Federal R&D money for public-safety LTE should be accelerated
Can a dedicated public-safety LTE network provide mission-critical voice functionality to first responders? If so, when can it be expected and under what conditions?
These may be the most perplexing and significant long-term questions facing public safety, because the answers will dictate whether cash-strapped agencies should plan on their current LMR systems being their last — or whether agency budgets for the next several decades (or forever) need to include upgrades to LMR networks.
This is not a new revelation — the topic has been addressed in numerous Urgent Communications articles and webinars during the past year, and we certainly don’t have a monopoly on the subject. While these discussions have fostered some tremendous insights and spirited debate, the fact is that no one really knows whether mission-critical voice over LTE is a practical option, particularly in rural areas. This needs to change, as soon as possible.
Mind you, there are vendors and consultants that have conducted their own analyses of the situation and offered various viewpoints, which provide some interesting perspectives and are valuable. However, these opinions often are discounted because (1) they are based on projections, and (2) many believe that the conclusions are skewed by business interests — i.e., that LMR companies are too negative regarding LTE mission-critical voice for self-preservation reasons, while the cellular industry is more bullish on LTE than it should be.
What is needed is an independent assessment of the situation, supported by facts based from both laboratory results and real-world network experiences, not just projections based on models generated by simulation software.
The good news is that Congress approved spending $135 million in research-and-development (R&D) money for public-safety broadband applications, which would include mission-critical voice and a plethora of data applications that would make the network more attractive to potential first-responder customers. The bad news is that this R&D funding likely will not be available for several years.
This is bad timing, for several reasons. Public-safety entities — many of which recently rebanded or narrowbanded their existing LMR networks — do not want to spend millions of dollars on a new or upgraded LMR system if LTE can provide the same mission-critical-voice functionality. On the other hand, no one wants a first-responder agency to depend on LTE voice if it cannot meet mission-critical standards.
Also caught in the middle are vendors, which are left in limbo as potential public-safety customers try to make long-term decisions while looking into a hazy crystal ball. This situation promises to get worse over time, not better, as uncertainty continues.
Finally, the issue extends to the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board that will oversee the deployment of a nationwide public-safety LTE network. If the LTE network can provide mission-critical data and voice, it should be pretty simple to make a business case for public-safety entities to join the network — and it will be easier to make a case for Congress to provide additional funding for the initiative, if necessary.
But if the LTE network provides only mission-critical-data functionality, FirstNet’s task to attract users could be more challenging, because public-safety entities would have to maintain their LMR networks for voice communications. In addition, the design of a voice-and-data network (and devices) may be different than the design for a data-only network.
With this in mind, accelerating the R&D money for public-safety broadband would be very helpful in the near future, instead of waiting years to begin this critical work. It is important that independent research be conducted as soon as possible to provide the industry with some clarity on the mission-critical-voice question and develop the kind of data applications that will be compelling to first-responder agencies participating in the broadband initiative.
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