LTE Set to Disrupt LMR
By Frank Anderson
Tuesday, June 18, 2019 | Comments
A disruptive innovation creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market-leading firms, products and alliances.

As cellular Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks continue to mature, providing better coverage with more available bandwidth, a great migration is taking shape. Technology has advanced to provide push-to-talk (PTT) hard-coded radios and smartphone applications that transport PTT on LTE as an internet of things (IoT) device.

The LMR industry has historically provided everything from simple PTT radios that communicate over short distances to complex wide-area networks. These LMR devices have served business, industry, public safety and personal communications for decades.

As digital technologies have emerged during the past decade, we now have complex Project 25 (P25) systems serving public safety and mission-critical industries. Other digital systems such NEXEDGE, MOTOTRBO and Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) are providing communications for SMR operators.

Public safety moved to advanced P25 networks as their budgets have allowed. Countless systems were built for cities, counties, regions and states. But they haven’t come cheap; many systems have price tags in the millions of dollars to provide needed coverage. It’s not difficult to find a portable radio that costs $3,000 or more. Many of these systems have married their future to a specific manufacturer as different feature sets are manufacturer specific. The manufacturers historically placed themselves in favorable positions for future add-on sales throughout the life of the system with little to no competition.

For the past decade, wide-area SMRs have embraced the manufacturers’ digital offerings. Wide-area SMR networks have been built throughout the nation. Hundreds of SMR networks ranging from simple single tower site systems to large interconnected networks are now in place. These systems work well, covering a specific geographic area to provide the SMR’s customer base dependable communications. These systems have also been costly to deploy. The necessary FCC licenses to operate these systems have been difficult to obtain. As available frequencies have been licensed, new channels are now nearly impossible to obtain in populated areas of the country. Even the best-designed SMR networks can easily become exhausted in terms of subscriber loading and available frequencies. If an SMR is unable to license additional frequencies, it essentially halts additional growth. Some of the now decade-old systems are near the manufacturer’s end of life and support. An SMR system operator then must decide to upgrade or replace infrastructure, and many times, the subscriber equipment needs to be replaced too.

LMR networks are built to provide communications coverage in a certain area or region. Few systems are interconnected between cities, so a user is limited to communicating where the network is constructed. No LMR networks provide nationwide communications.

Radio towers and building rooftops are necessary for the correct antenna height. Even the best-designed systems fail to adequately provide predicted coverage many times. In-building coverage many times requires expensive distributed antenna systems (DAS). Not only is the upfront deployment costly, but the ongoing maintenance, network charges and tower leases are expenses for the SMR operator.

The Great Disruptor
Has a great disruptor arrived to completely change the LMR business as we know it? I believe the great disruptor is PTT over LTE. Future public-safety systems will use mission-critical PTT (MCPTT) on LTE provided by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) or a competing cellular carrier network. These networks will be superior to P25 with priority, security, dependability and geographic coverage from hardened networks. These new public-safety offerings will provide the necessary communications at predicted affordable pricing with competition from multiple manufacturers and new features such as video.

With the entry of PTT over cellular (PoC) devices operating on LTE, the SMR landscape is also ripe for change. The cumbersome and expensive pieces for SMRs — FCC licenses, tower leases, repeater hardware and backbone costs — are not needed with PoC. A newcomer to the traditional SMR business must do some soul searching before investing in a new SMR system. Why would anybody build a new wide-area SMR system when PoC can provide similar features, secure communications, exponential capacity, and in-building and nationwide coverage?

PoC provides all of these things at an affordable price without building expensive infrastructure. Even the existing SMRs that find themselves at the crossroad of upgrading their system because of a manufacturer’s end-of-life notification should consider PoC. SMRs should think twice before expanding, modifying or replacing an existing system. Gateways and inexpensive interoperability devices are available to connect legacy SMR talkgroups to PoC. This may be a better, more affordable choice than a major equipment forklift.

Will PoC and MCPTT usher in an affordable alternative to legacy networks? MCPTT will be available in the not too distant future. Public-safety decision-makers may be wise to postpone new P25 networks and upgrades. Should a decision-maker recommend a multimillion-dollar P25 purchase to find a subscription-based, affordable solution is just around the corner?

PoC services that compete with traditional SMR offerings are available. PoC can easily replace SMR networks. Coverage area and cost concerns will be replaced by nationwide coverage at an affordable cost.

The SMR business isn’t ready to go the way of a buggy whip factory just yet, but it’s not far off. Many people in our industry have blinders on, thinking that this change won’t come. But it will come, and it will come soon, and it will change the SMR industry forever. PoC will find its way into specialty shops and nontraditional sales channels. The SMRs must compete with these new sales channels for the same customers. The expertise now needed to design, build and maintain a SMR system will not be needed in the future.

There will always be a need for conventional two-way radios for short-distance use, but the lion’s share of wide-area networks will be provided by LTE.

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” — Stewart Brand

This story is part of a two-part point-counterpoint series about the future of LMR and LTE.
Click here to read the other viewpoint.

Would you like to comment on this story? Find our comments system below.


Frank Anderson has 40 years of experience in the land mobile industry. He is a founding partner in A Beep of Joliet, Illinois. His entrepreneurial experience includes founding companies in the paging, cellular, transportation, wireless broadband, tower site and land mobile industries. Past successes include Diga-Talk.com, a wide-area digital SMR network using NEXEDGE technology. Diga-Talk’s buildout began in 2008 in the greater Chicago area and now has coverage in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. A Beep’s current project is Diga-Talk-Plus, a push-to-talk (PTT) over cellular (PoC) solution that provides nationwide service, offering mobile and portable radios, smartphone applications, dispatch software and interconnection devices. Diga-Talk-Plus is setting up dealer locations throughout the nation with a turnkey offering. Get more information at http://www.DigaTalkPlus.com.



 
 
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Comments
On 6/25/19, JOE SCHMELZER said:
Love the bold statements. Not sure on the timing. We'll see.

On 6/25/19, Esteban said:
Frank's right. But he's still stuck in Dumbphone Stupidphone world thinking that the modern wireless radio customer remembers anything wireless is a radio at least where there's profit to be made and wants voice-only devices. Frank, not only do they have a two-way radio looking mobile and portable device that takes a subscriber identity module (SIM) card but they also have a Long Term Evolution (LTE)-based brick phone that takes a SIM card. The 80s called, and they want their phone back even if is LTE now. I think even though the internet of things (IoT) walkie talkie is great and a revolution to us LMR SMR guys, the only customer en masse that will really want them is Frank himself.

NEXTEL 2.0 has been selling these walkie-talkie looking phones for four years now with about 10,000 of them on the street, and even though the range is unlimited and so many other great things from an LMR SMR guy perspective, good luck trying to convince an IT director or company to swap them out for their existing smartphones.

People do so much more today with wireless than just talk, especially on a brick to them that looks like an old-school walkie talkie...LTE or traditional. NEXTEL 2.0 is selling many more iPhones and Galaxies with the Nextel app than the dedicatated walkie talkie looking SIM card radios. Why would the wireless customers out there want more than a walkie talkie? I don't like it, but it's REALITY. It's too little too late I'm afraid. The end users have moved beyond just voice and especially PTT and have come to demand more from their wireless radio link to their pocket or belt. LMR SMR style handsets, be it FM, DMR, P25 or SIM-card based LTE, are a niche and a very small niche of the overall wireless customer base in the world today and certainly not enough to make a successful wireless company from alone. PTT is just a multimedia subset or over the top layer of a converged wireless multimedia IP network. 3GPP wrote that standard two decades ago — PTT over IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS).

Frank, have you thought about bringing back the Alltel Cingular or Cellular one brands? They convey much better the business you are actually in — a boutique LTE mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) for Dumbphones Stupidphones than the name Diga-Talk+.

As you know, NEXTEL is already taken.

Esteban

On 6/20/19, Bob said:
Interesting article Frank. You are quite the scribe. Hopefully for all our sakes LMR isn't going away lol.

On 6/19/19, Joe Blaschka Jr said:
While there is truth in each viewpoint, I think there are a couple of factors not discussed. These are major elements about how the market will progress. One factor is the lack of trained technical staff to maintain complex communications infrastructure required for both private and government LMR systems. In the past, there were many small radio shops with technicians who could install and maintain virtually all aspects of a radio system. Large users such as government agencies and other large entities such as railroads may be able to afford to recruit and train technical support personnel. Many of the old guard of radio technicians are retiring and there are hardly any coming up through the ranks to replace them. Without trained technical staff, the operation and maintenance of complex radio systems will be difficult. Even the manufacturers are having problems finding trained technical staff.

The other factor is the user experience. Many of the radio users today, even those who operate two-way radios on a well-designed and operated radio system, will comment their cellular phone works where the expensive radio system does not. These users grew up with a cellphone in their hand. Granted, in remote areas, there generally is no cellular coverage but in many other locations even rural locations cellular coverage is better than the two-way radio coverage. This is the area where the public safety and other radio users operate the vast majority of the time. With the plethora of inexpensive two-way radios using cellular push to talk (PTT), it will be a hard sell for many rural areas and certainly other radio users such as public works departments to spend $2,000+ for a real radio and millions for the infrastructure.

Politics and budgets drive many of these decisions. I could easily see where lower initial cost lower operating costs and no need for an expensive radio shop will drive the decision instead of the need for a system that works as a last resort.

On 6/19/19, Manuel A Alvarez Sr said:
The old timers are right. The cell companies want to eliminate the principles of communications. Today P25, and unfortunately TETRA, can not work in the U.S. and are systems designed for public services. DMR and other systems are available for low-capacity systems. I think some people are putting noise on the line.


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