Softil's 2023 outlook for mission-critical comms

Softil
By Anatoli Levine, Director, Products and Standards at Softil Innovative Communications
Tuesday, 17 January, 2023


Softil's 2023 outlook for mission-critical comms

It’s that time of year again. Softil’s crystal ball is out, dusted off and has been intently examined in order to see what the next year might bring to the transitioning world of mission-critical communications (MCX).

You know how moody and capricious these virtual crystal balls can be, refusing to show you a clear picture. If there is anything which seems to be clear to us at Softil, it is the trend of evolution. We can expect that the quantity of MCX devices available today will become better and many of the predictions which were already made will start to materialise during the next 2–3 years, and the new, important technologies will ‘magically’ appear in a quiet, almost unnoticeable fashion. But make no mistake — this is still a quiet revolution.

If we are willing to look, it is easy to see that this ‘quiet revolution’ just appears in our daily life without being recognised as such. Take a look at automatic translation, for example. Of course, Google translation had been around for a while. But translating a whole website was never simple. Now, the Softil website is available literally in any language you want — French, German, Japanese, Korean, take your pick. The technology quietly arrived and is in use – all matter-of-factly.

Take a look at another example — satellite communications. Again, satellite communications has been around a very long time — who doesn’t have a mental image of the large phone with even bigger antenna? No special phone — no satellite communications. And yet satellite communications is now all of a sudden available to tens of millions of people — anyone with an iPhone 14 now holds the power of satellite communications in their hand. Yes, you can only send an emergency text message via satellite, you can’t yet have a conversation at will — but think about the revolutionary significance of what is now here.

Now that we have illustrated our main point — more often than not, revolutions take the form of a quiet evolution — let’s get to our main subject… mission-critical communications.

Dual-mode radios are entering the main fray

Every technologist’s dream is to see new technology being deployed overnight. But this never happens in reality as ‘old’ technology never becomes ‘old’ in a matter of a day. Old and new has first to coexist.

Public safety professionals are accustomed to rely upon radio communications devices in their daily work. No matter how attractive the capabilities of ruggedised smartphones, getting used to them requires time. This is where dual-mode devices come into play allowing for a comfortable transition for public safety professionals — familiar old form-factor, new advanced capabilities, all in one. We have been talking about dual-mode devices, sometimes called ‘hero devices’ for a while — but we finally expect to see them in the hands of first responders in 2023.

FRMCS continues to gain momentum

Every technology has its lifespan. No matter how great the technology, evolution always catches up with it — performance, features, cost and even ability to maintain. Life just evolves.

For more than 20 years, GSM-R had been powering train communications in Europe and many other countries. It will continue to do so for another 10 years at least. However, its end is on the horizon. This is why the Future Railway Mobile Communications System (FRMCS), entirely based on 5G technology and MCX standards, is being actively developed by the International Union of Railways (UIC) and other international organisations to create a new and better solution for train communications, train control, automation and many other critical railway tasks. Work on FRMCS started a while ago, but we expect to see more proof of concept and trials in 2023.

There is an app for this

With the mass proliferation of smartphones, apps rule the world — or at least they give us that impression. Obviously here we are interested in apps for public safety users — and luckily, there are lots of them. There is a barrage of Android and iOS applications offering first responders tools tailored precisely for their specific branch of public safety — firefighters, EMS, police for situational awareness, smart maps and navigation, communications, video analytics and many more. So why are we even talking about them as 2023 predictions? Many of these applications offer PTT (push to talk) communication capabilities to users. Today, PTT might be proprietary. But in 2023, we expect to see PTT capabilities to become standards-based MCPTT, to fulfil the promise of the interoperable global MCX standard and enable the power of broadband communications for all.

CAD is taking notice

Computer-aided dispatch is at the heart of any first responder operation — fire, EMS, police — as everybody needs to be able to optimise the use of resources for whatever emergency is coming our way.

Traditionally, CAD systems are self-sufficient and rely upon integrations with equipment, location and communication providers. As MCX communications becomes even more prolific, the opportunity arises to bring all communications under one umbrella and allow CAD systems to take advantage of comprehensive location management and group communications which are an integral part of any MCX deployment. In 2023, Softil expects to see early trials of CAD systems connecting to MCX services and taking the efficiency of emergency response to the next level.

MCX and 911 — better together

Today’s 911/112 emergency calling service is largely delivered via broadband communications, whether landline or mobile. With the help of next-generation 911 (ng911/ng112) technologies, citizens have the ability to communicate not only via voice, but send text messages, images, videos and more. With the advent of MCX broadband communications being utilised by public safety agencies, such information can be easily delivered into the hands of first responders, helping to improve the efficiency of any emergency response. As MCX deployments continue to grow, expect to see the interconnection solutions for ng911/ng112 and MCX to start entering trials around the world in 2023.

MCX for utilities

Standards-based broadband group communications, such as those afforded by MCX, have another loyal group of users, eager to reap the benefits of reliable group voice, video and chat exchanges. Utilities often play the role of communications service providers, which gives them the freedom to choose how to deploy the new technology. MCX solutions today reach the point of maturity allowing deployment either in the cloud or as private LTE and utilities are taking notice. Softil expects to see a number of utilities roll out MCX-based group communications solutions this year around the world.

MCX logging and recording

Users and devices joining and leaving the network, floor requests and grants, the location updates and obviously the audio and video transmitted over a network represent the trove of data which needs to be securely preserved, stored and analysed for some time. As MCX deployments grow, the need for event logging and recording is growing at the same pace. We expect to see more MCX logging and recording solutions being offered to the MCX industry this year to address this need.

Over-the-top MCX — fitting the cloud?

Mission-critical communications is designed to be delivered via traditional service providers as an LTE or 5G service. This is the way to guarantee priority, pre-emption, KPIs and more. However, cloud deployments, if properly implemented with the help of ultra-low latency and native mobile edge computing (MEC) capabilities offered by 5G networks, can offer a solid foundation to deliver MCX communications via the cloud. 5G cloud deployments offer the advantages of service flexibility and literally infinite scaling, which are essential in providing MCX services. We expect to see proof of concept and initial trial deployments for 5G cloud-based MCX services this year.

Crystallising the path forward — from LMR to LTE

Just having new technology available doesn’t guarantee an instant replacement of the old and familiar. However, as new technology starts showing its true potential, the path forward is becoming anything but inevitable. As demonstrated in early trials and current deployments, MCX technology is proving to be the only suitable alternative to the existing radio communications devices that the public safety industry relies on today. The arrival of dual-mode handsets, LMR to MCX gateways and service provider-deployed interworking functions (IWF) gives public safety organisations around the world the confidence that LMR communications can be and will be replaced by standards-based broadband mission-critical communications. This confidence is enough for public safety organisations to finalise their transition plans towards the MCX opportunity and openly share their schedules, which call for the transition to start around 2026–2027 and take about two years to replace the vast majority of LMR communications with MCX. This year, we expect more countries and public safety organisations to announce their transition plans.

UI/UX, UI/UX, UI/UX

New never happens overnight. Today’s first responders are relying on their radios where they have sufficient user interface (UI) to select a channel and adjust the volume. But the smartphone-based handset for first responders offers infinitely more operational capabilities.

Map displays, virtual reality, augmented reality, voice UI and haptics — there are so many options to create this revolutionary user experience (UX) for first responders to win them over in droves. We are only at the beginning of the journey on uncovering that silver bullet UI which will make first responders instantly forget those clunky radios.

Conclusion

Public safety agencies and utilities today require reliable, stable, interoperable and versatile group communication handheld and mobile devices with MCX functionality. Only MCX enables dispersed disaster response teams working at the same location to coordinate their activities and share data and images in real time. In 2023, we expect to see many more MCX devices and options based on Softil’s standards-based interoperable ecosystem technology coming to market, helping first responders to work faster and better and saving even more lives in the process.

Softil is a leading enabler of IP communications solutions for mission-critical telecommunications products and services.

Image credit: iStock.com/allanswart

Originally published here.

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