The Transport Industry’s Migration to New Communications Technology
By Paul Ward
Wednesday, July 21, 2021 | Comments

Following the unprecedented economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many future investment strategies for upgrading communications technology in the transport and logistics sector will have had their brakes put on. However, the reopening of the economy when individuals will once again be able to travel safely, and when global supply chains can get back up and running to pre-pandemic levels, will be a time to consolidate, not stand still.

With such a difficult balancing act between reduced budgets and implementing value-added critical services through technology, how can transport and logistics companies best manage their communications upgrade?

While demands for next generation, ever-faster, ever-higher bandwidth LTE technologies will continue to abound throughout industry, it is private mobile radio (PMR) technologies such as TETRA that remain the choice of reason for not only transport, but also critical national infrastructures such as energy, utilities and oil and gas; emergency services; government agencies; and public safety.

In this article, we’ll take a look at why TETRA is still one of the most reliable cornerstones of critical communications technology, and the advantages that this offers to planned upgrades by enabling a more gradual phase-in of advanced broadband services as part of a hybrid solution.

PMR is what most people know as the push-to-talk (PTT) technology. The majority of transport operators, from airport operators to metro/rail organizations and logistics companies, will still specify TETRA as the best fit for their operational needs in 2021. When traveling long distances, through tunnels or across remote terrain, for example, TETRA’s narrowband capabilities will keep transportation vehicles and hubs connected at all times, even in areas without cellular coverage. And when dealing with secure and critical communication needs, TETRA’s end-to-end encryption ensures that the private network can remain secure. It’s for these reasons that it is favoured for use in secure and private communications.

From the London Underground in the United Kingdom to Charles De Gaulle airport in France, the industry employs TETRA due to its resilience, security and dependability, metrics by which it continues to exceed the capabilities of public mobile phone networks. TETRA offers a complete, service-rich solution that can be integrated seamlessly with IP-based infrastructure, fixed units, mobile and handheld devices and more.

The robustness of the technology was demonstrated emphatically over 10 years ago with the still-standing world speed record on rail by French railway SNCF. During this event, an uninterrupted TETRA call that showed how TETRA could be relied upon even in extreme conditions at a speed of 574.8 kilometers per hour and contending with a huge Doppler effect and other challenges such as very fast cell handovers was made.

At the same time, however, it is the next-generation 4G/5G and even later 6G broadband services that are providing much of the focus for future digital transformation. Advances in these technologies will open up a great deal of opportunity for high-speed data transfer and with it, advanced new applications. Within the transport and logistics sector, these could include IP video monitoring, remote engine management and diagnostics, automated driver registration systems, body temperature detection systems or faster Wi-Fi connectivity, taking maintenance and security to the next level. However, these advanced data rich applications will also rely on 4G/5G LTE coverage, which will not be universally available.

A Hybrid Approach
So, with one eye on the benefits of these future applications and the other on the need to maintain a reliable and robust service, ultimately it is a combination of both TETRA and LTE technologies that offers the best solution. And, this dynamic is extremely helpful in planning for upgrades. TETRA will ensure that communications can continue uninterrupted while advanced new, complementary high-speed data services afforded by LTE can be introduced more gradually.

This type of phased approach that allows businesses to retain the value of TETRA while also layering new broadband technologies provides an operational expenditure (OPEX) solution as opposed to a capital expenditure (CAPEX) one, making it more financially viable as we emerge from a relatively turbulent economic period. A hybrid solution also has a much more tempered learning curve, allowing mission-critical workers for example, on the railways, to carry on using TETRA trackside, a technology they are familiar with, while stations and distribution centres gently phase in LTE.

There is a key addition required to bring this all together, and that is a system of combining both narrowband and broadband under a single transmission system. Integrating different technologies on the same LTE core network offers the chance to have the best of both worlds, allowing TETRA to feed into the same 4G backhaul network as eNodeB broadband with complete interoperability.

With a 4GLinked system in place, it is possible to develop localized high bandwidth communications, such as in a freight terminal, depot or train station, for example, where advanced new applications can be introduced, while secure and robust narrowband communications will continue to provide connectivity with the wider dispersed network. This could include staff and vehicles that are remote, on the move and outside of range from the LTE network. And, this can all be achieved with users enjoying seamless interoperability between the different technologies.

Making the investment in this type of cross-over technology, therefore, should be the first step towards future-proofing communications investment. With this approach, transport and logistics organizations can manage a much more effective upgrade as they gradually phase in the next generation of communications technology while maintaining those that they have come to rely upon.

Paul Ward is director of international commercial and marketing activity for ETELM, a manufacturer of TETRA infrastructure technology based in Paris, France. He has more than 20 years of experience in designing and implementing digital infrastructure for the public- safety, transport and security sectors worldwide. Paul has an honours degree in electrical and electronic engineering from Nottingham Trent University.

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