NTIA should consider certain LTE projects as testbed opportunities
One of the great things about modern technology is the ability to simulate reality. In the entertainment world, this computer-generated capability revolutionized special effects in movies and spawned the video game industry. In many fields, a great deal of training can be done in simulators without the real-life consequences of mistakes.
In the wireless industry, there is a host of great software that provides predictive coverage and network-usage projections that has made communications-systems planning much easier than it was even a decade ago.
While these are all great tools, no one should confuse any of them with reality and the knowledge gained from real-world experience. For all the careful planning by humans and computers that goes into the deployment of any wide-area wireless communications network, it is rare that a system is deployed and optimized perfectly upon the first day of installation.
As with all aspects of life, things tend to crop up in communications that were not planned for — some that could have been anticipated and others that are impossible to foresee. It's part of the "magic" of wireless.
This subject has become particularly relevant in recent months, as federal officials try to determine the best way to deploy the much-anticipated 700 MHz nationwide public-safety broadband network. Last month, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) decided to halt the handful of early LTE deployments that already were funded with grant money.
NTIA officials' concerns are understandable. After all, the $7 billion earmarked for the nationwide network is not expected to be enough to complete the job, so the last thing the federal government wants is to spend $350 million on a handful of LTE systems that might not fit the nationwide plan that the FirstNet board is expected to create late this year or next year.
In addition, work on some of these early LTE projects were accelerated to meet NTIA grant timelines, with some normal planning steps being hurried or ignored altogether. For the many projects in this category, the NTIA freeze should be considered a blessing.
But there are some LTE deployments that were proceeding as scheduled and were set to go live this summer — for instance, the city of Charlotte, N.C., was planning to integrate its new LTE system into the security plan for the Democratic National Convention the city will host this fall.
Charlotte's interoperability should not be an issue; in fact, the chairman of the FCC interoperability board led the design of the city's LTE system. In addition, Charlotte does not plan to own its own LTE core, opting instead to leverage the hosted core from a vendor.
In such situations, NTIA should consider seriously the possibility of allowing the planned deployment to proceed. Yes, there is a possibility that a site or two in the system might not be optimized the way the FirstNet board ultimately will want it done, but that should not outweigh the potential knowledge that could be gained by deploying a public-safety LTE network and seeing it work in real life — particularly under the traffic and stress associated with a large event like a national political convention.
This should not be interpreted as an endorsement of letting all early LTE deployments proceed. However, assuming that standardized LTE is used in accordance with interoperability guidelines, such real-world deployments can be valuable test-beds that can provide valuable information — good and bad — that can be leveraged by FirstNet as it designs this much-anticipated network.
Simulation programs and white papers are nice tools, but nothing beats real-world experience.
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