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Future Proofing the Communications Environment: How to Maximize Your Investment

Author: Paul May

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2014-03-05
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Vendor's Corner Guest Column


Modern public safety agencies need more than a crystal ball to plan for the ever-evolving technology environment surrounding public safety communications. Communications equipment is a long term, major investment and establishing a communications environment that is “future proof” while serving the user’s needs today requires that agencies ask all the right questions before deciding which solution is best for them.

But what are those right questions? The following are a few thoughts to keep in mind before moving forward with that big investment.


LMR and Broadband

Over the past few years, an active and ongoing debate has been underway over when LTE (Long Term Evolution) will completely replace LMR (Land Mobile Radio) as the industry’s primary communication technology. While there is still not a clear answer, it is expected that this transition will take a couple of decades – and perhaps more. So the real question becomes, how can agencies leverage both LTE and LMR in a common environment to operate effectively now and position themselves in a positive way to take advantage of new capabilities for years to come?

LMR is the established and proven technology for first responder communications because every element of a mission-critical communications system relies upon a very detailed and defined set of standards and protocols that were developed, tested and refined over decades. Very simply, LMR voice networks can be constructed that work when and where they are needed, with customized coverage and capabilities that public safety agencies require to support their individual operations. However, even though LMR technology is constantly evolving, narrowband LMR radio services are inherently limited to voice operations and a handful of applications that can exist using LMR’s low speed data.

Today, public safety agencies are beginning to develop operational capabilities that rely on the delivery of voice, video, and broadband data to officers, firefighters and paramedics in the field. These broadband applications include improved situational awareness capabilities, “first observer” video, NG-911 data, and group communication suites that integrate voice, video and data transmissions. With LTE networks and ruggedized devices, agencies can deploy these new operational capabilities and data-centric applications.  And while the discussion amongst public safety officials centers on the timeframe for deployment of FirstNet, it is important to note that commercial LTE services can provide the broadband connectivity for these applications while waiting for FirstNet to be built.

Today, also, it is clear that by planning to combine – to converge – LMR and LTE services and capabilities, agencies can feel more confident about value of the investment in each technology. In terms of functionality, coverage, and security, the LMR and LTE convergence will reach and even exceed the level of features provided by current disparate systems.  But understanding how this converged network migration will occur is the key to maximizing the value of the time, money and engineering invested into today’s networks.


Real Benefits Today: Commercial Cellular and Mobile Applications

While messaging and text-based data applications are increasingly used directly by first responders, public safety operations today are still based upon communications using voice services. However, as a compliment to existing LMR networks, there are push-to-talk (PTT) applications that allow public safety users to support managed group communications via consumer smartphones. For example, suppliers to the public safety community such as Harris offer applications that provide connections between existing, traditional LMR radio systems and other IP-based wireless networks, including commercial cellular 3G, 4G and LTE networks, as well as WiFi or LANs. With applications such as Harris’ BeOn®, users have access to PTT voice, presence and situational awareness capabilities via personal or agency issued smartphones. Using this PTT service on a commercial network greatly increases the coverage footprint of an agency’s LMR-based network – providing communications from the local LMR network to users on a nationwide or global basis. With this capability, for example, senior staff and commanders can participate in incident communications or monitor situations when traveling far outside of their traditional radio service area, significantly bolstering the effectiveness of an agency’s response.

PTT and other public safety data applications are generally developed to be wireless network agnostic. This means that these applications will work using wireless services supplied from a variety of broadband networks – both commercial and private. Combining the resources of these broadband wireless networks will provide a robust broadband data stream that can rapidly source critical information from a number of components – ambulance fleets, body sensors, emergency rooms, maybe even schools – in an integrated wireless solution. These new and powerful applications will provide public safety users the ability to easily communicate via a private public safety broadband network, public carrier networks, or even WiFi using a single device that automatically transitions from one to the other seamlessly. 


Long-Term Solutions

Today, the bulk of first responder voice communications are carried by LMR systems. But the use of data to support public safety is growing and a large percentage of public safety agencies source their data communications from carrier networks via commercial cellular subscriptions, which are used for mobile office, license plate lookup, filing reports and other assorted tasks. The implementation of FirstNet will make an even better option for all. It’s no secret that commercial cellular networks can get overwhelmed when large spectator events or natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes can dramatically increase call volume and cause major disruptions during a critical time when first responders need to communicate. With a network designed specifically for public safety use, agencies no longer will have to contend with dropped calls or unavailable networks.

Long term, the vision for the national public safety broadband network requires that it must provide two things. First, it has to deliver the essential public safety communication elements: guaranteed prioritization, reliable Quality of Service (QoS), coverage and access that is designed for and dedicated only to public safety users. Second, it has to be a hardened, mission-critical network built to withstand a major disaster, coupled with public safety-grade security provisions.

Ultimately, private networks based on LTE technology will give public safety users increased capabilities and flexibility - offering the possibility of features and functionalities via the creation of applications that are specifically designed to successfully operate in public safety environments. It’s a long and perhaps winding road ahead, but the smartest agencies are planning for both narrowband and broadband; today with LMR and tomorrow and beyond with LTE, and getting the most out of currently available technology, while positioning themselves for things to come.


Paul May is a Senior Product Manager for Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications business, based out of Lynchburg, VA. Mr. May has responsibility for the Harris Long Term Evolution (LTE) product offerings, and has over 25 years’ experience in the marketing, product management and engineering of products for the Land Mobile Radio industry. Before taking over the LTE Product Management responsibilities in 2010, Mr. May has been concentrating on leading the marketing efforts and launching M/A-COM's Project 25 systems business.

Photo: via Stanislaus County Communications/9-1-1 Magazine file photo




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