Will anything come from latest TETRA debate?
Once again, end users and vendors wanting to sell into the U.S. market are wondering why the European trunked radio standard TETRA isn’t utilized in the U.S. The question has been asked at different points during the last decade.
They ask because TETRA has been so widely deployed around the globe—by public-safety agencies, militaries, utilities and transportation companies—that the technology has attracted a number of vendors, which in turn has reduced the price of network and radio equipment.
More recently, utilities and transportation companies have been inquiring about TETRA and its ability to provide cost-effective push-to-talk services for their organizations. They complain that their options currently are limited to more expensive proprietary systems or Project 25 systems, which are both expensive and more focused on the public-safety community.
The TETRA Association is responding to their inquiries. Last year the association created a working group after it received questions from the Utility Telecommunications Council (UTC), which comprises more than 500 utility companies in the United States, and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which represents 400 companies in the petroleum and natural gas industries.
This new North America Working Group is responsible for “identifying the processes and working with the appropriate organizations required to facilitate the availability of TETRA technology in the United States,” the TETRA Association states.
The association and other technology influencers will be talking about the potential for TETRA in the U.S. during this year’s IWCE conference in Las Vegas. Phil Kidner, chief executive officer of the TETRA Association, said the group is looking to deploy pilot networks in North America this year with interested parties that aren’t in the public-safety community. The assumption is the pilots would be conducted with a utility or transportation entity.
Kidner told me that the only factor keeping TETRA from coming to the U.S. is licensing issues. Namely, Motorola—the owner of some key TETRA intellectual property—won’t license the technology here in the U.S.
Motorola has said it would license its TETRA patents in the U.S. if that standard is adopted by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), which adopted P25 more than a decade ago in this country.
“Previously, Motorola has gone on record and stated that it will license its TETRA IPR in the US after it becomes a TIA/US standard, and will do so in a fair and reasonable manner according to the policies set forth by the TIA/US organization,” Motorola said in a statement. The company has declined to comment beyond that.
Of course, TETRA will never become a TIA standard. It is a European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) standard and ETSI standards aren’t barred from the U.S. For example, both GSM and WCDMA commercial mobile standards are ETSI standards. So, going through the TIA process would be a complete waste of resources.
Many believe that Motorola is protecting its valuable P25 business in the U.S. by keeping TETRA competition out of the U.S. That may be true. But Motorola also is the largest TETRA vendor. Indeed, it boasts the largest TETRA deployment in the world in the U.K., a deployment that supports some 250,000 users. Motorola would hold its own in this market.
So I wonder what other motivations might have Motorola for not bringing TETRA to the U.S. Among the questions: What does the introduction of TETRA mean for the interoperability efforts the public-safety community has worked so hard to achieve with P25? And would the industry have to develop combined TETRA/P25 solutions that would possibly undermine the cost advantages of TETRA radios? These are relevant questions because it’s not just utilities and transportation companies that are interested in TETRA. Public safety has voiced interest too. And while it always has been envisioned that utilities and transportation companies would adopt P25 to enable interoperability with public-safety agencies, P25 hasn’t garnered the economies of scale to make it happen at this point.
Kidner said his association isn’t looking to force TETRA down anyone’s throat. He just wants end users to be able to choose their technology, whether that’s TETRA or P25. Interestingly, such a philosophy runs counter to the European philosophy that mandated GSM to achieve a cohesive network across the continent. In contrast, the U.S. wireless industry as a whole is based on technology neutrality, hence the hodge-podge of commercial wireless standards that has the upside of spurring competition and innovation but the downside of trying to create cohesive services out of incompatible technologies.
There are unanswered questions about how TETRA could work in U.S., such as whether certain installations are really as cost effective as people think, whether the technology works in interference-riddled spectrum and whether it fits into existing spectrum allocations. Who is willing to put forth the money to do this kind of leg work? TIA and other organizations, such as APCO, won’t.
Craig Jorgensen, APCO P25 project director, said that while the association doesn’t discourage any entity from looking into TETRA, it isn’t going to commit testing resources to it. “Individuals and agencies have the right to look into it,” he said. “That’s between the consumer and the supplier.”
So I suppose it will take a collective group of interested parties, perhaps led by the UTC and API, to put the money down (which will likely include lots of legal fees) and show Motorola that they are serious about bringing TETRA here. Until then, we’ll continue to hear about the desire for TETRA on this side of the pond, but nothing will change.