted than FN itself.

FN is repackaging what we already have 4G LTE. In order to do so it is taking the public safety spectrums direct access and use by the responders from them, and forcing them into a new type of CONSUMER relationship. Public Safety will no longer be owner operators controlling their systems --but mere customers. Good luck with having any say about anything-just pay the bill.

LMR they own, control, can change, adapt, or modify. Public Safety trusts and counts on their LMR for good reason. FN has no basis for anyone to trust them, especially if you have had any direct experience with FN.

The long term Federal and the corporate agendas embedded within FN are patently obvious. State and local Public Safety(s) agendas falls far behind the Federal agencies and carrier interests.

Public Safety knows what they have with their LMR systems, they should not trust a bag full of promises. Public Safety migration of technology platforms are slow and incremental because of its very serious end use-MISSION CRITICAL.

If FN were an automobile it would be an Edsel, a Corvair, or perhaps even a DeLorean all full of the latest technology and big promises. .

Mel Samples (not verified)
on May 15, 2016

Overall you did a good job of discussing the various issues that surround MCPTT, however, I do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution (LTE or LMR).

First, I think the term "mission critical" is sorely undefined and misunderstood. Listening to the conversation is like the proverbial 5 blind men and the elephant. "Mission critical" services encompass all of the features and capabilities that you describe, available at the same time, in the same place. You simply cannot have MCPTT unless you have network reliability, in-building coverage, graceful service degradation, long-range talkaround, and job appropriate devices.

Next, you touched on probably the most important point when you alluded to the evolution from desktop (teathered) computing to smartphones (unteathered). What you missed is that it has been nearly 40 years since PCs started hitting the market and folks began to predict the demise of the "mainframe" - but there are mainframes currently in service that are bigger and faster than ever.

It has been 10 years since the iPhone hit the market and there were predictions of the end of desktop PCs, but the desktop PC continues to serve many critical functions.

Actually if you want to think about this in public safety terms, once upon a time police walked a beat, then over the last few hundred years they found horses, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, airplanes, helicopters, and now drones. None of these "new technologies" fully replaced any of the prior methods. In some places cops still walk a beat or ride a horse because that is the best way to do the job.

So I see LMR and MCPTT as being complimentary and not competing technologies. Features and capabilities in LMR have evolved over the last hundred years - (you don't have to extend the antenna on your portable before you use it). Devices have gotten smaller, more ergonomic, more rugged, and have better audio.

Though it may ultimately happen, let's give MCPTT technology, networks, and devices a couple years to evolve. Though there will always be controversy, as FirstNet rolls out and users gain experience with new devices we will all be in a better position to evaluate which technology is best to meet the challenges of the job at hand.

Personally, I predict that the two technologies MCPTT/LTE and LMR, will coexist for many, many years into the future.

80478374 (not verified)
on Dec 9, 2016

This is a great article, I enjoy having open discussions about the future of FN and the role it will play in the LMR landscape. I think Mel Samples made a great point about comparing it to horses/bikes/cars/dones, that really hits home when you think that in the real world. We should never forget while data and applications are very helpful in mission critical environments, voice should always be priority and nothing is built for voice first like LMR.

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Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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