Global ecosystem for public-safety LTE begins to look realistic
Last week’s conference hosted by the Public Safety Communication Research (PSCR) program outside of Denver was an eye-opening event in many ways. It’s difficult to believe that this same event last year—held in March 2012—was where public-safety representatives unofficially celebrated their political victory in convincing Congress to dedicate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum and $7 billion to a nationwide first-responder broadband network.
During the last 16 months, many things have changed dramatically. The once-powerful Public Safety Alliance has taken a lower profile, with many of the key players now serving in different capacities. Meanwhile, the FirstNet board mentioned in the legislation has been established and is hiring staff to execute its exciting-but-daunting mission.
Certainly there have been other significant developments, from the technical work done by PSCR to explore public-safety’s ability to leverage LTE technology effectively in a mission-critical environment for data and, eventually, voice.
But one of the clear trends emerging from the conference is that the actions associated with the FirstNet initiative are being monitored very closely and promise to have far-reaching effects. The PSCR conference attracted 480 attendees, quadrupling the number of participants in the inaugural event three years ago.
Perhaps most notable is the fact that not all attendees were from the United States or hope to be part of the FirstNet effort. Many speakers came from other countries, and all of them communicated an interest in having LTE become the next-generation technology for their first-responder communications.
Of course, these international stories varied considerably, as one might expect. Pushing the migration to LTE most urgently was an official from the United Kingdom, who said the UK would like to replace its massive TETRA system with LTE as quickly as 2016, if the mission-critical-voice questions can be resolved. Germany also is interested in LTE but still is trying to complete its TETRA system at the moment, according to a speaker from that country.
Such considerations have the blessings of the TETRA & Critical Communications Association (TCCA), which has created a Critical Communications Broadband Group that has released a white paper that outlines its plans for migrating critical communications to LTE.
A representative from Canada expressed confidence that his country soon would approved a spectrum plan that would align with the U.S. public-safety broadband initiative, which should make interoperability easier and improve economies of scale for equipment within North America. A similar story was shared by a speaker from Australia—the continent has reserved 800 MHz spectrum for public-safety broadband and is following the FirstNet development with interest.
For the FirstNet initiative, all of this international interest in public-safety LTE could have significant ramifications. Within the 3GPP body that governs LTE standards, the impact already has been felt, as some key public-safety requirements are on track to be included in LTE Release 12, thanks largely to a letter of support from the TCCA. Knowing that public-safety LTE is more than a U.S. initiative means that 3GPP is more willing to consider public-safety-specific requirements in its standards work.
And potentially having a global public-safety standard could have a massive impact on pricing for equipment and applications, if managed correctly. The worldwide first-responder market will always be dwarfed by the larger commercial market, but the public-safety sector is large enough for manufacturers and developers to take notice, especially if they don’t have to make significant overhauls to their existing commercial products to participate.
Of course, significant challenges remain. Funding is a problem worldwide, and there are significant technical hurdles that must be cleared to make mission-critical voice over broadband—something the military has done for years—affordable to domestic first responders. However, my bet is that these technical issues can be overcome, particularly if the brightest communications minds in the world—not just those in the U.S.—are given the resources and support needed to make it a reality.