Better LTE than never – the case for 4G public safety

Emergency Services Safety TETRA Critical Communications

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third-party contributors to submit analysis on a key topic affecting the telco industry. In this article Ingo Flömer, Director of Product Management at Cobham Wireless, discusses how LTE technology will empower emergency services and public safety providers.

Plans to upgrade the UK’s TETRA public safety network have been under scrutiny of late, and concerns have been raised over how best to manage the migration from an established public safety standard to LTE. What has become apparent, both in the UK and other markets pursuing similar initiatives such as the US and Germany, is the need for a robust and reliable coverage enhancement that provides effective indoor and outdoor coverage for next generation public safety communications.

Current networks are only capable of providing core voice and data services, and are unable to fill public safety users’ demands for significantly higher data speeds to support the provision of contextual incident information. LTE networks are crucial to providing this capability, but significant investment is required to ensure necessary levels of coverage and resilience are met.

First responder agencies were traditionally the primary users of wireless services and the drivers of the industry’s development, but in recent years it has been cellular companies who have taken the initiative in mobile tech innovation. Current public safety systems run on TETRA, which despite delivering a highly resilient mission critical voice service is not capable of carrying large amounts of data. This is in contrast to commercial mobile networks, where a mixture of voice, data and high-quality live streaming services are already available to consumers.

The right tools for the job

LTE has the potential to completely transform public safety communications. The development of high-speed and robust data networks will allow users to make use of a range of tools and information, allowing faster and more effective responses to emergency call outs.

First responders will be able to share interactive, real-time video links of the disaster or crime scene from multiple angles, enabling faster situation analysis and improved reaction time. This will allow officers based offsite to manage human and capital resources in the most effective way possible, with access to more information than ever before. High-speed mobile data connectivity will also allow security and police services to use real-time facial recognition technology – linked to a central database – to quickly identify potentially dangerous suspects. By incorporating many of the individual technologies currently in use (such as number plate identification and geolocation) into a single multi-purpose handset, the emergency services have the opportunity to truly modernise and streamline their communications.

Traffic ahead

Understandably, public safety communications have far more specific requirements than commercial networks. The average mobile subscriber may be willing to occasionally tolerate buffering or latency when streaming video, but public safety services demand an ‘always on’ service with low-latency and high levels of redundancy. During an emergency situation, the blue light services need to be able to access data services over the LTE network in any location with no interference.

Managing network capacity has also become a key issue, and there are concerns that emergencies in densely populated urban areas may lead to ‘mobile blackouts’. Civic planners in mainland Europe have argued that at times of high network usage both the emergency services and individuals using the network for personal use will be unable to communicate over the data network. This is particularly problematic in times of emergency when network usage will be high. It also poses problems for public safety systems at large sporting or music events and in densely populated urban areas, when the network is being pushed to its limit by individuals uploading and downloading rich media.

The ‘First Net’ (First Responder Network Authority) scheme in the US hopes to avoid any potential coverage or capacity problem by creating a mobile broadband network for emergency services on specifically allocated spectrum. This represents a considerably larger investment into specific network infrastructure, and a hugely challenging logistical task. Regardless of US happenings, the UK decision to run over current networks adds to the concern that LTE is not extensive or resilient enough for first responders to rely on, particularly in remote regions.

Missing a trick

Providing public safety systems for densely populated areas is not an easy task, but with the correct in-built coverage installations in place, entire city centres, stadium complexes and music venues can be equipped for any scenario. The cellular enhancement systems deployed at the London 2012 Olympics and the World Cup in Brazil enabled widespread, indoor and outdoor use of data intensive communications, technology that can be replicated on a larger scale to support the UK’s LTE network infrastructure.

No one would expect the emergency services to rely on 4G data connections in Britain’s rural areas (at least until coverage is up to scratch), and the transition will have to be a calculated migration from TETRA to LTE, until the latter is robust enough to go it alone. This makes it all the more important to choose a provider with experience in providing both TETRA and cellular enhancement technology to manage the transition.

Many modern construction projects are designed with in-building coverage solutions factored in at the planning stages, as mobile broadband access has become almost as important as common utilities such as power and water. Coverage enhancement technology can also be dynamic, allowing the emergency services to allocate coverage capacity to specific areas at specific times. This facilitates a reactive and effective public safety response in the busiest of situations, without a consumer backlash. Operators can also assist in funnelling additional capacity and prioritising public safety communications in an emergency situation.

Considered innovation

The UK has taken the lead on implementing LTE in public safety communications and is fast becoming a centre of innovation in the telecoms and technology sectors, and plans to have the first police forces connected to LTE by 2016 shows real ambition. Innovation does not come without risk, but the rewards will come in the shape of a range of  interactive and integrated digital services that will enable emergency services to be better prepared and more equipped to respond effectively to emergency scenarios.


Cobham Wireless Ingo_FlomerIngo Flömer is Director of Product Management at Cobham Wireless, a global leader in the provision of advanced wireless coverage and mobile communication systems for public safety and cellular applications. Flömer is responsible for defining the company’s product management strategy and has over 20 years’ experience in telecommunication, wireless and fixed line projects.

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