Long Term Evolution in focus

Published:  09 October, 2012

4G is now a reality for consumers – what does this signal for emergency users?  David Taylor, Lead Consultant, Analysys Mason, explains

Ofcom - the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries - recently approved spectrum for 4G services, which has brought forward the launch of commercial services in the UK by many months. Everything Everywhere’s LTE service is being rolled out before Christmas in the UK, bringing the next generation of mobile broadband to consumers. With this new flurry of activity from the commercial networks, what are the implications for the emergency services?

4G comes to the UK

The avalanche of interest in 4G has been sparked by two key announcements this month. Having received approval from Ofcom to use its existing 1800MHz spectrum for 4G services, Everything Everywhere announced plans on 11 September 2012 to launch 4G in 16 cities in the UK – starting with London. The following day, Apple launched the iPhone 5,the European version of which has support for the same 1800MHz band that Everything Everywhere will use. Very soon, therefore, 4G will be a reality in the UK, although other operators will have to wait until the planned auction of additional spectrum for 4G (in the 800MHz and 2600MHz bands), which is due to take place in early 2013.

Everything Everywhere is already testing its new network, operating the technology standard known as LTE (‘Long Term Evolution’), which is rapidly expanding across the world, and is becoming the de facto 4G technology.

The dominant standard for 4G

LTE is the dominant standard worldwide for the next generation of mobile services, commonly referred to as 4G. It represents the evolution of the GSM/UMTS family of standards, illustrated in the figure below, and is designed to co-exist with 2G and 3G networks, providing a smooth path for the introduction of 4G services.

Figure 1: Evolution of the GSM/UMTS family of standards [Source: Analysys Mason, 2012]

Key attributes of LTE include:

  • higher data rates compared with current 3G services (peak downloads of up to 300Mbit/s and upload rates of up to 75Mbit/s, depending on the equipment and spectrum used)
  • low latency, intended to get closer to the experience of using fixed-line communications
  • improved mobility, including performance at high speeds of 350km/h or greater
  • support for efficient communications broadcasting (e.g. for video broadcast, and maybe, in future, for group calls).

The first publicly available LTE network services were launched in Sweden and Norway at the end of 2009 and, at the time of writing, there are some 20 operational LTE networks across ten countries in Western Europe, and worldwide, there are now 40 different countries with operational LTE networks. Currently, LTE networks are used exclusively for data services while existing 2G and 3G networks carry voice.

Mobile broadband is increasingly used in public safety operations, and higher data rate requirements mean that 4G services could be the future for emergency communications.

Mobile broadband for the emergency services

The desire for mobile broadband services among the emergency services been identified in Europe, Australasia and North America, with a number of studies, including one carried out for the TETRA Association (now the TETRA & Critical Communications Association (TCCA)) by Analysys Mason ,identifying the need for higher mobile data rates and more data-centric applications.

Video transmission tend to drive the need for commercial mobile broadband, but there are other applications used by the emergency services which, if taken up by many users in a limited geographical area, would stress current 2G and 3G networks.

Many of the data applications already used by the emergency services are considered to be mission critical2  or are likely to become mission critical if organisations become more reliant on them over time. Location services (for vehicles and officers) have become mission critical, with operational effectiveness likely to be severely impaired if these services fail. And situational awareness, where personnel are provided with graphical information on their environment, could be seen to be mission critical in future, e.g. if an officer is given a warning that there may be firearms in a house they are about to enter, something that might currently be done by voice.

Emergency services use dedicated networks to carry mission-critical data, but these generally only support low data rates. Public commercial networks are also widely used by the emergency services, but usually for non-mission-critical traffic. There is no guarantee of service, and many radio sites on public commercial networks have limited back-up power (in some cases less than an hour). In many situations we encounter, emergency service networks have back-up power for eight hours minimum at all radio sites, and selected sites have power protection for days. Key equipment components are duplicated, and communications links may also be duplicated.

So, the fact that public commercial networks do not currently meet the resilience and availability requirements of the emergency services is driving the need for dedicated solutions for mobile broadband, as is being demonstrated in the USA.

The lessons of the USA

In the USA, LTE has been firmly embraced as the technology for public safety mobile broadband, taking a lead for others to follow. In January 2011, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order and proposed rule-making that requires all 700MHz public safety mobile broadband networks to use LTE to support roaming and interoperable communications. Spectrum in the 700MHz band had already been allocated for public safety mobile broadband (2×5MHz). In February 2012, legislation was passed allocating the so-called ‘D Block’ (a further 2×5MHz) to public safety, establishing the First Responder Network Authority (‘FirstNet’) to set up a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network, and providing USD7 billion to help finance the network build.

In addition, a number of trials of LTE for public safety have been carried out in the USA with various vendors including Motorola in the San Francisco Bay area, Alcatel-Lucent in the City of Charlotte, and Harris at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Various partnerships have emerged, typically bringing together LTE equipment specialists with established suppliers to the public safety sector. One such partnership isAlcatel-Lucent with Cassidian, which, as well as addressing the 700MHz market in the USA, has announced an LTE solution for public safety in other countries targeting the 400MHz band.

In Europe, there is also significant activity and the current focus is on obtaining harmonised spectrum for public safety mobile broadband. The Council of the European Union has recommended that law enforcement agencies should have high-speed data capabilities, that work should be carried out to identify suitable spectrum below 1GHz, and that there should be a European standard for public safety mobile broadband.

A new project (FM49) was set up by the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) in 2011 to work on identifying suitable spectrum for Europe. Meanwhile the recent World Radio Conference (WRC-12) agreed to consider the allocation of ‘digital dividend’ spectrum at 700MHz for mobile use in Europe and the Middle East, and included plans to consider public safety at the next conference in 2015.

Demand for mission-critical mobile broadband isn’t confined to the emergency services. In April this year, the Critical Communications Broadband Group(CCBG) was instigated under the auspices of the TCCAto drive the development of common standards and to lobby for spectrum for mission-critical mobile broadband. The group has broad membership, including the UIC(International Union of Railways) and EUTC (European Utilities Telecom Council), as well as European public safety organisations and some representatives from outside Europe.

LTE – the preferred choice for public safety

It has become clear that LTE is the preferred technology for mobile broadband for the emergency services. However, users also rely on critical functionality provided by current narrow-band networks. Examples include talkgroup operation (providing rapid access to talk to a pre-defined group of people), and direct radio-to-radio communications that can be used for local communications where there is no coverage, or in the event of a network failure (often referred to as ‘direct mode’).

Many of the attributes of public safety networks are catered for in the LTE standards (e.g. provisions for control and prioritisation of access) or can be catered for in the network design (e.g. resilient architecture). However, this is not the case fordirect mode, and this is something that LTE must address if it is to be able to meet all the emergency services’ communications needs. Without such services, traditional narrow-band public safety networks will need to be operated for critical voice functionality in parallel with LTE providing broadband data. This is the model of operation currently being adopted in the USA.

Recognising the long-term aspiration to be able to meet all emergency service requirements on a single network platform, industry efforts are underway to build talkgroup functionality and direct radio-to-radio communication into the LTE standards, with the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, CCBG and the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) among those driving this forward.

The road ahead

For consumer and business use, 4G has arrived in the form of LTE. All operators have announced aggressive roll-out plans, and we can expect to see the impact of widespread deployment over the next few years, starting for UK users with Everything Everywhere.

For public safety users, the attractiveness of the technology is clear, and it has been firmly embraced by the supplier base. However, there’s a long journey ahead to find European spectrum for dedicated networks and for LTE to incorporate critical public safety functionality into its design. Nevertheless, the past year has seen enormous progress and mission-critical users are now on the way to enjoying the benefits of high-speed data.

  • Operation Florian

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