View from the Top

Will LTE broadband replace public-safety, mission-critical LMR voice systems in 3-5 years? I don’t think so.

FirstNet's broadband network will offer public safety new tools to help accomplish the mission and, for many years, will supplement—rather than replace—public-safety land mobile radio.

By Harlin R. McEwen

Recently there has been considerable discussion whether and when public safety can rely on voice for mission-critical communications over the planned nationwide, public-safety broadband Long Term Evolution (LTE) network. Having been active in law enforcement and public safety for over 50 years, I have experienced a variety of technology and operational transitions, including a number of those in public safety communications. During my career, I have seen the introduction of different frequency bands, trunked radio operations, and digital radio. In each of these cases, the new communications tools that resulted have supplemented existing operations, with both used together side by side, often indefinitely. As new capabilities have been introduced, it has been important to ensure that the new technology or approach meets public safety's needs in the stressed environment in which we operate, before abandoning systems already being used.

The same will hold true as we move down the path of implementing the FirstNet nationwide, public-safety broadband network now being planned, based on LTE technology. The broadband network will offer public safety new tools to help accomplish the mission and, for many years, will supplement—rather than replace—public-safety land mobile radio.

In the case of public safety broadband LTE, various technical experts debate when this network will include the technical capability for public-safety-grade "mission-critical voice" and when that capability will be incorporated into the LTE standards. These are important factors. Historically, networks based on commercial standards have not supported direct-mode talk-around communications between two or more first responders or group calls among multiple responders that are essential operational requirements for public safety. The nationwide public-safety broadband network will need those capabilities, if it is ever able to meet the threshold technology requirements for mission-critical voice operations.

In a recent article in Urgent Communications, one writer said “The LMR people are trying to push for a slow evolution, but that’s just a business strategy—it’s not based on reality.” This kind of thinking ignores the history and evolution of public-safety communications that I personally have witnessed. I can assure you that the experts in public-safety communications who have examined this issue carefully are not being driven by the LMR industry.

Public-safety agencies across the country have dedicated time and resources to continually improve their land-mobile-radio systems, so they provide the coverage and operational capabilities for voice required in a given locality, region or state. Rather than focusing only on the technology capability of the new broadband network, public safety must examine the overall picture, including technology capability, standardization, degree of coverage and operational capabilities, as tested in the stressed public-safety environment.

The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), together with the APCO Broadband Committee, examined this issue extensively and NPSTC issued a paper on April 15, 2013, titled “Why can’t public safety just use cell phones and smart phones for their mission critical voice communications?” The paper is primarily addressed to local, tribal, state and federal officials and concludes that “Local, tribal, state, and federal public officials are urged to not abandon or stop funding their public-safety voice LMR systems until such time as it can be demonstrated that broadband can safely and adequately provide public safety with the mission-critical requirements currently provided by LMR.”

Based on my many years of experience in public safety communications, I wholeheartedly endorse this conclusion.


Harlin McEwen serves as chairman of the Communications & Technology Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), a position he has held for more than 35 years. He is a career law-enforcement officer and executive who has served in all ranks of law enforcement from patrol officer to chief and in all levels of government—local, state and federal. He is a recognized expert in the field of public-safety communications and is a Life Member and Honorary President of the IACP, as well as a Life Member of the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO). McEwen also serves as chairman of the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) and is a member of the governing board of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).

Discuss this Blog Entry 12

canningt (not verified)
on Aug 6, 2013

Thank-you for this reinforcement message Harlin. I agree with your observations that migration from a functioning voice commmunications platform to something new and better will not occur overnight. I would also opine that the proposed FirstNet LTE system will not solve the national interoperability problem that exists in North America - only a dramatic change in the attitudes of users will crack that nut effectively.

GBH (not verified)
on Aug 6, 2013

The disconnect of reality spun by IT Marketeers and the reality faced by those that use radio for communications is amusing. Here in Montana even the low bitrate P25 digital technology has been found to be too fragile for successful public safety LMR, and nearly all agencies have gone back to analog after a very expensive experiment. The idea then that some multmegabit technology would then be tough enough for reliable voice communications over the terrain out here is out of the question. Im sure it works great at the lab and at tradeshows, but out in the field is a whole other matter.

bob (not verified)
on Aug 6, 2013

Well spoken by one of the dinosaurs of the industry. Its thinking like that which has made the P25 "standard" the longest 'in-development' standard in the history of world. Seriously.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from guys like mr. McEwan is that new technology needs to be fostered, incubated and developed more quickly and the roadblocks to get to the goal need to be circumvented in a timely matter instead of "eventually". You already have PS using LTE where they can get it - so lets standardize it and roll it out to the masses!

What FirstNet has going for it right now is TIME. Time is on its side: 18-24 months till real bids come out, another 3-6 to respond, another 6 to award, about 12 months for Motorola to protest (yah, you know they will - they always do). Then 2-4 years (at least) to build out the networks. That equals ~6-8 years. So Mr. McEwen is very safe to say "not within 3-5 years".
We should not be talking about 'if' it will replace LMR, but instead 'how' it will replace LMR. If we don't, we run the risk of FirstNet becoming a big fat example of how to waste time and dollars instead of the technology showcase it has the potential to be.
Will LMR completely go away? No. There will always be the need for a base line communications system. But we are quickly seeing the days of LMR being robust enough to handle PS communications.

AnonymousRadioNY (not verified)
on Aug 7, 2013

Wow Bob, please put the kool-aid down and come back to reality. With all do respect you have no clue what you are talking about. The Feds couldn't print enough money fast enough to support this type of building out. Even if the funding was unlimited, it could never happen in your "proposed" time lines.

Let's get to the heart and sole of this entire boondoogle. After many years at it, driven by positive revenue streams not even the commercial cell carriers have full US coverage, espicially within rural areas. So, if this is going to be a "network for the people" I forsee many public safety agencies simply saying thanks but no thanks, we will do our own thing. This is going to be even more prevalant when they get the hefty monthly access charges and the 2k price tag per device. The system will simply collapse itself.

The reason P25 never took off they way industry and the feds pushed it was because for most public safety applications it simply just doesn't work. Just ask the FDNY about the digital radio trials on the fire ground and what they found. To this day, the technology has not been successfully fixed to work in tight quarters and high noise environments.

Now Firstnet may be a great thing to share data and for computer/IP type comunications but never mission critical voice. They will never be able to build that big of a netwrok that quickly. Add in the typical government and large corporation fashion waste, fraud, and corruption will wreak havoc on the project.

They need to stop the non sense, unfreeze the tband and lets all get back to real work and stop playing with each other over this.

Let the cell carriers do the dirty work or simply bring back nextel, lol.

bob (not verified)
on Aug 7, 2013

To AnonymousRadioNY - Koolaid? I'm the guy trying to get everyone to put down the old, stale stuff you all have been drinking for too many years.

To address your concerns though - of course its underfunded. And $2k devices are already the norm, unless you are buying Cobra radios from best buy. How much is an APEX again? Even low end PS quality gear is a minimum $1k - and thats not even with P25 & encryption thrown in.

VoIP is already here. Yah, its not perfect and not ready for PS - but look at where it was a couple years ago and think about where it will be in a couple years. VoLTE is on its way. And if there was a strong enough business case - it would happen even sooner. And my buildout timeline was optimistic.

Yah, we are already seeing the corruption and waste. I doubt FirstNet could survive a real-life audit today. Where's the shock in that?

The non-sense though is thinking 1950's radio is the end-all-be-all of PS comms. You can go hug your HAM radio and I'll be next to ya watching the live video stream and interacting with individuals on the scene while conferencing with other leaders who could not make it on scene.

Del Freret (not verified)
on Aug 8, 2013

I am not a professional in this field. Just a retired Navaids, comm tech. But our county is 85% forest, mountainous, sparsely populated, and not wealthy. Available mountain top locations are few due to Forest Service, Nat'l Park, Indian Tribal, and other access restrictions and difficulties. Adding the number of repeater sites for digital is absolutely impossible (unless there is MASSIVE federal funding.
Even LMR coverage is marginal.

AnonymousRadio NY (not verified)
on Aug 8, 2013


So let me pick apart some of your statements here, If I may.

Koolaid is when you think that the APEX is the only game in town, and it has to cost 2K for a portable. Now I have to admit, that is the only decent portable (audio and function) wise to come out of Motorola since the saber series, however there are MANY portables with p25 and even encryption that can be had for 1-1.5k. For a PS grade portable without the useless P25 and encryption 1K and slightly below. Please rationally explain to me what really is the list of benefits of P2 P25.

RoIP is most definitely here. I have installed numerous IP based analog voting systems using an all IP platform over the last 4 years that I lost track. By far, it is superior to phone lines, channel banks, status tones and the like of yester year. I am all for the technology and am knee deep into it.

As for your time lines, it is just never going to happen. This entire experiment is a colossal waste of time and money, and will ultimately collapse under its on weight. If applied properly, we could achieve linked systems and regional interoperability very simply. It just takes cooperation and proper guidance by all local entities. Why hasn't this really happen, good question? Simply because no one wants to play together, and when it happens its a rare occasion. This is another reason this will be a failure or so severely underused that it will just go away with time. Most agencies will say we are going to do our own thing, and rightfully so.

Now, the meat and potatoes. You mention, " The non-sense though is thinking 1950's radio is the end-all-be-all of PS comms. You can go hug your HAM radio and I'll be next to ya watching the live video stream and interacting with individuals on the scene while conferencing with other leaders who could not make it on scene."

Well, I will go hug my ham radio. A quick search of history will reveal that amateur radio plays a vital and almost essential part in almost every US natural disaster. Why you ask, its simple, straight forward high powers analog radio. Clear, intelligible and reliable communications that stays on the air when your phone lines, cell sites, camera phones, 4g texting devices and face book updater simply stops working.

Again, I will say this loud and clear so all the blow hards, politicians, corporate hacks and thieves hear me loud and clear (in analog I might add) - NO ONE in public safety wants to rely on a cell phone device for their emergency communications. Legacy, push to talk hardened devices and networks in analog is what is needed now and for the future for public safety.

It is amazing how drown in our own BS of cell phone stuck to the head syndrome has dumbed down this country. I always say, look to history to predict the future. Simply put almost every natural and manmade disaster has caused major failures of cell networks to the point of not being usable. The same thing will happen, especially if the network is shared - no matter what the industry JO's will tell you.

Imagine a fire fighter in one of the world trade centers trying to utilize a LTE device when every a hole and their mother is snapping pics and updating their face book and twitter accounts... Good Luck with that.

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