Michigan, Indiana test Motorola Solutions’ cloud-based Critical Connect as LMR-LTE interoperability platform
Results of initial testing in Michigan and Indiana indicate that Motorola Solutions’ Critical Connect cloud-based interoperability platform could be a “very powerful tool” that helps first responders share voice, data and video communications in the future, according to an official leading the Michigan statewide P25 system.
Brad Stoddard, director of the Michigan Public Safety Communications System (MPSCS) and Michigan’s Statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC), said the initial test results conducted between the MPSCS and Indiana P25 systems have been encouraging.
“There’s no doubt that LMR will be here for a period of time,” Stoddard said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “But I think we also need to make sure that there are tools like Critical Connect in place to augment LMR with LTE when coverage exists around country, with either of the carriers that are out there.”
Stoddard said he is hopeful that the Michigan-Indiana research will prove to be helpful to other public-safety entities trying to establish interoperable communications as first responders migrate from LMR-only communications to integrating LTE-based communications.
“We believe that the efforts we’re taking on now will serve as a roadmap or a plan for other states and communities to take advantage of this,” Stoddard said. “We realize that we’re at the tip of the spear, or whatever analogy you’d want to utilize.
“We’re breaking new ice for this scenario. There’s this second wave that we’re doing through September and October. We’re working with our Homeland Security’s cyber infrastructure security agency on an exercise with Critical Connect, and we’ll do LMR-to-LMR [communications] between states, and we’ll also include LMR-to-LTE and LTE-to-LTE.”
Kelly Dignin, Indiana’s Integrated Public Safety Commission (IPSC) executive director, echoed this sentiment.
“To keep citizens safe and provide emergency services, first responders must be able to share critical data, when needed, and in a format that’s usable,” Dignin said in a prepared statement. “Critical Connect will give us that next-level capability, opening the door to the convergence of LMR and LTE.”
For years, ISSI has been an interoperability option for agencies using P25 LMR technology—and as a linkage to PTT-over-cellular offerings that leverage carrier networks—but the logistical efforts and financial costs associated with actually linking disparate systems have proven impractical for many.
These issues multiply as agencies try to interoperate for the first time during a response effort or when more than a couple of ISSI links to other networks are needed. Such scenarios create a “spider web of cross-system connections and cross-carrier connections” that are “just not very helpful,” according to Chris Lonnett, Motorola Solutions’ vice president of Central Region sales.
In contrast, an agency can pay for a single connection to Motorola Solutions’ cloud-based Critical Connect and then have the option of initiating interoperable communications with other entities that also subscribe to Critical Connect, Lonnett said. One important aspect to this approach is that Motorola Solutions personnel—not personnel of the user agency—are responsible for executing the interoperable link, he said.
“Having that one connection and the cost of that one connection, versus this spider web of [ISSI connections], … we think this will resonate very well, as Brad and Indiana, have certainly seen in early testing,” Lonnett said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
“We can bring this solution to everyone a lot easier and bring some flexibility—talk group by talk group, some permanently set up to be patched and connected, while others are just connected on demand, as unplanned events happen. We are prepared to do that with our service personnel that are managing the Critical Connect cloud. This is a problem that we’re uniquely positioned to help solve, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Introduced by Motorola Solutions two years ago, Critical Connect is designed to provide a cloud-based P25 Interoperable Subsystem Interface (ISSI) solution that is designed to support interoperable communications between multiple LMR systems and broadband networks. While the initial version of Critical Connect only supported links between Motorola Solutions-owned ASTRO 25 and Kodiak push-to-talk-over-cellular offerings, the current version supports interoperability technology from other vendors, Lonnett said.
“We actually have a couple of competitive P25 networks interfaced with Critical Connect today for a couple of our customers,” he said.
Lonnett also noted that Critical Connect also can support interoperability with networks using MOTOTRBO, Motorola Solutions’ DMR system that has significant traction within school districts and key enterprises that may need to communicate with public safety during an emergency event.
Critical Connect supports carrier-integrated push-to-talk solutions utilizing Kodiak technology, which is available through Verizon and AT&T, which also is building the nationwide FirstNet system for public-safety. Motorola Solutions is listed as AT&T’s partner for the FirstNet deployment.
Establishing interoperability between PTT-over-cellular solutions from Verizon and AT&T has been challenging, even though both carriers use the Kodiak platform that Motorola Solutions bought in August 2017.
“I think this is important, to bring all of those solutions together,” Lonnett said. “We’re absolutely pleased with our partnership with AT&T and the winning FirstNet team and bringing that to customers.”
Stoddard said the Michigan testing has demonstrated that Critical Connect supports interoperability between P25 systems and the Verizon PTT-over-cellular service.
“FirstNet had first approached us, and then we never heard anything back from FirstNet about trying to make any type of connections between LMR and their FirstNet network,” Stoddard said. “In parallel, Verizon had approached, as well. Verizon was interested. We let them know that we wanted to drive everything through Critical Connect to make it much easier to manage.
“As a SWIC, I have ensure that there’s interoperability not only between radios but between carrier systems. So, our big-picture evaluation is to ensure that those users on FirstNet can communicate with those users on Verizon and pass the audio traffic between those two systems.”
In an ongoing FCC proceeding, some public-safety groups have expressed concern that PTT services from Verizon and FirstNet will not enable interoperability during an incident. Stoddard did not reference the FCC proceeding but expressed similar sentiments.
“I’ve had the discussions with FirstNet and how they’d interoperate in their toolsets with other carriers, and it hasn’t been a fruitful discussion,” Stoddard said. “This is where we believe, from a SWIC’s perspective, that responsibility is now on us to bring tools to bear that can connect these disparate carriers together, providing a homogenous—at least in the current scenario—voice connection between the two systems.”
ISSI has long been trumpeted by P25 proponents as a robust interoperability technology, but its actual usage has been well below the expectations of many in the public-safety community. Motorola Solutions believes that Critical Connect effectively removes many of downsides associated with ISSI while supporting greater flexibility and levels of interoperability, Lonnett said.
“ISSI is one of those solutions that we saw a lot of people had invested in but really wasn’t getting a lot of value out of.” Lonnett said. “We’re leveraging ISSI as part of Critical Connect, but instead of routing this cross-web of systems and trying to manage that complexity and cost amongst system owners, we simply just redirect those.
“We’ve found that the initial customer reaction has been very good value versus buying hardware … We kind of make the possibilities somewhat limitless, in terms of the network capabilities. You can really talk to whoever you want and need to talk to.”
When Critical Connect was introduced two years ago, the cloud-based solution conceptually received plaudits by some in the public-safety community. However, many expressed concern with the price of Critical Connect, which was “about $4,500 per month” to support interoperability with two outside networks, a Motorola Solutions official said during an APCO 2018 session.
When asked about pricing for the Critical Connect offering being tested in Michigan and Indiana, Stoddard said “we’re still working with Motorola on the cost aspect.”
Motorola Solutions declined to provide any specific information about Critical Connect pricing, but Lonnett described the cost model for pre-planned interoperability as “a very clear process, based on the number of networks, number of talk groups, number of users and timing. We work that out, and it makes it pretty easy.”
Critical Connect also allows subscribing agencies to have interoperable communications quickly with other Critical Connect subscribing entities, even if a link is not pre-planned, Lonnett said.
“We have an unplanned mode, where we just kind of turn the taxi meter on,” he said. “Obviously, we have the ability to do things on the fly for unplanned situations. We have factors and rates for each.”
Stoddard expressed optimism about public safety using Critical Connect as a key interoperability tool in the future, if a good pricing model is established.
“Even what we’ve seen of the testing so far—and we would assume that the pricing would be palatable for public safety, so their focus can be on interoperability and not back in hardware—it would be something that we would recommend,” Stoddard said.
Lonnett noted that Motorola Solutions has created a transition plan for agencies wanting to migrate from owning their ISSI to the cloud-based Critical Connect subscription service.
“In fact, we’re approaching our customers that have ISSI with a trade-in offer of sorts,” Lonnett said. “If they’d like to convert their ISSI to a Critical Connect subscription, we’ll let them do that.
“It’s really a newer and better way to get the desired functionality of ISSI, but it was missing that special sauce of someone being there to help make it work. We think we can fill those gaps and achieve the goal with this alternate approach. It’s a similar concept [to ISSI] but just a slightly different approach.”