For decades various land mobile radio systems have been the centrepiece of the critical communications world.

While the technology is simple, it is incredibly effective at its job: delivering high quality and high-reliability voice channels to users (e.g., first responders, industrial workers, transport workers) in any conditions. Updates have been made to this simple system to enable capabilities such as text and GPS, but today’s radios function in a very similar fashion to the way they always have, and as such users continue to leverage communications technology the same way they always have.

While land mobile radio systems have evolved over the years, this evolution pales in comparison to the evolution of capability in cellular communication networks. The comparison between the first 2G networks launched in the 1990s to the 5G networks launching today, is night and day.  And while historically critical communications have not been a central focus for the cellular industry, this is rapidly changing.

Cellular industry standards body 3GPP launched the first standards for mission-critical push to talk over LTE as part of its Release 13 in 2016.  Since then more features have been added to include mission-critical video over LTE, mission-critical data over LTE, and railway specific LTE functions.  Using the wide coverage and high bandwidth offered by LTE, mission-critical communications providers are now able to deliver a wealth of services like video dispatching, image sharing, environment monitoring, etc that is not possible via traditional radio systems.

With the advent of 5G on the horizon, there are even more possibilities for the critical communications industry.  5G networks will be able to provide lower latency, increased redundancy, and higher throughput than LTE. Integrating 5G IoT and critical communications networks can deliver powerful services like autonomous factories and other forms of automation, real-time HD video from multiple sources and more.   Also important, 5G networks will be able to readily create virtual private networks via network slicing, a key feature for first responders.

It has been three years since release 13 and cellular-based communications offer a much deeper breadth of capability. So why is adoption of features like mission-critical push to talk (MCPTT) and mission-critical video so low?

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One issue is that current critical communications systems still work very well.  Radio systems like TETRA, provide high reliability and quality voice and limited data services such as text messaging and GPS.  These services have been accessed in the same way, through the same form factors by users in the same way for decades.  While users might agree the new cellular-based capabilities are desirable, mission-critical businesses are still businesses, and maintaining both radio and cellular communications networks is too complex or too expensive.   Many businesses and agencies simply want to ride their radio systems until end of life. In some markets, there is a lack of awareness of the potential of broadband-based critical communications.

Further, cellular services are the domain of mobile network operators, which tend to have limited experience in dealing with the critical communications world. Operators have less experience in approaching critical communications buyers and may not be as experienced in their pain points as dedicated critical communications companies.  Also, some companies and agencies prefer to keep their networks private due to the need for control, compliance, performance and security requirements. Private LTE is sometimes seen as expensive considering deployment costs and ongoing management costs (either skilled team members or an ongoing contract with a service provider to manage).

Another issue is that the most impactful applications for critical communications broadband will involve integrating video, IoT data, telemetry and other operations data to build analysis and automation platforms.  With lower latency and higher throughput these applications are better suited to 5G, which won’t see wide-scale deployments until at least 2020.  This integration of disparate systems and the development of industry-specific apps is also a challenge.  Neither operators nor critical communications providers have large amounts of experience in this field.

In order to drive broadband-based critical communications there needs to be more collaboration between critical communications providers, mobile network operators, business application developers and hardware vendors.  There is clearly potential for broadband-based critical communications to improve safety and ultimately help save more lives.  However, the industry needs to tailor these solutions in a way that makes sense operationally and financially for end-users.

Critical communications networks, by their nature need to be always on, and implementing a new technology can make this challenging.  Further all parts of the network need to function together.  The success of LTE based critical communications will depend on the ability for it to coexist with legacy radio systems.  This means interoperability between land-based mobile radio and LTE. Allowing for a slow rollout alongside existing systems will help ease the financial burden of doing a wholesale system change, and ensure continuous operation.

For example, AT&T’s critical communications network in the US offers LTE based MCPTT, but allows clients to integrate their LMR systems to the MCPTT system via the cloud or on premises modules.

Mobile operators should also look to partner with critical communications providers to better take advantage of the LTE critical communications opportunity.  Mobile operators control the spectrum but critical communications companies understand the industry.  While operators can provide IoT platforms and an upgrade path to 5G. Working as partners or on a virtual operator basis can help both parties grow their business.  An example of this is Samsung and Korea Telecoms’ partnership to provide South Korea’s Public Safety network, based on critical communications for LTE.

Critical business applications are also evolving.  The convergence of an increasing number of connected things and the improving capabilities of machine learning and AI means impactful insights about safety and efficiency can be readily delivered in real time. Automation of machines in dangerous situations ensure work safety, delivery of real-time video paired with 3D models of buildings can help firefighters do their jobs more safely and effectively.

The challenge is twofold, first is the creation of these applications and the second is the integration of these types of applications into critical communications networks.

This is a nascent field and in order to develop the most effective and valuable applications, critical communications vendors, IoT providers, application developers and network operators need to collaborate. Some critical communications providers are offering application development tools and APIs for integration into their networks, for example Orion networks in Australia and New Zealand through its partner Motorola Solutions, offers the MOTOTRBO application developer suite which includes APIs to connect applications to data across consoles, radios and network.

By increasing operator- critical communications provider collaboration, working with agencies and businesses to meet their budget and planning needs, investing in application development and industry partnerships, the industry can drive more broadband-based critical communications adoption, and ultimately make governments and businesses more safe.