How MCX continued to evolve in 2023

By Anatoli Levine, Director, Products and Standards at Softil Innovative Communications
Wednesday, 21 February, 2024

How MCX continued to evolve in 2023

The year 2023 was one of continuous evolution of the critical communications ecosystem towards broadband, open standards-based communications technologies known as MCX. New technologies always sound revolutionary as they climb the ‘hype peak’, but once the technologies reach the ‘plateau of productivity’, as MCX largely has, progress becomes more evolutionary in nature.

Over the course of 2023, Softil’s BEEHD framework, a key enabling technology behind a wide range of 3GPP MCX solutions, became something of a powerhouse in networks across the globe and was recognised by the International Critical Communications Awards (ICCAs) as the ‘Best MC-X Product of the Year’. Let’s take a closer look at other MCX happenings in 2023.

Growth of MCPTT in service

Technology is only as good as it is used. While MCPTT had been deployed for some time now (initial deployments in South Korea go back to 2018), 2023 showed definite growth in deployments. The most notable is with Southern Linc, with its Critical Linc MCPTT service being selected by Georgia’s public safety operations. As part of this deployment, Softil partners L3Harris, Catalyst Communications Technologies and AdvanceTec Industries delivered their innovative products for first responders. L3Harris XL200 radios are a game changer for the entire industry as they offer full MCPTT capability for on-network communication, combined with P25 direct mode for situations where direct mode communications are either preferred or necessary. Catalyst brought its IntelliLink LMR/MCX gateway solutions to the table, while AdvanceTec enabled vehicle-mounted MCPTT solutions. Catalyst LMR/MCX gateways and MCX dispatch solutions also made it into the FirstNet catalogue in 2023. In an entirely different part of the world, in India, BEEHD-based MCX solutions have been deployed in the latest railway project. All in all, Softil technology is now powering live MCX solutions in five networks in production spanning three continents.

Device-to-device communications

Device-to-device communication, usually called Direct Mode or D2D, is a critical element of communications for first responders. Taken for granted in LMR networks, D2D has been the Achilles heel of broadband MCX communications due to insufficient radio capabilities in 4G devices.

The 5G standard, particularly 5G-Sidelink, is a new technology that promises to close this critical gap, allowing potentially 2 km range for D2D communication on standard smartphone transmission power. 2023 became a pivotal year when MCX/MCPTT standards-based direct mode communications had been developed and demonstrated. Qualcomm, Softil and Alea joined hands to demonstrate MCX D2D communication interoperability using Qualcomm’s 5G Sidelink chipset, demonstrating device discovery and establishing group communications with multiple devices without any network connectivity between the devices. The solution was demonstrated during the ETSI MCX Plugtest #8 in October 2023 in Malaga, Spain, and later on during the TCCA CCBG meeting in Krakow, Poland, in November. Unquestionably, this was a milestone event for PSBN technologies.

MCX deployment plans pick up momentum

The year 2023 might make history as the year when most European countries declared their MCX plans. At various events during the year (observer sessions at the ETSI Plugtests, the Critical Communications World conference, the TCCA’s CCBG meeting and others), public safety organisations from several European countries — including MSB, DSB, BDBOS, ASTRID and others — stated their plans to move towards public safety broadband communications. Most European initiatives plan to start transition toward MCX communications in the 2026/2027 timeframe, with expected completion in 2028/2029. This is an unquestionable step forward towards much needed standards-based public safety broadband communications.

Interoperability is a journey, not a destination

In 2023, the interoperability journey continued at ETSI Plugtests. The first took place in July in Paris, France, hosted by the International Union of Railways (UIC), and it was focused on testing the FRMCS features of the MCX standard. The second ETSI MCX Plugtest took place in October in Malaga, hosted by the University of Malaga, and focused on the full range of MCX and FRMCS functionality based on content of the 3GPP Release 17/18. The event in Malaga also had a record number of face-to-face attendees. The Plugtest in Malaga was the first event where D2D functionality was tested.

Rise of MCX testing

If there is one key requirement for public safety communications solutions, it would be to never fail. It is critical that first responders can rely on their communication tools 24x7x365. The only way to guarantee this is by testing, testing, testing.

In MCX testing, two developments headlined 2023. First, the TCCA and GCF with the help of a number of other organisations made a significant effort to create a certification program for MCX devices. The test specification was finalised and final details had been discussed at a number of dedicated events. We expect that MCX certification will start taking place during 2024.

Outside of certification testing, a number of leading testing companies in the world actively engaged in building comprehensive MCX testing suites for functional, performance, reliability and other types of testing, some of them relying on Softil MCX technology in their development. Again, we expect to see new MCX testing solution announcements in 2024.

Realising FRMCS vision

Railway transportation is key to a cleaner, more sustainable future. Modern and reliable railway communications are essential to railway operations. The FRMCS (Future Railway Mobile Communication System) developed the International Union of Railways (UIC) had been developed to replace current aging GSM-R technology. In development for the past eight years, FRMCS has made significant progress over the past three years, particularly in 2023. The 5GRail project, aimed at validating the FRMCS v1 specification, was successfully completed and offered invaluable feedback for the development of the FRMCS v2 specification, while 3GPP made significant progress extending the MCX standard to support FRMCS requirements.

The MCX for Rail portion of the FRMCS specification was successfully tested for interoperability during two of the ETSI Plugtest events, getting it ready for the prime time MORAINE 2 project which will validate FRMCS v2 and yield the final FRMCS v3 specification for deployment. In 2023, Softil continued to contribute to the FRMCS development work via 3GPP standardisation, UNIFE/UNITEL industry involvement and active participation in the Plugtest events, and we will continue our active engagement in this important work.

Image caption: Softil’s BEEHD MCX framework was named Best MC-X Product of the Year at the ICCA award ceremony in May 2023.

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