A retrospective look at the future of communications
From PTT to IoT, the communications industry is evolving every day, even though some things stay the same.
It’s become an annual tradition for me to publish my thoughts and opinions on where I see advances, trends and growth in the communications industry. Before crafting this year’s forecast, I looked back at previous years and noticed four trends that repeatedly showed up as they continued to develop and evolve over time.
The push-to-talk kick off
In 1996, the first commercial push-to-talk (PTT) service was introduced in the US. Though readily adopted in the utilities, transportation and business sectors, it took quite a bit longer to proliferate in the public sector. However, due to radio frequency shortcomings, agencies were forced to consider alternatives. Eventually, first responders learned that by augmenting LMR devices with PTT applications on smartphones, which most carry on the job anyway, they could communicate with the radio system, even when their radio couldn’t.
Since then, PTT has evolved exponentially, primarily driven by the advent of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and other LTE networks. PTT morphed into Push-to-Talk over Cellular (PoC) and Mission Critical PTT (MCPTT), smartphones and tablets optimised by PTT accessories were integrated by many agencies, while PTT accessories continued to advance and will become more comprehensive with new and usual features. The sum total opened the door a little wider for the public sector’s transition from LMR to PoC/MCPTT systems.
Everyone continues to clamour for devices that serve multiple purposes. By way of a sanity check, picture an officer wearing 50 kg of equipment, then add a body cam and other new tools to his/her burden. All personnel carry smartphones as well, so why not create one that’s public safety specific, add a fibre-optic lens, tie it to a high-performance network, and eliminate the need to wear a body cam?
Infrared cameras, gunshot and facial recognition, hazardous chemical detection and many other applications could be packaged together and customised by industry for one primary device rather than multiple. The mission-critical communications field is equipped with a variety of applications, as are other markets like aviation and field services. Regardless of the diverse end-user programs and devices, the need to consolidate is universal.
The communications ecosystem is comprised of smart applications, systems and purpose-built intuitive devices supported by network services. As time goes on, better equipment and technologies will deliver more efficient ways to receive information and, as long as there are powerful networks able to support it, that’s the direction we’re heading.
Stream of new networks
My philosophy is it’s all about the network. 5G mobile broadband services are the latest buzz, though really it’s just a super-fast version of 4G. Because there’s always another network coming around the corner, I prefer to call it ‘the next evolution network’. 3G, P25, TETRA, LTE and the IoT are just a handful of next-evolution networks that have arisen over the years.
We’ve seen critical communications evolve from analog to digital narrowband technologies, and now LTE is the top candidate for a nationwide system. Though LMR isn’t going away, US public safety communications relying on PTT applications require the high-performance broadband connection that FirstNet will provide. LMR and FirstNet will co-exist for a very long time but, in the interim, the combination of networks will continue to promote development of transitional hybrid devices. Perhaps some will be two-way with built-in LTE boards or vice versa.
Among emerging networks of interest are a number of unlicensed spectrum offerings, which may extend 5G into new markets. Another network that addresses the hot topic of in-building cellular service is the 150 MHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which brings bandwidth support to mobile devices in buildings and public spaces. Manufacturing, utility and transportation sectors are exploring the use of CBRS for industrial IoT.
On an even larger scale, a select group of satellite companies are planning to deploy low-orbit constellations that could blanket most of the Earth and bring high-speed broadband service to areas currently without access. Though a worthy endeavour, these projects may face major funding and regulatory hurdles.
The bottom line is, for any emerging technology to work, it must be tied to a high-performance network, which brings us back to why I believe it’s all about the network.
The next big thing
IoT telemetry is next in line for fifteen minutes of fame. Telemetry predates IoT by many years. The word is derived from Greek roots: tele, meaning remote, and metron, meaning measure. An apt name to describe this automated communications process for collecting measurements and other data from remote places for monitoring and analysis.
Sensors play a key role in telemetry as a source of data input. Pryme recently developed an IoT device to monitor sewer flow in Taiwan to mitigate illegal dumping. Albeit primitive telemetry is already in use in law enforcement with sensors that monitor when an officer leaves the car, or is on foot and running, etc.
Meanwhile, I see early-stage development of new sensor peripherals that will enhance the usefulness of PoC/MCPTT devices. Most likely, many of these sensor enhancements might become ‘untethered’ from user communications devices via new networks such as 5G. For example, a sensor in a patrol car might initially communicate through an officer’s FirstNet device, but later may be able to communicate directly with the system through its own facility (ie, 5G).
At first, there will be transitional technology tailored around what’s being measured, so the example above might initially be accomplished with a vehicle-mounted modem/router connected to the same network as the officer’s device. However, if a suitable wireless network were available to communicate with directly (ie, 5G again), a separate modem/router would no longer be necessary and the complexity and cost of sensors could be dramatically reduced.
Where does IoT fit in with telemetry? Though the current data rate may be fairly low for reading measurements like water temperature, once there are hundreds of thousands of field devices in play, suddenly it becomes big data, which is IoT territory. Just as other aspects of communications are evolving, so have the opportunities for IoT and telemetry.
Designing unique and specialised sensors is a direction I see Pryme moving toward. We already have extensive experience with the operating environments and there are more IoT/RFID chips and modules available every day from major players like Texas Instruments, Silicon Labs, Qualcomm, Nordic and dozens more.
Whether you label it hindsight or foresight, history has always paved the way for the future, not only in the communications industry, but in every aspect of life.
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