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Khan: U.S. needs a private public safety LTE network

Weighing the risks and short term benefits
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Tahir Khan

       Tahir Khan

The failure of commercial cellular carrier networks that was evident during Hurricane Sandy clearly indicates the imminent need for a dedicated private public safety LTE network in the U.S.

For the most part, public safety LMR (Land Mobile Radio) systems remained operational, mainly because LMR RF towers have been hardened to endure such conditions; generators can provide backup power when the commercial electric grid is down, and devices can communicate without any interaction with the infrastructure if an RF tower loses connectivity.

While the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has repeatedly advocated leveraging commercial cellular networks in the past to quickly facilitate the deployment of a private public safety LTE network across the nation, the risks associated with relying on commercial infrastructure alone in certain geographic localities by far outweigh the short term financial benefits. 

Commercial networks do not meet the availability and resiliency requirements for public safety operations, and a single glitch in communications can result in the loss of human lives. Thus, public safety agencies worldwide are echoing demands for the deployment of cost effective mobile broadband networks dedicated to public safety.

As the initial funding of $7 billion alone will by no means be feasible to deploy a private LTE network spanning 44,000 RF sites, and public safety agencies have limited budgets, I believe this is a "Golden" opportunity for the vendor community to push for BOO "build, own and operate" networks. Vendors could potentially charge regional public safety agencies for use of resources over these private BOO LTE network deployments.

In addition, a number of public safety agencies have adopted the hosted core deployment model, which aims to minimize deployment costs for private LTE network deployments by allowing public safety entities to share a joint core network infrastructure while using independent RF sites.

In our recent study, "Public Safety LTE & Mobile Broadband Market: 2012 - 2017," we estimate that here will be nearly 80,000 private LTE eNode B deployments worldwide by 2017. In addition 55 percent of those deployments will be in the U.S. alone.

Private (Public Safety) LTE eNodeB Installed Base by Region: 2011- 2017

Source: Signals and Systems Telecom

Private (Public Safety) LTE eNodeB Installed Base by Region: 2011- 2017

By 2017, the U.S is expected to account for more than 600,000 private public safety LTE subscribers throughout the country, although initial deployment plans are hindered by funding complexities and technical hurdles such as the availability of devices that will support Voice over LTE (VoLTE).

First Responder Subscriptions over Private Public Safety LTE Networks by Region (Thousands): 2011 - 2017

Source: Signals and Systems Telecom

First Responder Subscriptions over Private Public Safety LTE Networks by Region

Seven public safety entities received $300 million in federal grants to fund individual private LTE network deployments. While many of these networks were scheduled to be operating in 2012, NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) halted the process, to ensure that the FirstNet board provided its input to these early deployments which will eventually help in better planning the nationwide rollout of public safety LTE. Recent signs of outreach from the FirstNet board indicate that the process is moving in a positive direction and the first networks should start operating live in the first half of 2013.

As far as convergence with LMR systems and support for VoLTE is concerned, public safety agencies are not expected to demand interoperability solutions in the short term. LMR systems will continue to support mission critical voice services for many years, but private LTE deployments in place over the next five years may be used to offload voice capacity in congested localities. VoLTE is still in its early years as several commercial carriers experiment with the technology. Having tested VoLTE on a smartphone capable of supporting both CDMA and VoLTE voice calling on an unnamed U.S. carrier's network, Spirent Communications, in a recent report concluded that VoLTE reduced the smartphone's battery's life to 50 percent or about 252 minutes of talk time.

The mission critical nature of the public safety industry demands considerably higher talk times for first responders in comparison to traditional cellular users, where the lack of communication can result in fatalities. It will certainly take some time for VoLTE to be optimized for the public safety industry.

Tahir Khan is the CEO of Signals and Systems International Ltd., where he also leads the research consultancy practice for the defense and public safety communications industry. Khan received his Master of Science degree in satellite communications from the University of Surrey.