TETRA’s Role in a Digital, Broadband World
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 | Comments

There are clear benefits to be gained moving from analog to digital communications. The global mobile radio industry has embraced this process and the switch from analog to digital should largely be completed before the end of this decade. Manufacturers are withdrawing support for the majority of their analog products, and many regulators have been encouraging their replacement by more spectrally efficient, feature-rich, data-friendly standards-based technologies.

TETRA was at the forefront of this digital trend during the late 1990s and early years of this century. The standard has been adopted in more than 125 countries providing secure, reliable, high capacity voice and data services to a full range of professional users. More than 3 million TETRA terminals have now been sold worldwide.

Of course, TETRA has had — and continues to have — worthy rivals that have pushed it hard along the way. Matra Communications withdrew early on from TETRA standardization to develop a rival technology, named TETRAPOL. TETRAPOL rolled out successfully in a limited number of global markets. Matra has since become part of EADS and then Cassidian, the main network supplier to the German government rolling out the largest TETRA network in the world.

In North America, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) Project 25 (P25) standard was chosen by authorities to solve the acute lack of interoperability among the radio solutions of federal, state, tribal and local authorities serving a diverse range of urban, suburban and rural communities across the United States and Canada. As a response to 9/11 and a series of well-documented natural and man-made disasters during the 1990s and 2000s, P25 adoption was encouraged and accelerated by the U.S. government through a combination of legislation and grants. The lack of a comprehensive interoperability program, limited data capabilities and the slow movement towards more spectrally efficient Phase 2 solutions has kept equipment prices higher than many cash-strapped authorities had hoped for. A unique set of complex circumstances within public safety has led the U.S. government to move forward with a nationwide broadband network under the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is still in its early stages.

In 2005, Motorola launched its MOTOTRBO solution, based on the emerging European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) standard with a number of proprietary features. Other companies have since developed solutions, fully compliant to the DMR standard. DMR Tier 2 is seen as a digital replacement for the large, global installed base of conventional analog radios, offering clear benefits and additional capacity for low-tier, traditional LMR users; whereas the recently launched DMR Tier 3 is targeting the analog trunked radio market — MPT 1327 and logic trunked radio (LTR) — and could be seen as a potential threat to TETRA and P25 in some vertical markets.

And then we have Long Term Evolution (LTE), public safety’s planned broadband technology. The main commercial players are committing billions of dollars in research and development (R&D) to LTE, the long-term evolution of the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) networks around the world serving 5 billion connections. The U.S. government has allocated 2 by 10 megahertz in the 700 MHz band for a nationwide public-safety LTE network together with the promise of up to US$7 billion from future spectrum auctions whose precise rules have not even been defined yet. The U.K. Home Office recently made the bold announcement that LTE could replace the Airwave public-safety TETRA network by 2020. European operators are already looking beyond TETRA for their high-speed data requirements. Thank you very much, TETRA, for pointing us in the right direction, but now the time is approaching for you to retire gracefully. LTE will take your place. Or will it?

As the evidence stacks up against TETRA and powerful interests start to look beyond LMR, my belief is that TETRA is in fact not just the past and the present, but the future as well. Although European public-safety operators are already looking beyond TETRA to satisfy their requirements, the non-European public-safety sector continues to choose TETRA, with the exception of North America where P25 is entrenched. However, TETRA is more than public safety. In fact, the majority of TETRA deployments around the world are now outside of public safety.

The transport sector has long embraced TETRA: The majority of airports, metros, mass transit systems and light rails choose it for their critical communications because of its unique functionality and resilience in such demanding environments. Railways outside Europe now have a real choice between TETRA and GSM-R because of TETRA’s enhanced functionality and capacity to handle signaling and short data. Utilities are also deploying TETRA in large numbers, dispelling the myth that the technology is unsuitable for low-density areas. TETRA’s secure simultaneous voice and data capability has no rival in the market, allowing added protection for lone workers and remote control of key assets through supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and telemetry applications. A wide variety of intrinsically safe radios from multiple manufacturers also makes TETRA a viable candidate for oil and gas and industrial applications. TETRA has proven itself in the harshest conditions.

The standard is also still evolving. ETSI recently extended the TETRA standard into the VHF bands, potentially opening up new markets where coverage might still be an issue.

It has admittedly taken a long time, but TETRA Enhanced Data Service (TEDS) is now becoming available from multiple suppliers. Customers requiring higher speed data applications over secure networks during the next decade or so can purchase TETRA networks in the knowledge that the vast majority of existing applications will be protected and enhanced. Depending on spectrum availability, TETRA Release 2 will provide sufficient bandwidth and speeds for an increased use of data within professional sectors. Non-sensitive data can and already is sent over commercial networks, and this will continue to be the case as customers complement TETRA with broadband technologies such as LTE. In fact, TETRA is a good fit as the secure component of a fully integrated, advanced multibearer solution in the coming years.

It will take a long time for LTE to replace TETRA. Early LTE deployments in commercial networks across the United States and parts of Asia correspond to Release 9. North American and European standards bodies, supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), TCCA and others have been working within 3GPP to include PMR-like functionality within future releases of LTE. Direct mode and some group call features are currently being studied in Release 12, and mission-critical voice could be included in Release 13. Even the most optimistic supporters of public-safety LTE concede that serious wide-area solutions are unlikely to be available before 2018 – 2020, if at all.

It is still far from certain that LTE will ever replicate the full functionality available on TETRA networks, which already satisfy as much as 95 percent of professional users’ requirements. Only video is currently lacking, and there are serious doubts about the existence of a serious business case for spending billions of dollars on public-safety LTE networks purely for video. Vendors need to be honest with their potential customers about what public-safety LTE will deliver.

TETRA is in good health. In spite of all the rumors surrounding its imminent demise, there is no other technology quite like it, and there probably never will be in the future. Of course, no single technology can satisfy all user requirements so strong competition from both older and younger communications standards is positive for the industry and its users. TETRA has always been comfortable competing against other technologies.

The long-term future for a large section of global LMR users in transport, utilities, and oil and gas will see TETRA at the core of advanced IP-based, fully integrated critical communications solutions. Customers do not want to take unnecessary risks when choosing their critical communications. They like standards, and they like proven, global technologies that satisfy basic core requirements. TETRA is here to stay.

Peter Clemons has been reporting on the global LMR industry since 1996. He has worked with a number of LMR vendors over the years, and written and presented extensively in major events around the world. Last year he set up his own next-generation consulting company, Quixoticity, and since May, he is head of TETRA business for the Americas at Hytera Mobilfunk. Clemons can be contacted at peter.clemons@hytera.de.

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