Urgent Matters

Dramatic changes in LTE landscape bust myths, provide FirstNet with new options

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The commercial wireless industry has experienced a remarkable amount of change in recent years with the deployment of LTE and other technologies, shattering many long-held assumptions about the industry. The impact of these changes seem certain to impact FirstNet officials as key decision are made this year.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Those famous words from Dorothy to her dog Toto—after Dorothy believes the two of them were swept away by a cyclone—marked the beginning of an adventurous journey through a fantastical world that bore little resemblance to her simple hometown in the The Wizard of Oz.

Frankly, I hadn’t given this classic story a second thought since seeing the prequel Wicked on stage more than a decade ago. But this single line has been crossing my mind repeatedly since attending the LTE North America show in Dallas several weeks ago, when I—like Dorothy upon entering Oz—was overwhelmed by the remarkable amount of change that the commercial wireless world is experiencing and how many long-held assumptions about the cutthroat industry have been destroyed during the past few years.

Some of the myths that have been shattered include:

Carriers won’t share network infrastructure with competitors: Wireless service providers stopped owning their own towers a long time ago (companies like American Tower and Crown Castle now dominate the space), but they generally maintained separate antenna systems on towers and a similar approach was taken indoors, as well. That’s not the case anymore.

At LTE North America, the indoor-coverage discussion centered on how to implement neutral-host distributed antenna systems (DAS), not whether it was a good idea. And there was a growing sentiment at the show that shared outdoor infrastructure could become more common in the U.S. in the future, based on the success seen with that model in the United Kingdom. Can mutually beneficial sharing arrangements be reached with public safety, particularly in terms of indoor coverage?

Carriers want customers to use their networks exclusively, because that’s how they can charge them an make money: For years, public-safety representatives cited this argument as the reason carriers would not support the development of standards for peer-to-peer communications, which is a staple in the LMR world.

But the reality in today’s world is that the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for bandwidth has carriers looking to offload traffic from their networks whenever possible, because they know that they can’t build networks fast enough to keep up with consumers’ demands. In fact, discussions of 5G—expected as early as 2020—indicate that it is not as much a new technology as it is an integration of existing communications systems, including LTE and Wi-Fi.

A single device can only support a limited number of bands and protocols: It wasn’t that long ago that multiband devices were considered an engineering marvel, with some questioning whether having a device work in more than three bands was feasible. But today’s smartphones support an amazing number of bands, multiple generations of cellular technologies and the “table stakes” capabilities of Bluetooth, satellite location and near-field communication.

In short, if there is an economic case for including functionality in a device, it seems like the technological hurdles to do so can be cleared.

LTE is good for data, but not voice: In just a few short years, LTE has transformed the way people consume data, but voice was not part of the standard initially. Today, consumer-grade high-definition (HD) voice over LTE is being rolled out by carriers throughout the world, and initial audio-quality tests are yielding impressive results. We’re still a year or two from having standard for mission-critical voice over LTE, but its arrival could be transformational to first responders, if the audio quality can be maintained when devices operate in peer-to-peer mode.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on Jan 8, 2015

An excellent article representing the dynamic growth of this segment of the industry but it also reveals why FirstNet can not succeed. Remember the RFIs of the past. My guess is that the evolution of the industry has already turned them into waste paper.
There is no way an underfunded government bureaucracy which still lacks a business plan can deploy its objective and still be relevant to its intended users. While FirstNet diddles around First Responders are denied the communications resource they seems to need so desperately even as they are surrounded by modern functioning networks that can serve there needs. It past time to rethink the FirstNet strategy.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 8, 2015

Parts of Europe are doing away with the TETRA communications system (operated by a private company) because it is too expensive.

Many current LMR systems use telephone lines/systems to get signals to and from towers/repeater sites, etc. When something goes wrong at the telephone companies central office (or even better - at one of their "connection points" behind a locked door (!) at some non-descript location AND NO ONE WITH A KEY CAN BE LOCATED, the problem can't be fixed until the door is opened - possibly many hours or days later...
If public safety communications depends on privately owned (profit driven) companies, when (NOT IF!) there are problems with equipment, the public safety entity will be at the mercy of the LTE (read that as "cellular") provider. The cost of LTE communications devices (read that as "special" cell phones), the cost of the service, etc. will all be determined by the carrier. The areas that have coverage will be determined by the profit driven cellular (I mean LTE) provider...
Years ago, when we had a power failure, it was normally fixed within a short period of time - typically less than 2 hours. Then the local power company (a monopoly) decided to "lay off" all their repairmen and hire private contractors.... After this "transition" to private contractors occurred, I witnessed a power line that had fallen from a pole, dancing around and setting fire to the blacktop. Volunteer firemen showed up, about an hour after the call went to the power company, and they put cones out to try and warn drivers to stay away. It was over 6 hours later that the "contractors" showed up to fix the line. This happened in a residential neighborhood - kids playing nearby...
Who will own the LTE public safety communications system? Who will maintain the system and the "radios" used by police, fire, public works, etc.? Who will make the 1am service call to restore communications (current "public safety" technicians have to respond within 30 to 60 minutes!)?
Salesmen will sell everything they can... That is what they do. But do we need what they are selling?

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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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