4G LTE services are quickly becoming the norm within cellular communications networks all over the world. Granted, some regions are further advanced in its implementation than others, but for most people it is a reality, or at least getting close.
But as specialists in both cellular and public safety coverage, we are often asked to address the question of whether or not LTE will ever be a reality when it comes to enabling the emergency services and first responders to communicate more effectively.
Is the future really LTE?
Today, public safety communications networks are still mainly based on voice-centric technologies, such as TETRA and P25 for example. These technologies are still widely deployed all over the world and prove to be very effective. Take a look at the recent upgrade of the entire Singapore public safety network to TETRA for example.
But the use of this technology still has significant shortfalls. In order for the emergency services to communicate even more effectively in a disaster situation, the sharing of high-resolution imagery or even the real-time exchange of video footage are things that could really help. But the narrowband of current public safety networks is limiting…with many saying the future is broadband.
How could this help?
If the emergency services had access to a high-speed broadband connection whenever and wherever they needed it, it could open up all kinds of opportunities. Providing a video feed from an emergency response helmet camera, for example, could provide incident support rooms with real-time data and intelligence, enabling them to provide more appropriate and timely support where and when it is needed to the responders on the ground.
Facial recognition capability by simply taking a photo of a member of the public who has been arrested could speed up the process of dealing with them when they have broken the law.
Image capturing and uploading in a disaster scenario could provide crucial evidence or intelligence further down the line when the scene has been tampered with following rescue efforts when vital clues might have been lost.
The possibilities for utilizing LTE in public safety networks are endless.
So what’s the hold-up?
There is still a long way to go, and one of the conclusions drawn by the organisers of the Critical Communications World event earlier this year was that although LTE may be inevitable, it is a complementary technology rather than a replacement…for the next decade at least.
Challenges to adoption include the fact that the public safety community is all about standards and regulation. To get an LTE standard that will be truly interoperable and meet the strict requirements of government and health and safety bodies alike is an enormous task.
Network congestion is a very real concern, as well as the fact that spectrum is scarce – where will public safety LTE fit in an already crowded communications landscape?
And to add to the implementation challenges, public safety organisations have been quoted as saying that they do not feel they are well understood as ‘customers’ for LTE. The cellular world is a million miles away from that of the public safety communications environment, and comparing the two is a dangerous game. Yes, there are some lessons learnt through commercial LTE/4G roll-outs that could apply to public safety networks. But there is a lot more to consider besides and this shouldn’t be forgotten.
Will LTE ever truly be a reality in public safety communications networks?
In short, yes. The US are currently leading the way with their FirstNet initiative, proof that this could indeed be a reality for the rest of the world too.
But not yet.
The issues raised above need to be worked through and this will take the cooperation of a variety of different stakeholders, and that’s what takes the time. It cannot be rushed, but the benefits are clear and the technological know-how is available. We look forward to seeing how the debate progresses.
Product Manager, Cobham Wireless
Ingo is responsible for defining the product management strategy at Cobham Wireless. He has over 20 years experience in telecommunication, wireless and fixed line and is also an Advisory Board Member for several enterprises and research projects.