Will TETRA be replaced by LTE?

Yossi Segal |

TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio), which has long been the standard communications platform for public safety, transportation, emergency response teams, police and oil & gas sectors among others, may no longer be the obvious choice for a communications platform. TETRA is an official standard set up by the European Telecommunication and Standardization Institute (ETSI).  

With the UK seeking to replace TETRA with LTE as early as 2016, other European countries may follow, which will ultimately affect US P25 communications platforms. Contracts for UK TETRA based, national communications systems are scheduled to expire from 2016-2020 and UK officials are currently seeking for alternatives.  This was the talk in this year's Critical Communications World, which took place in Barcelona on May.  

The TETRA network covers 99% of the land mass and 98% of the population in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). It serves “all three emergency services" and other national users. However being a narrowband platform as well as the low-cost commercial wireless air time available today, the TETRA based solution appears to be not cost effective. Furthermore, being a narrowband solution and with emergency services seeking to widen communication options to include video, data and voice, TETRA may no longer fit today's  demands and certainly future requirements.

As a result, the UK government has issued a new £1.2bn Emergency Services Network tender to replace the previous £2.9bn digital radio communications. This month UK officials will conduct a supplier meeting to discuss the option of having public safety systems to be based on LTE technology by December 2016. 4G technology is scheduled to replace all government TETRA based communications systems by 2020.

The growing demand for video and data transmission for response teams and public safety sectors comes from the need to gain real-time video and data from the scene and be able to transmit or broadcast straight to and from local headquarters. This enables all units to see the same situational awareness and collaborate as a unified entity when all relevant visuals are available for all.

Is this the end for TETRA then? Not so fast. If you ask LTE and TETRA experts the overall sense is that both technologies complement rather than compete with each other. Both technologies can be seen as supplementary to each other. While TETRA provides strong speech communications, LTE is entirely based on packet-switching for the transport of data of all services, including speech. The most important (technical) objective of LTE is a significant increase in the speed of data. The peak speed of data runs towards 100 Mbit/s on the downlink and towards 20 Mbit/s on the uplink in a radio channel with a width of 20MHzin commercial operators' deployment model (in dense base-station deployment).  

Furthermore deployment of a private public safety network is very expensive CAPX and requires annual expensive operation (OPEX costs). Therefore many countries will not opt for this option but rather use a civilian network such as MVNO to provide broadband LTE where it is exist, and continue to use Tetra in other areas.

Broadband based solutions may not always be applicable in high densely populated areas where broadband traffic is high (such as the case for public events) and may block local access. In these cases a private LTE cloud, is mostly available in highly populated areas where the demand is high, can solve the issue and deliver both video and data while integrating any existing TETRA based speech solutions.

However public safety organizations require to operate nationwide: along the borders, along the coastline (coast-guard, DNR – department of Natural Resources), in remote areas of woods/forest/natural resources (fire fighters, search and rescue), along utility grids (electric, gas, oil) to name a few. These stretch over hundreds and thousands of Km in remote areas and require a constant active maintenance and operation team. In such cases, these countries will continue to depend on the existence of Tetra narrowband communications, or expand local coverage and operation by using Mobile MESH networks or other technologies for private mobile networks where infrastructure is not available.

To overcome the above issues  organizations such as SAN, a consortium led by Airbus, Indra, Mobilicom and other European companies offer a unique and advanced Hybrid approach of standard LTE and Ad-Hoc combined with 4G MESH networks for public safety scenarios. SANproject aims at developing a 4G LTE broadband mobile wireless communication system providing a wide range of ad-hoc and relaying/mesh routing capabilities (http://celtic-san.com/).

So approaching this change and the constant demand for cutting-edge technology, from a collaborative point of view, may be the best option yet.

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