Potential Users in the Midwest Size Up TETRA
Wednesday, April 20, 2011 | Comments
Photo courtesy Nielson Communications
 
 
Utility company executives who attended the Green Bay, Wis., TETRA pilot seminar saw firsthand the many benefits that a TETRA network could provide. However, even if the FCC grants the pending TETRA Association waiver, issues still need to be addressed.
 
During the March demonstration at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, attendees — largely communications specialists from utility and energy companies — learned about the network and technology. Representatives from the TETRA Association, Sepura, Rohde & Schwarz, and Nielson Communications presented information.
 
“If TETRA gets accepted in the United States, I think it would be very viable,” said Charles Plummer, lead communications consultant for Wisconsin's Power System Engineering. “I think it would give Project 25 (P25) a run for its money.”
 
Kathy Nelson, a principal telecommunications engineer at Minnesota’s wholesale electric service provider Great River Energy (GRE) agreed. “I think it’s a superior technology to any other out there,” Nelson said. “It’s not a new technology, and it’s still the best.”
 
In 2009, the TETRA Association filed a request for waiver of Parts 2 and 90 of the FCC’s rules to allow TETRA technology to be used in the United States. The FCC hasn't yet ruled on the waiver request. Although attendees agreed on TETRA’s benefits, no one said they would deploy the technology immediately if the FCC approves the waiver.
 
“I want it to be an option when we’re looking to upgrade,” Nelson said. “I want to be able to decide what is the best technical fit for us based on technology, not based on other factors.”
 
GRE operates a Motorola UHF SmartZone system with 75 trunked base stations and nine conventional base stations. The utility and 15 of the company’s distribution cooperatives use the system. They must upgrade within the next few years because Motorola no longer supports the system. GRE staff are maintaining the network.
 
Nielson Communications, the Wisconsin mobile communications dealer that hosted the event and launched the pilot, hasn’t committed to purchase the system.
 
“The jury is still out on whether or not we will implement TETRA as a digital solution,” said Steve Nielson, vice president, Nielson Communications. “We have to write the business plan and run the numbers on what the market would bear as a monthly cost and determine then if the return on investment (ROI) is there.”
 
For the types of customers using Nielson Communications’ analog system, such as waste haulers, less than truckload (LTL) carriers, construction companies and excavators, the equipment price point might be too high because TETRA is a higher-end product, he said. Nielson Communications currently operates an analog UHF logic trunked radio (LTR) network that consists of 10 sites of which six are linked for a regional SMR network.
 
User Benefits
Potential users said many of the technology’s benefits stem from the fact that it’s an established technology that has had time to mature.
 
“The pilots are kind of funny because they’re not really proving the technology, since it’s been proven around the world for years,” Nelson said. “The biggest benefit I see is the open standard and the large number of manufacturers offering equipment.” And with more vendor options, the prices of subscriber units are considerably lower internationally than the vendor-specific technologies available here, she said.
 
“It’s a nice digital system with full feature sets because it’s been out for 15 years,” Plummer said. The European Telecommunciations Standards Institute (ETSI)-based Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) III standard is newly developed and some features and products aren’t on the market yet, Plummer said. “[DMR vendors] still have all the ancillary things they need to add, whereas with TETRA, they’ve already done it.”
 
Many of TETRA’s technology features were demonstrated. “I really liked the TDMA and the good spectral efficiency,” Plummer said. During the pilot, Plummer, a self-proclaimed cynic, said he was impressed with many features, including the hand off from tower to tower, which he compared with a cellular system rather than a traditional radio system. Other highlights included the ease of switching to full duplex, group programming applications, attaching talk-around channels to trunked systems through a gateway, the options for distribution switching, as well as the hands-free option, man-down/lone worker feature, and the look and feel of the radios, he said.
 
Both Plummer and Nelson said they were impressed with the audio sound quality.
 
Challenges
While the open standard has led to lower subscriber costs around the globe, it remains unclear what the infrastructure costs could be in the United States. Plummer said he would like to compare the budgets of different networks. “Say a trunked, simulcast analog system costs are 100 percent, then an analog MPT might cost 150 percent, what would the TETRA network be? I’m still waiting to hear on that,” he said.
 
Infrastructure cost questions stem from coverage comparisons. If a user is required to add more base stations to a network to maintain current coverage, it’s unclear if the user would actually save money.
 
“I’ve heard coverage isn’t as good, but I haven’t actually witnessed it, so I’m not sure if that’s just what TETRA opponents are saying. It’s something that would be important to look at,” Nelson said. “We have 75 base stations on our existing system. Will I have to double or triple that if we upgrade to a TETRA network to provide the same coverage? I don’t know if that’s the case or just what the opponents are saying. I wish there were more objective studies done on coverage to compare.”
 
During the Nielson Communications presentation, President Rick Nielson said they conducted a drive test comparing the coverage of the analog and TETRA networks. "We're calling it almost identical coverage," he said.
 
Nielson Communications executives said there is interest from existing customers on the analog system, but they have not provided pricing because the infrastructure costs for building a TETRA network with the same coverage are still unknown. “Ideally we would work with some of the other regional SMR operators to build out a state or multistate system,” Nielson said. “It could potentially be a replacement for those customers that currently use iDEN.”
 
Two other hurdles make the application of TETRA in the United States confusing ­— VHF and UHF narrowbanding and Motorola intellectual property rights (IPR).
 
“I think the largest barrier will be the contiguous 25-kilohertz spectrum requirements,” Nelson said. Since the FCC broke up spectrum into 12.5-kilohertz channels years ago, users wanting to license a 25-kilohertz channel must find two adjacent 12.5-kilohertz channels next to each other that are unused, she said. 
 
“TETRA is kind of late in the game [with the 25-kilohertz channel requirement],” Plummer said. “If utilities give up their licensed 25-kilohertz spectrum, I don’t know how easy it will be for them to get it back, even though it operates in a 6.25-kilohertz equivalent. The timing is about two years too late.”
 
When questioned at the seminar, officials from Sepura and Rohde & Schwarz said they’ve discussed the IPR issues with Motorola, and if the FCC waiver is granted, the companies will operate similarly to how they do around the world. Once the waiver is approved, Sepura could start shipping immediately, and in 60 days, have products on the shelf.
 
Yet potential buyers are still hesitant about how Motorola will react. “We still don’t know what Motorola will do,” Plummer said. “They could block it or not grant licenses to use the technology. I’d like to see the waiver get approved and a letter from Motorola.”
 
Although challenges remain, many at the demonstration applauded Nielson Communications for taking the lead and believe that eventually users will see TETRA in the United States.
 
“They’ve got some technical and intellectual property rights to overcome, but I think it’s going to break in and I think it’ll do okay,” Plummer said. “It’s really exciting, even if it is an uphill battle.”
 
Nielson Communications is providing webinars on the pilot and demos as requested. There are also plans to have another seminar for regional SMR operators and one for the company’s existing analog customers to get their feedback.
 
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