The transition from narrowband to broadband in critical communications

Friday, 03 November, 2023

The transition from narrowband to broadband in critical communications

Change is never easy. This is particularly the case in environments where risk needs to be rigorously managed, such as critical communications. The evolution of technology has reached a threshold where traditional narrowband technologies such as TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) are beginning to coexist alongside ever-developing broadband technologies, including mission critical LTE. Use cases for broadband deployments are being explored, whilst the role of tried and proven TETRA solutions is under scrutiny.

Historically, critical communications systems have relied on narrowband technologies such as TETRA. Whilst these technologies are extremely effective in providing reliable voice communications, they have limitations when it comes to providing broadband data services such as video streaming, file sharing, and other data-intensive applications. Such use cases are increasingly relevant to public safety and other mission-critical users and the global critical communications market has been awaiting the shift from narrowband to broadband for some time.

With the arrival of the first true hybrid mission critical devices to the market, this is now becoming a reality.

Broadband technologies such as 4G LTE and 5G offer significantly higher data rates and greater capacity, making them well-suited for critical communications applications. The development of true hybrid mission-critical devices that can operate on both narrowband and broadband networks is a critical step in the evolution from narrowband to broadband communications for critical applications. For many, this is the best of both worlds, combining a proven, secure and standardised communication bearer (mitigating risk) with one that can future-proof the assimilation of data-intensive applications.

Benefits of transitioning to broadband

The transition from narrowband to broadband critical communications can provide a range of benefits for users.

  • Access to more services
  • Improved situational awareness: Broadband networks provide a range of data services, including video streaming, asset management, and other real-time data applications that can provide users with a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.
  • Rich Data: Broadband networks offer significantly higher data rates, delivering more targeted responses and improved operational outcomes.
  • Cost benefits: While the initial investment in a broadband solution may be higher than a narrowband solution, broadband networks can be more cost-effective over time due to their potential for device convergence and support for more data-intensive applications.

Quality of Service demands

QoS is the overall performance of a communications network, as seen by the users of the network. To measure QoS quantitatively, several related aspects of the network service are considered, such as error rates, bandwidth, throughput, transmission delay and availability to communicate without delay and with complete reliability.

However, mission critical users need an assured Quality of Service (QoS) that guarantees communication is always available when it’s needed.

Land mobile radio (LMR) networks provide a high QoS for availability, reliability and security. Many of these networks worldwide are based upon the TETRA standard, providing narrowband voice and data services to its users.

Mission-critical users will continue to rely on voice services but are evolving their operations to encompass more data services and applications, many of which can be carried over TETRA. But an increasing need for the use of data services such as video and high-speed data — which have higher bandwidth requirement than narrowband systems can deliver — will rely on broadband data services such as LTE.

Migration options

There are several choices available for users looking to transition from narrowband to broadband critical comms solutions.

Public Networks

Mission critical services can be run on public LTE networks, however without quality of service provisioning, hardening and coverage extensions to provide geographic coverage, these networks will not provide a mission critical service of the equivalent provided by LMR networks today. However, with provision of quality, priority and pre-emption services (QPP) as well as network hardening and coverage extensions, the use of MORAN or MOCN network architectures can provide a mission critical service utilising networks shared with the public.

When utilising public networks it is essential that mission critical users receive an assured Quality of Service (QoS) that guarantees that communication is always available when it is needed. To provide quality of service quantitatively, several related aspects of the network service must be considered, such as error rates, bandwidth, throughput, transmission delay and availability to communicate without delay, with complete reliability. This is dependent upon the design and implementation of the devices, applications and network to provide unfettered real-time access.

Private LTE

Private LTE networks can be deployed to provide a dedicated, secure, high-speed network for critical communications within an organisation. Private LTE networks are typically used in industries such as transportation, utilities and mining and can be customised to meet the specific needs of the organisation.

Hybrid solutions

Hybrid solutions share the benefits of narrowband and broadband networks by combining the strengths of both technologies. For example, a hybrid solution may use narrowband voice communications for mission-critical voice communications, alongside a broadband network for data-intensive applications such as video streaming.

These solutions also offer access to proven ecosystems of accessories already used with TETRA devices, including those rated for extreme environmental and physical environments that would significantly shorten the life of consumer-grade products.

Key considerations in transitioning to mission-critical broadband

Transitioning from narrowband to broadband critical communications requires careful planning, evaluation and collaboration between stakeholders to ensure a successful transition. When planning the evolution of a system, there are several key considerations that users should keep in mind.

  • Expandability: Android-based products can harness the power of a wide array of applications, which can evolve as use-cases advance.
  • Coverage and capacity: Broadband networks need to provide equivalent geographic coverage and capacity to the narrowband networks they are replacing in order to ensure reliable communications for end users at all times.
  • Security: Critical communications networks require a high level of security to protect against cyber threats and unauthorised access.
  • Device and accessory availability: Not all users are the same. Installation options as well as power, audio and control accessory availability ensure deployments are user-centric, seamless and low risk.
  • Interoperability: Formal interoperability processes are essential to ensure users have a wide choice of solutions, and to provide seamless communications to support coordinated responses during emergencies.
  • Training and support: Users will need training and support to ensure that they can operate and maintain the new technology effectively.
  • Integration with existing systems: Many organisations already have narrowband communications systems in place. It’s important to consider how new broadband systems will integrate and interoperate with existing systems to avoid disruption and ensure continuity of operations.

Enabling broadband migration with a mobile hybrid solution

It is unlikely that any organisation relying on mission-critical communication systems would make a sudden switch to broadband services. Deployment of a hybrid solution delivers a transition phase, maintaining existing narrowband services and continuity of service as well as assisting the transition for end users. To that end, last year Sepura launched a dual-mode broadband vehicle device giving organisations the opportunity to continue to leverage existing mission-critical TETRA voice services, while taking advantage of broadband data connectivity via LTE as they plan and execute their migration to mission critical voice applications.

For organisations that aren’t sure about a migration strategy to LTE, a dual-mode device offers the opportunity to continue using a proven solution with TETRA, while developing a strategy around broadband data services.

The Sepura SCU3 Broadband Vehicle Device is available in a dual-mode version combining broadband critical communications with a Class 3 TETRA module. The dual-mode option allows organisations to run hybrid fleets, with vehicles and control rooms using the dual mode device, and frontline staff using TETRA hand-held devices for critical voice communications. It offers support for 2G, 3G and 4G voice and supplemental data services (such as SMS and voicemail) and can also support high-definition video. The user experience has been a key consideration, with a single user interface for both MC-PTT and TETRA communications.

The use of a dual mode device also allows fallback to direct mode TETRA operation in the event of a loss of network availability — providing further advantages over an LTE-only solution.

Supporting Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Ethernet and data routing capabilities, the SCU3 is already available with a range of accessories and ancillary systems, creating a mission critical communications hub suitable for use today and into the future.

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