WESTMINSTER, Colo.—Within the next three years, LTE could replace the TETRA system that currently provides mission-critical communications for public-safety agencies and other government organizations in Great Britain, an official said yesterday.

Since 2005, mission-critical communications have been transmitted over the Airwave system—a privately owned TETRA network that covers 99% of the land mass and 98% of the population in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). It serves “all three emergency services and other national users” that pay subscriptions fees, according to Gordon Shipley of the United Kingdom Home Office. Although the performance of the TETRA system is “very good,” it is “extremely expensive” for users, particularly when compared to the plummeting per-minute costs of commercial wireless air time, he said.

In addition, the contracts associated with the Airwave system are scheduled to expire from 2016 to 2020, so the UK Home Office is looking for alternatives, Shipley said.

“Because [the Airwave network is] a TETRA-based system, it’s narrowband data,” Shipley said during the session. “One of the things which has become clear is that the emergency services are now increasingly going broadband services, which can provide even higher speeds. And we need to provide a better, more reliable and secure service for broadband, as well as narrowband voice. So, my program’s responsibility is to find a replacement for critical voice, as well broadband data services, and to do so cost effectively.

“We think, in the UK, that 4G LTE promises significant benefits over the current service that we buy.”

UK officials will conduct a supplier conference next month to get input on the notion of having a public-safety LTE system operational in December 2016, with the entire system transitioned to the 4G technology by 2020, Shipley said.

This development could have an impact in the United States, which is trying to get 3GPP—the global standards body for LTE—to include public-safety requirements such as mission-critical voice in future revisions of LTE that can be implemented in the nationwide broadband network being built by FirstNet, according to Andrew Thiessen, who helps lead the standards effort for Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR), a unit of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.

“I think it’s imperative that everyone in the audience understand that the United States isn’t the only country that’s actually looking forward to LTE,” Thiessen said during the session. “In many ways, the United Kingdom is actually working faster than FirstNet, looking at a 2016 date for mission-critical voice.”

Of course, one of the key requirements for public safety is mission-critical, push-to-talk voice. A draft set of requirements for push-to-talk over LTE has been distributed to officials in other countries, and the initial response has been positive, Thiessen said.

“We’re actually getting pretty close,” he said. “The comments that we’re getting back are more about clarification of what a particular sentence meant and less so about, ‘Well, we view things very differently.’ Public safety operates fairly similar globally, so push to talk is push to talk, whether it’s TETRA or P25 or whether it’s the United Kingdom or the United States—the expectations of the user community are very similar.”