Carl Smith of IIR’s Critical Communications World Series caught up with Tony Gray, Regional Business Director (MENA) with P3 communications GmbH, in advance of the Critical Communications Middle East event in Dubai, Sept 14-16 2014.
As an independent consultant, serving Board Member and Director of the TETRA & Critical Communications Association (TCCA), as well as founder and immediate past chair of the TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG), Gray has intimate knowledge of, and strongly held beliefs about, the future of critical communications and the role the Middle East region can play in its development.
CS: Mobile broadband is something that is being talked about more and more throughout the Critical Communications community. LTE is the technology most are looking towards, as providing this capability. There are two options for those looking to offer or make use of Critical LTE: set up a private network, or use an existing commercial network through a specialised MVNO service or through a direct agreement with the MNO.
Taking the first option, what are the potential barriers organisations face in setting up their own LTE network?
TG: Taking the decision in principle, and then having the willingness and wherewithal in practice, to set up a dedicated private critical communications LTE network fundamentally comes down to three key factors in my view, i.e.:
- Appetite, or perhaps more conventionally, justification of the value proposition.
Funnily enough – and I would say this wouldn’t I? But addressing those three fundamentals was one of the core planks of the TCCA’s Critical Communications Broadband Group’s original mandate when it was first set up more than 2 years ago, and it remains so today.
The first two of the above, funding and spectrum, are critically dependent on the availability (or not) of what are significantly scarce and valuable resources, i.e. money – both for CAPEX and OPEX – and adequate amounts of unencumbered and suitable spectrum. By ‘adequate and suitable’ spectrum we tend to mean an allocation comprising of the order of at least 10+10 MHz in a sub-1GHz band, preferably harmonised across and between regions, in order to satisfy capacity, range and penetration requirements.
Neither the significant amounts of money necessary to set up, run, and maintain critical-grade networks, nor the spectrum in which to operate them, are easily justified or found in today’s world, so these are both significant hurdles to overcome in themselves.
Then comes the “appetite”, or business case for critical broadband in the first instance. What are the very first questions any budget holder and / or spectrum regulator is likely to ask when we go cap in hand asking for the money and spectrum? “Why?” and “What for?”.
These are not easy questions to answer for the meantime, particularly in an environment where many critical users already have access to perfectly serviceable, capable and proven voice and narrowband data services delivered by TETRA and other similar technologies.
What is the value-added for broadband? What will be the “killer app.” that justifies the case for extending broadband capabilities to critical users? The honest answer for now is we just don’t know, but we simply feel that if the general public has access to broadband services, video streaming, high-speed data transfer, smartphone apps. and the like, then surely critical users must also be able to benefit from such capabilities?
CS: The other option is to look at existing MNOs. Despite increasing interest in this market from MNOs, why is there still a level of scepticism and caution from the Critical Communications community?
TG: Commercial MNOs have one – and in my view only one – key advantage when it comes to delivering wide area network services, and that is scale. The sheer size of their user bases, typically measured in many millions, dramatically dwarfs the critical communications community, whether it be for PPDR, transportation, utility or whatever similar application.
But, and of course there has to be a ‘but’, commercial MNOs’ business models have, to date at least, been predicated on delivering a best-efforts service which is not mission critical grade and on a population-coverage basis defined to maximise revenue and return on investment. These sorts of metrics are what commercial businesses are all about, and they’re what shareholders demand.
The critical communications use case and requirements vary fundamentally from this model in several key areas, including, but not necessarily limited to:
- The need for geographic, rather than population coverage, wherever and whenever critical users may ever need to have service – particularly in times of crisis or during major incidents.
- The requirement for comprehensive and fail-safe resilience and reliability, including for example long term power backup at critical sites such as base stations and core nodes.
- The demand for priority during surge and overload conditions, and again particularly in times of crisis or during major incidents.
- Demanding security and grade of service requirements, guaranteeing the enduring confidentiality and quality of the service provided.
Every one of the above is currently satisfied by dedicated private networks such as many countries worldwide have already established using TETRA for secure critical voice and narrowband data services. Whether commercial MNOs view the relative ‘drop in the user-base bucket’ represented by critical users as valuable enough to justify the not-insignificant investment they would need to make in upgrading their networks and services to meet these requirements remains very much an open question.
There is also the potential ‘reputational impact’ of any perceived failure to perform for MNOs to factor in to their business case for taking on critical users and their demanding requirements. For example, what commercial MNO Chairman / Board / shareholders, etc. want to see the company’s image and brand value tarnished, potentially fatally, by headlines singling it out as having failed to deliver Critical Communications during some high-profile crisis or major incident?
Hence the level of scepticism and caution you are seeing for the meantime from the Critical Communications community about whether commercial services can in fact become a practical solution to their needs in future.
CS: Looking at critical mobile broadband a little more closely, a clear user case and value proposition has so far proved elusive. Is the demand we are currently seeing in the market being driven by developments in consumer technology, or by vendors eager to promote a new product?
TG: You’re right that, as I said earlier, the justification for the value proposition of critical broadband has yet to be clearly established. To my mind, just rather vaguely saying things like: “because consumers already have it”, or “ for situational awareness”, or conceptualising about the possibilities for video transfer to and fro within and between users, is simply inadequate.
The truth is that, as always when breaking new ground, we simply don’t know for now what the “killer app.” may be, or indeed whether it really exists at all. I personally expect and believe that the case will ultimately be made, and strongly, but we’re not there yet.
I like to quote two visionaries who had firmly held views in this type of context, and who with the benefit of hindsight have proved to be right:
“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” ― Steve Jobs, and:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” ― Henry Ford
When we talk with users about use cases and applications, for example in CCBG and similar meetings, these quotes often come to mind. Jan Biemolt of the Dutch Police once famously exclaimed in one such meeting: “Nobody asked me if I needed an iPad and what for, they just gave me one. Now I can’t operate without it!”
There is clearly a need for some truly ‘out-of-the-box’ and ‘blue sky’ thinking about what capabilities critical users of the future might find valuable and important if they had the capability to transfer substantial amounts of data at broadband speeds to and from their mobile devices.
I don’t blame vendors for trying to offer what users might want – that’s what they’re in business to do. However the fact remains that for now we’re in something of a chicken-and-egg situation where what users want and need is, to say the least, unclear.
CS: The use case for LTE is still being defined in a consumer setting. The most talked about Critical applications concern the ability to send and receive video. Does this justify the financial and organisational investment in broadband? Why has video been picked out as the marquee application?
TG: “Video” per se, but without much definition for now as to what sort of video, from / to who, when and why, has been seized upon by users and vendors alike, in my view almost for no other reason than that it’s the one thing users don’t have right now, and that vendors of traditional narrowband PMR/LMR systems such as TETRA, P25 and so on can’t supply with those technologies.
If you go down the typical lists of ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to haves’ from the likes of the much quoted LEWP – RCEG (Law Enforcement Working Party – Radio Communication Expert Group) matrix you find – surprise surprise – that the vast majority of use cases can be, and are already being, delivered right now, today, by TETRA, in particular but not only with TEDS for some higher speed data applications. Real time, high quality streaming video is the stand-out payload that’s simply no way able to be accommodated unless and until a broadband bearer is in place.
But we come back to the key questions: “What video?” “How much?” “When and where, between whom?” And last but by no means least: “WHY?” “WHAT FOR?”.
I remain personally convinced that we will answer these questions, and that video will ultimately be right up there in the mix of applications justifying critical mobile broadband in future. But I’m equally convinced that video alone is not the only, and maybe not even be the “killer app.”. In any event, it seems to me highly unlikely that simple raw streamed video, without significant pre-and-post-processing and analytics to aid decision making and avoid information overload, will be the way that critical users need to have video services delivered.
CS: How will the use case for Critical LTE, most likely, be developed?
TG: As I say, there will need to be some truly innovative thinking about what capabilities critical users of the future might find valuable and important. This was and remains one of the key planks of the TCCA’s CCBG mandate, and there has been and continues to be some great work being done by a core of dedicated and willing volunteers in that and other forums around the world.
Probably even more importantly, we will need ‘pathfinders’ with the determination, will and capability to go out on a limb and just “put the capability out there” for users to experiment with.
In my experience, the Middle East, where we are again with the Critical Communications Middle East show in Dubai this autumn, is a wonderful incubator for these sorts of ground-breaking initiatives. The culture is very positive and proactive towards innovation – take for example the Qatar Ministry of Interior’s initiative to establish a public safety LTE network, and the Dubai Police piloting of Google Glass applications. Also the knotty financial and spectrum-seeking issues I mentioned previously seem to be approached with a very positive and proactive mind set in the region, so those barriers are perhaps slightly lower than elsewhere in the world, if nonetheless still very much present.
Only through these kinds of initiatives are we likely in my view to see the sort of game-changing innovations that Henry Ford and Steve Jobs’s Apple gave to their worlds.
CS: There appears to be an insistence that LTE will replace TETRA. This may well happen, eventually, but perhaps not in the time scales some have been postulating. TETRA is an extraordinary standard that has been carefully defined specifically for Critical Communications. Not only is it fit for purpose, but the capabilities of TEDS consistently surprise people. Why has TEDS been overlooked, and why does there seem to be a rush to move away from TETRA all at once?
TG: I couldn’t agree more! TETRA doesn’t just do a fantastic job right now, it does a PERFECT job in the fairly narrow but nonetheless vital niche that it addresses, because that is exactly what it was designed and specified, very carefully, to do.
In contrast, LTE was first conceived as a mass market, consumer technology, and is only now being adapted through standardisation to support the kinds of critical features and facilities fundamental for the markets TETRA serves. In the long term, there is something of an inevitability to so-called “legacy” technologies ultimately being superseded by more recent, efficient and probably cost-effective solutions. LTE certainly has promise as the potential ‘new kid on the critical comms block’, but I content it is too early to say for sure if, and certainly when, it may become a true TETRA replacement contender. Perhaps in my lifetime, perhaps not – in any case I plan to be around for a long time to come, so watch this space!
As to TEDS, it is disappointing to hear some refer to it as “too little, too late”, since it is proving to be a very capable wideband bearer, and importantly is of course built on the solid legacy of resilience, stability and security of the original TETRA standards.
Unfortunately, in the pre-broadband era a few years back, when TEDS had a window of opportunity to really establish itself on the back of TETRA’s already rampant success, a couple of factors worked against it. One was price, with the usual quid pro quos of industry needing to pay back significant investment in standardisation and R&D, and a fairly tiny perceived potential market for TEDS at that time. The second, and perhaps most telling, was our old friend and bugbear – spectrum. TEDS requires 50, 75 or even 100KHz carrier channels, as against TETRA’s 25Khz. Most of the established, as well as many of the then still only planned TETRA networks were already up against the end-stops with usage of their available spectrum allocations, so implementing TEDS over the top of TETRA was simply impossible without further spectrum, regardless of any other factors including price.
Hopefully some of the great examples of TEDS capabilities now coming to the fore, such as in the Norwegian Nødnett implementation, will help to change some of the negative sentiment around TEDS, particularly once they get going with some interesting applications. I personally believe that there will be a long-term market for both TETRA and TEDS well into the next decade, regardless of what may eventuate in the broadband sector in the meantime.
CS: To what extent can associations and working groups help bring an objective perspective on critical mobile broadband?
TG: You’ve hit on a bit of a personal hobbyhorse for me in the industry as a whole here. There seems to be a perception amongst some that, as an association, the TCCA is too pro-TETRA, essentially just an interest group and lobbying body for the TETRA industry. Of course the name, starting with the ‘T’ word, doesn’t help in that respect, and we can argue whether or not perception-wise the decision not to be simply the ‘CCA’ from the outset was the right one with the benefit of hindsight.
However the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I think it’s fair to say the association and its working groups can clearly be seen to be very much more than the detractors would like to make out. Whilst of course the considerable successes and future longevity of TETRA must continue to be supported and promoted, there is also a very concerted consideration of the wider Critical Communications sector per se from the association. Rather than looking at things ‘Technology First’, it very much takes a ‘User First’ stance. What the user needs to be able to do, how, when, where and why, are the key focus points here. TETRA is purpose designed, specified and built for this community, hence it provides a solid benchmark against which to judge future developments such as for broadband. Can user requirements continue to be achieved via TETRA alone, or do we need the likes of broadband as supporting and ultimately perhaps replacement solutions? I personally believe that’s a fair and balanced approach, and for example it was one of the reasons the CCBG originally came into being as a key TCCA working group.
So in these respects I think Associations and Working Groups ultimately have a very important role to play in ensuring that the end User has a strong voice, whilst also keeping an open mind about new options and approaches and allowing them a chance to develop, compete and flourish for the ultimate benefit of users.
CS: While early adopters invest and begin to explore new technologies, innovation and ingenuity need to be encouraged and brought into Critical Communications. In an industry that can often be seen as very conservative, how can we encourage the generation that has grown up with smartphones to put that same experience into Critical Communications?
TG: As one of the unfortunately way too many ‘industry old farts’ I’m probably not best placed to answer this! Ideally and in my dreams I would replace us all at a stroke with a dynamic, thrusting, fearless bunch of innovating upstart youngsters like a young Steve Jobs in his silicon valley garage…. but we have to accept that that’s pretty unrealistic and impractical in the real world!
What is beyond doubt is that today’s youth are growing up in a world of apps., where increasingly ubiquitous broadband access is becoming almost considered a right rather than a luxury. A good friend and visionary colleague of mine, Tero Pesonen, quotes the example of his own teenage offspring, saying that if they are ever to become the critical communications users of the future, they will expect, nay even demand, again almost as a right, at least the same power and functionality of applications in their professional lives as they enjoy right now, today, in their personal smartphones, tablets and so on.
These are the guys and girls that will be able to realise the full potential of mobile broadband, so it’s important to make sure that some of the brilliant minds that currently go off to work at the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft etc., join us in the critical communications world to help progress this important agenda.
Personally I have been hugely impressed by the sheer quality and intellect of many of the folks I’ve come across over the last couple of years in the standards bodies such as 3GPP and ETSI, that are working right now to add critical communications features and functionality to the LTE standards. To me, their engagement and involvement now in our world as well as in the traditional space of consumer mobile they’ve come from will be a great start towards revolutionising critical mobile communications in what has become a personal rallying cry of: “TOWARDS A BROADBAND FUTURE”!
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