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Don’t blink, or you may miss another step in the development of LTE

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Solutions on display this week at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) show provide a hint at the fast-paced development cycles associated with the LTE broadband standard being used in the FIrstNet network.

 

ANAHEIM, Calif.—LTE — the fourth-generation wireless standard that will be used in the nationwide broadband network for first responders in the U.S. — stands for “Long Term Evolution,” a name inspired by the idea that the technology will allow network operators that use it to upgrade their networks without having to forklift their infrastructure.

For commercial carriers that historically have had to replace gear throughout their network to move from one generation of wireless technology to the next generation, the concept of being able to migrate to next-generation technology without scrap investments in network equipment is a huge relief, according to wireless-industry sources. In fact, some have estimated that the cost to upgrade an LTE cell site will be about 10% of the cost to perform the kind of forklift upgrades associated with previous commercial-wireless technologies.

For any operator—whether it is commercial carrier like AT&T or Verizon, or FirstNet, which is charged with building a nationwide broadband network for public safety—a 90% savings per cell site is massive. It’s one of the reasons why public safety and policymakers made such a wise choice in selecting LTE as the broadband standard to serve first responders

(An aside: FirstNet may have its issues today and almost assuredly will face future bumps in the road, but can imagine the mess public safety would be in today if it had pursued wideband technology on this 700 MHz spectrum, which was the plan just 7 years ago?)

Of course, the natural instinct is to presume that cost savings associated with upgrades to a new generation of technology will be at least a decade— after all, isn’t 4G LTE is brand new and not even fully deployed by carriers?

Wrong.

LTE is not a typical public-safety communications standard like P25 that takes decades to gain traction. It is commercial standard with ridiculous economies of scale that already is advancing at warp speed.

In less than three years, both AT&T and Verizon have gone from no LTE coverage in their respective networks to nationwide LTE service — milestones announced this summer that were reached six months ahead of the carriers’ initial schedules. And 5G is just around the corner.

In a story from the Times of India, 5G standards are expected to be ready in 2015—about the time that FirstNet is expected to be deploying its network in earnest—and will include attributes designed to make machine-to-machine communications more effective and affordable, according to Wen Tong, head of the 5G mission at China-based Huawei Technologies. Products needed to make 5G a reality should be available for rollouts 2020, he said.

“The industry will be 5G ready by 2020,” Tong said in the article. “The idea is to increase the throughput by 1,000 times with 1,000 times more spectrum and 1,000 times reduced energy.”

Meanwhile, Samsung is testing its version of a 5G wireless network that reportedly topped 1.0 GB/s throughput speeds at a distance of up to 2 kilometers.

Whether either of these examples really is a 5G network is unknown — after all, the standard has not been created, and test information has been misinterpreted by the media on more than one occasion — but it really does not matter. What is significant is the fact that U.S. public safety’s choice of LTE appears to be a wise one, as the research, upgrades and new features in the technology seem to be coming faster than most first-responder officials probably ever imagined.

It’s hard to believe that it was only three years ago when some public-safety officials still classified LTE as “vaporware,” because no significant LTE deployments had been completed in the U.S. As LTE began being rolled out, many noted that the coverage was spotty and that early versions of LTE were data-only standards that did not support voice calls.

Today, both Verizon and AT&T provide nationwide LTE coverage, and the networks are expected to support commercial voice by the end of this year or early next year. Meanwhile, both carriers already have push-to-talk offerings over LTE.

They are not the only ones. This week on the APCO show floor—an exhibit hall loaded with LTE technology that operate on Band 14 700 MHz spectrum, even though there are only one operational network on those airwaves today—there were multiple demonstrations of products and applications that enable push-to-talk services and group calls over LTE that also integrate with LMR networks.

No one is claiming that these push-to-talk offering meet public safety’s mission-critical needs today, which is why LMR will remain the primary staple for first-responder communications for some time. None of these solutions have been standardized, and any application is only reliable as the network it rides over. If FirstNet delivers on the promise of delivering a mission-critical LTE network, that would be a huge step in the right direction.

Of course, no network is completely bulletproof, and there will times when first responders will not be in range of a functioning LTE cell site, particularly in the aftermath of a disaster that wipes out network infrastructure.

One of the biggest knocks against LTE is that it supposedly requires a signal to the core network to work, and first responders require the ability to communicate even when network infrastructure is not available. Based on the gear I saw on the APCO show floor, vendors are eager to address this issue.

There were numerous examples of deployable solutions leveraging a variety of backhaul options and small-core architectures. In addition, there was even a wearable vest being used by the military that enables peer-to-peer communications—think “talkaround” or “direct mode,” in LMR terms. Honestly, I thought it would be years before such products would be on the market that public safety could afford.

Again, there is still a long way to go, and there are plenty of challenges ahead. But the technology we’re talking about an ecosystem of engineering and financing that has seen LTE transition from non-existent to nationwide—and from no voice to both commercial voice and push-to-talk offerings—in less than three years (the time it takes many government entities to get an LMR system planned and approved) and already has made significant efforts already on the 5G front.

If public-safety-grade voice over LTE is deemed to be a global priority—and there are indications that could happen—it would be hard to bet against this ecosystem eventually developing a solution.

Even if this lofty goal is never achieved, it is important that public safety and FirstNet acknowledge the progress that the LTE industry has made during the past few years. Developing governance and business models that embrace, leverage and adapt to this fast-changing marketplace is critical to ensuring first-responder communications on this much-anticipated network get to use the best technology available at all times.

 

 

 

 

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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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