What’s Next for the Nationwide Public Safety LTE Network – And You

Today, many of us may be impatient for action on broadband mobile mission-critical communications, and understandably so. The call for a nationwide interoperable network for public safety has been heard for more than a decade. Now that Congress has passed legislation reallocating the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety and providing $7 billion in grant money for the creation of such a system, the build-out can finally begin.

LTE is widely viewed as the key to unleashing “the power of the network” for the full scope of mission-critical communications. When it hits the streets for public safety, we’ll see dramatic and immediate changes.

For example, a sheriff might share a video of an escaping criminal and use predictive solutions to determine where he’s headed, then send squad cars to that site and quickly apprehend him. On another front, firefighters would benefit from a broadband network that pumps data to tablet computers, such as floor plans of burning buildings, to expedite rescues of trapped victims.

But nowhere will the benefits of LTE be more self-evident than in disaster situations. In recent years we’ve seen a rapid increase in the number and severity of both natural and man-made disasters that place enormous strains on first responder networks. These events, which always seem to come out of the blue, have earned the nickname “black swans,” from the title of a best-selling book by mathematician and investor Nassim Taleb. A “black swan,” in this instance, is a random or rare event thought to be highly improbable or even impossible – until it happens. In the public safety arena, examples of black swans are almost too numerous to mention, ranging from acts of God to acts of terror and violence.

Sometimes it takes a black swan to spur action for improvement. The tragic events of 9/11 as well as Hurricane Katrina certainly were the black swans that spurred action for the nationwide LTE network that’s starting to take shape.

But this change to LTE won’t take place all at once or across-the-board in all places, and it also won’t abandon other technologies that have proved their worth in certain areas.

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says that while a public safety broadband network will likely enhance interoperability nd increase data transfer rates, it could take 10 years or more before LTE will be able to accommodate voice capabilities. That means land mobile radio (LMR) will remain the standard for mission-critical voice communications for a while yet. LMR has done a creditable job for years and has made many new improvements in the last decade. It’s gone from analog to digital, and is available as an IP network-based service. APCO P25 has also enabled much-improved interoperability between different LMR systems, provided enhanced functionality and ensured competition through open standards.

Choosing the right model for LTE will also be critical to the network’s success. The fallback position of using legacy, closed, proprietary approaches is still favored by a few, but this is an antiquated notion for mission-critical communications. Instead, we need a model that’s based on the following principles: non-proprietary, open architecture, standards-based, customer-owned (and with customer input on design), and above all, interoperable.

It’s generally agreed that interoperability will be among the greatest challenges in the evolution toward LTE. LMR, P25, LTE and, most likely, different flavors of each will all be in use at the same time because there’s no single technology that fits everybody’s needs. For a nationwide public safety broadband network to be fully effective, we’ll need a layered architecture that’s built to mission-critical specs – and is truly interoperable between locations and technologies.