Is TETRA on its way to North America?
For the last decade or so, a question repeatedly has resurfaced in the U.S. market: Why can't the European trunked radio standard TETRA be deployed on U.S. soil? And the finger always pointed to Motorola — the technology's primary intellectual property rights holder — because of its alleged unwillingness to license that technology here.
So it was quite an interesting turn of events to learn that, with Motorola's blessing, the Utilities Telecom Council's technical division is forming a working group to identify the technical issues related to use of the technology in the U.S. for utilities and to find a way to make the standard meet FCC equipment requirements.
The UTC and other industrial industries had been making noise about their desire to deploy TETRA in the U.S. — and for good reason. 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.
Last year, the TETRA Association created a working group in North America after it received questions from the UTC, which consists of more than 500 utility companies in the U.S., and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which represents 400 companies in the petroleum and natural-gas industries. While the TETRA Association is poised to construct demonstration networks in the U.S., BC Hydro in Canada has plans to commence a trial network.
The association in the past has said that the only factors keeping TETRA from coming to the U.S. were licensing issues; specifically, that Motorola — owner of some key TETRA intellectual property — wouldn't license the technology in North America. Motorola's official stance in the past was that the technology would have to become a Telecommunications Industry Association standard in the U.S. for Motorola to license it here.
Chuck Jackson, Motorola's sales and service vice president and director of systems operations, said Motorola's stance on TETRA intellectual property has been twisted a bit over the years. He said that, in the 1990s — when TETRA was being considered for the public-safety standard — Motorola was asked if it would license the technology. The vendor indicated it would, if TETRA became a TIA standard. TETRA subsequently was removed from consideration for the public-safety community, primarily because most public-safety users were — and still are — users of conventional systems.
"The problem that TETRA has is the constraints of the frequencies, the RF masks in U.S. spectrum. You can't type -accept the equipment," Jackson said. "What we've been saying, or at least what we think we've been saying is, 'Guys, you have to work out the technical issues. You have to go to TIA and do this.' People haven't understood that. … What we are finally saying here is that there are a whole lot of other issues, and if someone wants to take this on, we would be glad to participate."
It was in the pages of Urgent Communications that Jackson said he read of the UTC's interest in TETRA. "It was the first time we heard a user group saying they wanted this. We had not heard much from user groups," Jackson said. So his people wrote a letter to Jill Lyon, UTC vice president and general counsel, in essence saying that if the UTC is serious about this, Motorola will work with the group. That led to a face-to-face meeting in Washington, D.C., which led to the meeting in Las Vegas that ultimately formed the UTC's technical working group.
What happens next? Technical changes need to be made to the TETRA standard so that it can be type-accepted in the U.S. As Lyon explained, "Each private land mobile band has different bandwidths and power levels. Separate tweaks for each of those will be required so that TETRA can be rolled out."
One fundamental problem is that TETRA operates on 25 KHz channels. While that channel allocation is adequate to operate in the 800 MHz band, TETRA would have problems at 900 MHz and in the VHF and UHF bands once the FCC's narrowband deadline hits in 2013.
The main question is whether the TETRA standard itself would need to be altered. And if so, who would be in charge of altering it? Motorola has suggested that the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) could make recommendations for modifying the standard in the U.S. Or, TIA could take it on, as could an unnamed standards organization could. Even a user group like the UTC could become, in essence, a standards body.
However, Lyon said that, "TETRA manufacturers seem to think that the tweaks involved to meet U.S. rules are not something that would require a new standard."
As it has been explained to me, the technical hurdles to TETRA coming to the U.S. are not insurmountable. Let's hope the politics involved aren't either.
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