For decades, public-safety agencies traditionally have owned their mission-critical communications systems, with many opting to hire trained staff to execute much of the repair and maintenance work on these networks. However, with dedicated public-safety LTE networks coming online, economic and technical realities are dictating different models for the implementation and ongoing operations of this new broadband wireless technology.
Ultimately, the business model used to deploy and maintain public-safety LTE networks will be influenced tremendously by national policymakers’ decisions regarding the rules, funding and governance of these dedicated 4G systems. As of press time, this direction remained the subject of consideration within Congress and likely will be debated by policymakers at the FCC for years to come.
Regardless of which business model ultimately is chosen, there is little doubt that LTE-based communications will provide a much different environment than the first-responder community has experienced in the LMR arena — and not just because 4G data speeds will dwarf anything that is capable on the fastest narrowband networks, which in turn will enable a host of advanced public-safety applications.
By all accounts, the hope is that dedicated LTE systems ideally would provide similar coverage and the same kind of reliability — perhaps even better — than mission-critical LMR networks do today. In addition, public safety would have priority to control network trafficking, including authentication and levels of bandwidth usage.
But political, technological and financial limitations dictate that the management of these all-IP systems will be vastly different from the traditional LMR model, where radio personnel employed by the public-safety agency directly identified and addressed issues related to network maintenance and upgrades.
“Ten years ago, if you had a site down, a service technician would go and troubleshoot it with his spectrum analyzer and service monitor and would fix it,” mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said. “Today, the guy looks at the computer screen, calls a subcontractor and says, ‘Go to Site 157, pull card 4B and put a new one in,’ and that’s it — it’s done.
“And, by the way, the guy sitting in front of the computer may be 3,000 miles away from the cell site. So, it’s a totally different world.”
This scenario is just one example of the multilayered interdependence envisioned by many for the private, mission-critical LTE systems that will be designed to meet the needs of public safety, but also could be used by other government and mission-critical enterprises. Many envision that the operation of such systems will depend on leveraging a plethora of public and private partnerships, with third-party entities hosting much of the hardware and providing services for the systems.
The prospect of such flexibility has created considerable excitement throughout the industry, but the many changes and unknowns associated with broadband technology are expected to generate challenges that could prove to be daunting. Brian Kassa, head of convergence for Nokia Siemens Networks, compared the transition to westward expansion in the United States.
“We’re all sitting somewhere around the Mississippi River with our wagons, our teams, our families and all of our provisions,” Kassa said. “We’re headed for California, and we don’t know what it’s going to be when we get there.”
While the path to broadband promises to include some significant changes for public-safety entities that have relied on older LMR networks, the transformation may be more of an evolution — rather than a revolution — for agencies that are part of the growing trend of regional systems that often are built with Project 25–compliant technology.
These systems typically are designed to enhance interoperability in a geographic area, so that they can be eligible for federal grants. Such arrangements may mean an agency must relinquish some level of control in the network it uses, which traditionally has been a foreign concept. But many government entities have recognized that they can have a more robust mission-critical network by utilizing the resources of all participating agencies than they could ever build by themselves, so they have been willing to make the trade.
“I think the RF-to-IT transition had already started, even in LMR,” said James Teel, director of business development for Harris. “As LTE comes out, I think there’s going to be a bigger demand there to work with CIOs and IT organizations, because it’s an IP network.”
Seybold echoed this opinion, noting that such a transition is not unique to public-safety agencies.
“If you look at what happened in large businesses, there used to be an IT shop and a telecommunications shop,” he said. “The telecommunications shop is gone; it’s all IT. … As the LMR guys who know their stuff retire over the years, they get replaced by IT guys. For LTE, that’s good; for LMR, that’s bad.”
While each CIO and IT staffer is different, they tend to be more comfortable dealing with IP-based solution than LMR networks, so gravitating to an all-IP commercial technology like LTE should be natural. Furthermore, decision makers with an IT background are accustomed to outsourcing parts of a communications solution — in some cases, all of the solution — when it makes economic sense to do so.
Having a qualified third party handle significant portions of LTE network operations could be particularly attractive to some entities because most people who know the 4G technology well are paid handsomely by commercial vendors, consultants and carriers, so they typically don’t work for a government or public-safety agency.
“There’s probably a big gap there relative to deep understanding, particularly in terms of how to manage the network and keep it operating,” Teel said. “I think that’s where we will see the vendor community moving toward providing hosted solutions and/or managed services. Even if the customer chooses to build and own [the network], it may outsource the operation to a third party.”
Indeed, companies like Harris, Motorola Solutions and Alcatel-Lucent all are offering various levels of hosted LTE solutions and services to address market demand from public-safety entities. In Charlotte, N.C., the city has contracted with Alcatel-Lucent to build a public-safety 700 MHz LTE network and was the first to announce that it would utilize an LTE core hosted by its vendor.
“The hosted model takes a lot of the risk out of it for them and entrusts it to a vendor who manages networks as part of their core competency,” said Morgan Wright, vice president of Alcatel-Lucent’s global public-safety segment.
Chuck Robinson, the key business executive for the city of Charlotte’s business support services, said that many factors were considered in making the decision to opt for a hosted-core model.
First, the massive capacity of an LTE core means that no public-safety entity needs to own the core purely for capacity reasons — as a point of comparison, nationwide commercial carriers with more than 100 million users will deploy only a handful of LTE cores nationwide, Robinson said. Second, the uncertain rules regarding LTE deployments — early builders eventually may have to turn over their networks to an entity that supports a nationwide network — meant that spending considerable capital and operations dollars on an expensive core did not make fiscal sense.
Perhaps most important, Charlotte lacked the technical expertise in LTE to be comfortable running its own core, Robinson said.
“We never intended to get into the LTE business. Our approach has always been to contract to build, operate and maintain, because we knew we didn’t have the skill set,” he said. “We always knew that, even if we owned a core, we weren’t going to be operating and managing it. It’s a small step from that [realization] to a hosted solution.”
While the LTE core probably is the most significant hardware that can be hosted by a third party, it certainly is not the only aspect that can be outsourced. There are a wide range of services — from maintenance agreements to billing solutions — that may be more appropriately outsourced than handled in-house by a public-safety entity.
“To properly run an LTE network … there are a number of things that are beyond just throwing up the towers and making sure an IP packet gets from point A to point B,” Kassa said.
Making multiple-use cases work
Another advantage to a hosted-services model for private LTE networks is that the proposed 4G systems may be used by more than traditional public-safety entities, such as police, fire and EMS. Cities like Charlotte and Seattle already have made clear their desire to let all government personnel access their 700 MHz broadband networks.
Meanwhile, there is a push among many in public safety to allow certain key private enterprises — utilities, transportation and critical-infrastructure entities — access to the network on a secondary basis. Such partnerships can help lower deployment and operational costs associated with the network and enhance interoperable communications between key sectors when large-scale incidents occur.
Furthermore, given the significantly greater site and backhaul demands that an LTE system requires compared to an LMR network, being able to access the real-estate, financial and fiber resources that these critical-infrastructure entities already have can greatly enhance the network.
“That is a common thread that we’ve encountered in the market,” Teel said. “I think that there’s a strong realization, even within the public-safety enterprise, that they need to look at LTE from a community/regional perspective to get the leverage they’re going to need.”
Technologically such arrangements can work, because LTE offers several layers of prioritization that will allow all entities on a network to be served appropriately, according to several industry sources.
As is often the case, the biggest challenge to LTE deployments will be in rural areas; in fact, many public-safety officials believe it never will be economically feasible for 700 MHz LTE to be used in sparsely populated areas that today are served by LMR networks that use higher-powered systems operating on spectrum with much better propagation characteristics.
Given the fact that LTE systems provide so much data throughput and that there may not be other broadband providers in those areas, Seybold has long contended that these rural scenarios might be appropriate for allowing public access to 700 MHz networks. A workable model could generate more revenue for the private network and help close the so-called “digital divide” in rural areas.
Seybold said that he believes there are several potential private LTE business models. They range from major metropolitan areas with significant resources that will own their own core and manage their own networks to rural areas that will have to depend entirely on pay-as-you-go models with all infrastructure and services provided by a third party, with several combinations in between.
Whatever the LTE model, public-safety agencies should get comfortable with the notion that they will be leveraging both LMR voice and LTE data communications networks for quite some time, Teel said.
“It’s probably going to be a long time — if ever — before you have LTE in all the places that today we have narrowband LMR,” Teel said. “So, therefore, think about … the two networks as integrated or converged together. We believe that it’s very, very important that we think about this holistically and that these two worlds will coexist for a long period of time.”