Developing a dedicated public-safety broadband network is vital, but making the proposed LTE network vision a reality does not mean that first-responder agencies will be able to abandon their mission-critical LMR networks in the near term, according to a brochure released this week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Emergency Communications (OEC).

Entitled “Public Safety Communications Evolution,” the five-page brochure — a collaborative effort of DHS, SAFECOM and the National Council of Statewide Interoperability Coordinators — does not provide a host of new communications ideas and applications for the first-responder community. However, it does succinctly reiterate four key messages that elected officials and policymakers at all levels should keep in mind when making important policy decisions related to public-safety communications:

  • “In the near term, wireless broadband will complement LMR, not replace it.”
  • “Investments in LMR will continue to be necessary now and well into the future.”
  • “Public safety is using broadband today for data applications, but not for mission-critical, emergency-response voice communications.”
  • “In the future, broadband could support mission-critical voice” when technical requirements are met.

By themselves, none of these statements would be considered groundbreaking, as all of them have been stated many times in multiple forums by leaders in the public-safety community. But not all of these messages have been remembered by key decision-makers during the past two years, according to Charles Werner, vice chairman of SAFECOM.

“This [brochure is] trying to put some things to rest,” Werner said. “A number of people high up in the government were saying, ‘Broadband everything; LMR gone — so we don’t need to fund LMR stuff anymore, and we can put it all toward broadband.’”

Of course, that’s not the case — exactly how long it will take to develop mission-critical voice over broadband is a hot topic within the industry. Companies like Harris have developed push-to-talk applications that they claim to be mission-critical, but the end-to-end reliability is dependent on the network it runs over.

A dedicated LTE network and devices hardened to meet public-safety needs is a big step in the right direction, but even that is not enough. No matter how much money is spent on the proposed public-safety network, there is no way to guarantee coverage and availability 100% of the time. With this in mind, being able to utilize voice applications in peer-to-peer direct mode — a technical challenge, especially if device power levels are decreased to commercial LTE standards — is a necessity before public safety can even consider abandoning its LMR systems.

“We know that, in the near term, LMR will be in existence for awhile — realistically, for 10 years or more,” Werner said. “Until we actually have the … mission-critical voice standard is developed with devices that work off network, mission-critical voice (over broadband) will never become a reality until that is addressed.”

Eventually, public safety — like any enterprise — would like to converge its data and voice applications on a single platform instead of maintaining separate networks for separate applications. But key decision makers must recognize that LMR and LTE networks will have to co-exist for a significant amount of time, until the technical and financial hurdles have been cleared to make this convergence vision a reality.

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