Plan for the Public-Safety Market Transition
August 29, 2012
By Maureen Rhemann
As a technology direction for public-safety communications begins to take shape, reflection on the future, where we’ve been and what we can do today is prudent. If you are an emergency responder, the future of public safety looks incredibly bright. It offers promise for unlimited device connection and accessing real-time data at a moment’s notice. We’re entering a world where billions of devices are not only connected to us, but to each other, and are busy forming their own networks. In the near future, emergency responders may be able to electronically cut off power and other utilities to a building, check vitals on people inside, and send commands to robotic team members to begin search-and-rescue operations — all before physically arriving on the scene.
With the clock almost striking midnight for the VHF and UHF narrowbanding deadline, two-way radio infrastructures are in varying states, while many public-safety organizations push to deploy Project 25 (P25) standard technology. The U.S. government’s allocation of the D block tipped the scales in favor of Long Term Evolution (LTE) and the mobile wireless and cellular landscape, along with the associated supply chain. While it may take years to roll out, LTE eventually holds the promise of not only rich broadband data transmission for public-safety applications, but also voice over LTE. Many in the public-safety community have already weighed in on the concerns for LTE eventually carrying mission-critical voice. Do we remember the early 2000s when VoIP made conversations sound like we were in the bottom of a rain barrel? Even the early stages of second-generation VoIP systems like Skype have had their challenges.
The environment beyond 2020 looks quite different than it does today. P25 gives way to LTE. Future networks may not be as much about speed as they are about network loading and efficiency, given the sheer number of devices communicating over the network. The idea is to prioritize traffic and automate the process of prioritization.
P25 puts us in the modern electronic world. P25 to LTE begins connecting us into the world of digital broadband devices and interoperating protocols that connect voice, data, video, sensors and even robotic/unmanned systems. The machine-to-machine (M2M) world of sensors and devices communicating with other devices will provide instantaneous updates; enable rapid, highly granular/high-fidelity life-saving capabilities; and enable timesaving multistep process reduction that can spare lives and reduce costs. In the future, groups of devices talk to each other and are preprogramed for priority to make way for emergencies and free bandwidth to avoid mission-critical network congestion.
Glimpses of the Future
For many first responders, faster speeds and advanced features only matter if they can meet mission-critical needs like push to talk (PTT), talk around and group calls. Even though the network may look more like a cellular carrier, as we transition to LTE networks, the end user experience is critical.
Have you ever been in the middle of sending an email or making a critical call when your “smart” phone decides to do something really dumb, such as update the handset operating system and reconfigure all applications to baseline in the middle of a busy workday? These are the nightmarish visions first responders often have when they think of moving into the commercial world. Automatic software updates, screen fades, power conservation and loading data from the cloud onto the device all constitute potential ongoing challenges for unfettered end-to-end emergency coverage. Success is most likely to be found where end-user understanding is entrenched with applications that have been built from the user up (facilitated by deep understanding of the end user), rather than from a network carrier top-down technology push approach.
The future of LTE may be brighter because of some lessons learned, including long-term costs and lifecycle planning, on the long road from analog to digital wireless communications. Even though interoperability is difficult, interoperable funding has been even more challenging for projects that had to be funded piecemeal from multiple sources with disparate budgets and lifecycles. While many joint projects rejoiced with the thrill of shiny new networks, a few years down the road, the pied piper of operations and maintenance costs, followed by technological refreshment, came knocking at their doors. This was particularly true in rural areas that required interagency and multijurisdictional funding. As systems go digital, they can more readily join the interconnected broadband landscape.
Now that the allocation of the D block to public safety is a reality, many public-safety officials are contemplating what to do next. One size never fits all and never will. The transition to P25 is still ongoing for many jurisdictions. Yet, the broadband stimulus pushed the accelerator on urban LTE, promising broadband for some metropolitan areas. Then the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) waived the red flag, holding up projects until the direction of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is clear. Even with the marketplace in a state of metamorphosis, the following tasks can be done:
· Update long-term plans. Take the 10-year approach to capture associated operations and maintenance costs and have a true lifecycle picture.
· Complete existing P25 transitions under way. There will be plenty of options to gracefully bridge P25 to LTE. The next phase will likely be less painful and less costly than the transition from analog to digital.
Maureen Rhemann is a strategist with Trends Digest, a division of the Reperi Analysis Center (RAC), which has been involved in analysis of disruptive technology and business trends, strategic futurism and applied R&D for more than a decade. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.