Will critical communications be vital for our future?

By Peter Clemons*
Monday, 20 August, 2012

Collaboration on technical standards and lobbying for harmonised spectrum are two of the major challenges facing the critical communications industry over the next decade or so, writes Peter Clemons*. In this article, he looks at the road ahead and considers some sombre forecasts, as a precursor to his upcoming presentation at RadioComms Connect.

A strong, critical communications ecosystem capable of influencing the evolution of standards-based (ie, 3GPP LTE Advanced) next-generation mobile broadband services is needed from TETRA, P25, TETRAPOL associations and agencies in the public safety and emergency services.

The US is currently leading the way, having assigned spectrum and money to a nationwide 700 MHz public safety broadband network based on LTE. The TETRA + Critical Communications Association (TCCA) has set up a Critical Communications Broadband Group (CCBG) to partner with other agencies around the world such as NPSTC/NIST, PSC-Europe, APCO International and the TETRAPOL Forum and a number of equipment manufacturers are partnering to develop, market and sell solutions.

In spite of these important steps, the experience of previous failed attempts to create a common, interoperable global standard for the industry suggest that caution is required and that the road ahead will be long, painful and treacherous. Several companies are likely to falter along the way and commercial interests, the excessive, rigid enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPRs) and conflicting requirements and objectives will probably slow down the process and make the final cost higher than anticipated.

Strong leadership, clearly articulated goals, fair access to technology by a broad and vigorous ecosystem and sensible compromises by all parties will be needed to allow the creation of a basis for the new information societies and economies which will emerge over the coming 20 years.

Over the past 20 years or so, commercial mobile operators successfully developed a highly profitable business based on best-effort, mass-market voice and SMS. More recently, the deployment of UMTS/HSPA networks and the massive adoption of smartphones has driven growth in internet access and data applications.

However, it is now becoming clear that this commercial 2G/3G mobile communications model will no longer work in the emerging 4G/5G world where applications become critical and real time: an indispensable extension of the user’s life itself.

Historically, it has been annoying not to get a signal when calling up a friend on a mobile phone; as soon as these same mobile operators take on QoS contracts for critical national infrastructure, intelligent transport systems or the National Health Service, we are looking at very different business models and potentially life-threatening scenarios.

Commercial operators are looking for the new revenue streams available from providing high-speed data services to professional users, as subscriber growth stalls in the developed world amid continued downward pressure on prices for voice and SMS. These global ventures still have a lot to learn before we can entrust them with the task of running a mission-critical network: more lobbying, marketing and technicians will not solve the problem.

Welcome to the future of communications, which will be critical communications!

In the critical communications industry, we have decades of experience running such services.

We understand that networks must be built for coverage first and then with sufficient capacity for peak-hour traffic with further reserves for an emergency. Radio sites must be protected against physical and virtual attacks. Redundancy and resilience must be built into the network design. There must be back-up power for perhaps several days in remote areas and a decentralised architecture to allow local site operations to continue even when the link to the central node is down.

Efficient group call and direct device-to-device communications capabilities are standard services in PMR networks and must be included in any future standard for critical communications broadband. The networks of the future that will not be able to fail will look very much like those networks which the PMR industry have been building and maintaining for decades.

The critical communications industry therefore has a role to play in educating profit-seeking, best-effort commercial mobile operators how to cope with the true mobile revolution that is approaching fast but that could still be derailed if governments and users do not feel confident enough to hand over important sections of the economy and everyday life to publicly quoted multinationals satisfying the needs of their shareholders first and the wider public second.

Governments and regulators will have to be strong enough to make sure the right incentives are in place for all participants to provide and receive secure services in an increasingly global, interconnected ‘virtual marketplace’. Commercial operators can teach the PMR industry how to be more innovative and imaginative; the PMR industry can teach commercial operators how to make their networks more secure, resilient and feature-rich for professional users. The PMR industry is coming together to defend its interests; eventually, the whole communications industry will be forced to come together to deliver fully integrated, next-generation services.

In fact, as we move into an increasingly virtual, interconnected, data-rich age, let me repeat that all communications tend to become critical. 21st-century societies and economies will come to depend on the soon-to-be-built 4G/5G ‘Internet of Everything’ providing the majority of basic and advanced goods, services and applications in the fields of security, government, commerce, finance, travel, logistics, transport, healthcare, infotainment and other aspects of our daily lives.

The critical communications ecosystem has emerged over several decades to provide secure solutions for public safety, emergency and other vital services which form the backbone of modern societies. This ecosystem is now available for the wider communications industry to exploit for the common good.

The understanding that a common standard - LTE - will be the portal to this society also opens up a window of opportunity for global cooperation: a unique opportunity that must not be squandered. We do not have much time to start reversing the negative trends of recent decades.

Two hundred years of industrial capitalism have left their mark on our world. Our carbon footprint still shows no signs of slowing down.

As the global human population goes beyond 8 billion, perhaps towards 10 billion, by the middle of the 21st century, we are transforming our environment and using up natural resources at an ever-increasing rate. Technology can be our saviour or our executioner. This time we must get it right.

Solutions must work together, across sectors and borders, across continents; throughout real worlds and virtual worlds. We need integrated solutions that are resilient enough to withstand all possible forms of attacks, both natural and man-made.

This requires some serious thinking and a new form of global cooperation that does not appear to exist at the moment.

The education systems that we put in place now for our children and grandchildren will have to produce the right solutions for their time, not ours. We must stop stealing resources from future generations and find a way to start giving back what we have taken.

As the already-mentioned converged mobile broadband networks are powered up and start to be used by billions of humans, machines and devices, energy generation and distribution grids around the world will be strained to breaking point by a potentially limitless demand for power from a growing, more interconnected, technology-dependent global population living closer together in megacities.

Unless smarter technologies are introduced to avoid wastage and increase the availability of renewable energy sources, electricity blackouts will become the norm in the future, following on from a series of high-profile grid failures across North America and Europe in recent years.

Countries such as China and India will have to manage increased demand in a manner that respects the environment. This is where innovative new forms of thinking could make breakthroughs in renewable energy with enormous repercussions.

Interoperability has been a big driver for the standardisation and digitalisation of emergency services communications in recent times. TETRA and P25 have been developed to allow multiple agencies across wide geographical areas to communicate seamlessly with each other.

Fully integrated, IP-based and increasingly mobile command and control centres are allowing major incidents and day-to-day operations to be handled by public safety authorities in a more efficient way than ever before.

The critical communications industry is already looking at the best way of incorporating new phenomena such as social media, crowd-sourcing, predictive analytics and others into existing work practices in order to serve the public better.

Smarter forms of processing information quickly and accurately will be required to police the smart cities of the future. Our industry must be preparing for this challenge now by testing out new applications without waiting for the next-generation networks to be built.

It is not sufficient for standards bodies and companies to develop new technology standards, introduce them before they have been fully tested and then just accept the consequences of poor coverage, poor network quality and breaches of security.

We need to educate our leaders, decision-makers and the wider public, laying out all the options and probable outcomes. A critical communications world is based on increased social value, which may be harder to measure than naked monetary value, but equally as important.

The next 20 years or so are critical, as they will define the future we face. How smart are we? If we get this next revolution right - avoiding guillotines and global conflicts - then we can look forward to long, satisfying lives for the majority of the world’s steadily increasing healthy and well-educated human population.

If we screw up and fail to factor in the enormous potential downside of rapid technological change, then the legacy we will be leaving our children and grandchildren will be a poisoned chalice.

Can we grasp this opportunity to create a fairer world? My bet is that we will muddle our way through a series of environmental, technological and financial crises before emerging - out of necessity - into a more enlightened, cooperative world than the one we are currently living in.

However, without joined-up, robust, interconnected, affordable critical communications networks supported by a more transparent political class and civil society, a positive end-game is far from certain.

This framing of an imminent, dramatic future bearing down upon us will lead me to pose an even more dramatic question at this year’s RadioComms Connect event held in December: “Is critical communications vital for our very future on this planet?”

Peter Clemons*Peter Clemons, former director and board member at TETRA + Critical Communications Association and former director of Communications at Teltronic SAU, set up a UK-based company, Quixoticity Ltd, to focus on developing solutions to the challenges facing the global critical communications industry.

As managing director of Quixoticity, Peter is working together with forward-looking, ideas-driven organisations to deliver the next generation of critical communications solutions.

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