Lost in transition
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Iain Ivory, founder and partner of Hermitage Comms

Iain Ivory speaks to Sam Fenwick about the issues surrounding the transition from PMR to mission-critical broadband

One of the best people to speak with, on the sidelines of critical communications events, to get a feel for what’s really going on is Iain Ivory. Founder and partner of Hermitage Comms, a telecoms and IT consultancy, he is also a member of TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group.

He says the challenge for the PMR industry is that it is getting “squeezed at both ends” – with low-end customers switching over to cellular and the high-end “value-add” side of things running up against cellular’s greater bandwidth, which has allowed it to capture the mobile working market.

“[PMR] will be around for many years, but in the early 2020s, [it] will be hugely challenged by 4G/5G services if we get to the point where MCPTT has matured. If the spectrum issue for private LTE systems gets addressed, there is a fundamental threat to the PMR market – in five to 10 years’ time it will be a shadow of its former self.”

One of Ivory’s biggest bugbears with PMR to LTE transition is that the industry is replicating the narrowband systems and devices used by public safety organisations with LTE – and “we’ll assume that they will work in exactly the same way. Police officers work based on how the systems work, so we’re trying to almost replicate the limitations of a narrowband PMR system within a broadband data pipe.”

Ivory has two concerns with this approach. One is whether the factors that today require the use of direct mode operation (DMO – back-to-back mode for TETRA terminals) are applicable to LTE. For example, in the UK (where Airwave is not required to provide in-building coverage), an ambulance will drive to a tower block, will act as a TETRA gateway and the paramedic(s) will use TETRA’s DMO function to talk back to the ambulance.

However, cellular coverage is likely to be present in the tower block because the mobile network operators (MNOs) have a commercial incentive to serve their customers within it. “So, the restrictions that have driven the ambulance to use TETRA in a certain way are not the same in LTE. I’m not doubting that there will be some users who will need a device-to-device connection, but nobody has really investigated what the use-case is.”

The other area of concern for Ivory is terminals. “All the [LTE] terminals that have come out recently are smartphones with knobs on. That’s great, but are they appropriate for a fireman? They may or may not be, but has anybody asked them?” Similarly, solutions have to accommodate the needs of police officers who might be wearing short-sleeved shirts and a stab vest one moment, and full riot gear the next.

Fluid timelines
Turning to the Emergency Services Network (ESN) and the programme’s recently announced new strategic direction, Ivory says that – as of going to press – because everyone is still waiting for the full review to be released, “it’s difficult to comment on it without hearing more [but] from what we’ve heard, I think it’s the right [approach]”. He cites the phased roll-out, the work to prove the coverage and a data-first approach which will allow EE to start to see a return on its investment, and the use of the Kodiak standards-based PTT client, which will also be used by FirstNet in the US.

However, it means that “the timeline is even more fluid” and Ivory notes that the lack of certainty over when user organisations will be buying the first voice-based terminals makes it hard for manufacturers to plan their investment.

Ivory also queries why users wouldn’t keep using their smart handhelds for ESN data service. He adds that anecdotally, the ESN sim monthly charges are “going to be higher than [for] bulk data from Vodafone”, and he knows of an end-user organisation that is contracted with Vodafone for two or three years.

He adds that a lot of police forces have already deployed device management solutions to underpin their mobile working initiatives, but the ESN service mandates that users have to move to the VMware AirWatch solution, and “you cannot have two different device managers on the same phone”.

Ivory fears the ESN data service will go live “but nobody will use it and the Home Office will have to get a big stick and a bigger carrot and make it attractive for people to move over onto it”.

He adds that the cost savings projected for ESN assume that all the user organisations will get rid of their mobile phones and shift to ESN devices, “but then you’ve lost some of that resilience because you’ve only got one device. Nobody is looking holistically at the impact of the ESN service on operational practices in police, fire, ambulance… that’s one of my biggest fears.”

He continues: “Nobody knows what the user devices are because the manufacturers haven’t developed them yet and they haven’t been allowed to engage officially with the end-users to talk about what user devices will look like because the Home Office is looking after that.

“When Airwave was rolled out there were police, fire and ambulance working groups that looked at the operational impact of the service and how it could be used to improve service delivery, but there’s no evidence of that so far. There are the user leads but these feed into the Home Office, who seem to be trying for a ‘one size fits all’ approach at the moment.

“You might be able to take a handheld device, a Samsung mobile phone and accessorise it so that it fits that user group, but you can’t do that with the vehicles.”

Ivory says ESN has certified one mobile terminal/data modem, “but that doesn’t give you all the functionality. While you could theoretically run voice over it, taking the view that voice is just an application using the data pipe, you mustn’t underestimate the complexity of the audio interfaces and PTT controls to replicate the existing vehicles.” He also notes that while the Home Office is running the pre-procurement exercise for the air-to-ground terminal, “there’s been no discussion of fire appliances, or covert users”.

Chicken and egg
Ivory says there was “effectively no real device” at the first ETSI MCPTT Plugtests event, and while they were present at the second one, they weren’t mature. He notes that in the case of ESN, “yes there’s a Samsung device, there are a number of handhelds around, but a handheld doesn’t make a system, and if we delve into ESN or FirstNet or any of the other [projects], there’s a handheld but there’s no mobile terminal”. He adds that the UK is “at the pointy end of the problem” because it has decided to transition to mission-critical LTE before everybody else, “who are all going ‘I’m glad it’s not me’ and waiting to see what happens”.

Ivory believes that the case hasn’t been made strongly enough for why public safety as a whole should move to LTE for mission-critical voice. “I think the industry, the end-users and everybody has to build the case that says ‘this is why we should all move’.

“Until the devices are there, there won’t be adoption and it’s chicken and egg. There’s enough statements from European governments that they will invest in mission-critical LTE to eventually replace their TETRA systems, but the timelines are not firm enough for the manufacturers to commit.”

On terminals, Ivory says while some expect the shift to mission-critical LTE, which will bring the public safety communication sector into the wider telecommunications market, to result in more competition and cheaper devices, this “misses a huge point” around how public safety organisations procure them – “they’re not just buying a radio, they’re buying a five- or seven-year managed service”. He notes the strength of the established vendors’ support infrastructure, which for the most part is lacked by the Chinese vendors that could supply low-cost terminals.

Ivory expects the costs associated with 5G deployment will lead to “more mast sharing”, which will mean that when one site goes down, it will affect multiple networks and reduce the resiliency created from being able to use multiple cellular networks. However, a large number of 5G use-cases require resilient networks, so eventually “resiliency will become a matter of course, and while mission critical will be one of the drivers for it, all network vendors will have to make investment in [network resiliency]”.

Although the shift to mission-critical broadband has already been years in the making, there is still much to consider and a clear need to focus on what today’s technology can do, rather than trying to replicate the limitations of the past.


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