The long-term evolution of public safety communications

Public safety organizations have endorsed LTE as the next generation of wireless technology for use in the 700 MHz public safety spectrum — so what, exactly, is LTE?

By Doug Wyllie
FireRescue1 Staff

After reporting on new developments in the D-Block, we now examine a flurry of recent announcements about the broadband technology standard called 3GPP Long Term Evolution (a.k.a. LTE) — a project of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) — which indicate that public safety broadband communications in the 700 MHz band assigned to public safety is really, truly moving forward toward fruition.

For proof we need to look no further than just three pieces of news in just the past six weeks from technology giants Motorola, Alcatel-Lucent, and Ericsson:

  • Motorola to build a LTE system in 700 MHz for S.F. Bay Area public safety
  • Alcatel-Lucent makes "first ever" call over LTE network in 700 MHz
  • Ericsson and Motorola team up for LTE public safety network

Let's take them in order, one by one.

In late July 2010, Motorola announced plans to build a 700 MHz LTE system that will serve a host of Bay Area public safety agencies including those in San Francisco, Alameda County/Oakland, Contra Costa County, as well as the cities of Santa Clara and Sunnyvale.

The company said that this Public Safety LTE system "will be installed this year and is expected to be operational in early 2011.

This first phase includes an LTE core, 10 sites and 330 Motorola Public Safety LTE user modems to provide Bay Area responders access to a host of media rich applications delivered over the new broadband network for increased public safety information sharing."

Last week, Alcatel-Lucent announced that it completed "the world's first call" over an LTE network — albeit an experimental one — operating within public safety broadband spectrum.

In making that announcement, Morgan Wright, Vice President of Global Public Safety Segment for Alcatel-Lucent said in a statement, "This achievement represents an important step toward revolutionizing public safety networks as it establishes the readiness of LTE as a technology to enable broadband data applications.

"This call also demonstrates Alcatel-Lucent's expertise in designing and deploying LTE solutions to address the unique needs of the public safety sector and marks an important milestone in support of the Public Safety solution that Alcatel-Lucent is delivering to this critical market."

And just today, Motorola and Ericsson announced a partnership to provide an LTE-based solution for public safety.

One piece that can easily be lost in this announcement is that Ericsson is widely considered the worldwide leader in LTE infrastructure deployment, and of course, Motorola is one of the top companies making public safety radio communications equipment.

In making the announcement, both companies noted that their platform will provide "advanced capabilities demanded by public safety," and will use LTE mobile broadband technology "to allow Motorola's unified next generation platform to provide the advanced communications capabilities demanded by public safety with real-time information sharing between an integrated multimedia command center and a collaborative portfolio of rugged radios, in-vehicle terminals, and handheld LTE data devices."

Seeds sewn in spring are harvested in fall
In Spring 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the construction of a 700 MHz Public Safety Broadband Demonstration Network intended to provide manufacturers and first responders a location to "demonstrate and evaluate the behaviors of 3GPP LTE technology deployed in the 700 MHz bands, specific to the needs of public safety agencies," said NIST in a published statement.

"Emergency responders," said NIST, "will see how these broadband systems will function and determine through hands-on experience how these systems meet their unique needs.

"Features and system performance that commercial carriers may not be testing for commercial purposes, but that are of importance to public safety, will be a primary area of assessing public safety user requirements within the 3GPP LTE standard. This will include multicast/broadcast capabilities, priority access, pre-emption, SMS, and voice.

"Vendors who are developing LTE equipment (Band Class 14) are eligible to participate in this project."

Why LTE over WiMAX?
In June 2009, a variety of public safety communications organizations announced their support for LTE as the preferred technological standard to be used in the development of a nationwide interoperable broadband network in the 700 MHz band assigned to public safety. Those groups — APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials), NENA (National Emergency Number Association), and NPSTC (National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council) — chose LTE despite the widespread perception at the time that LTE was "behind" WiMAX in its development.

LTE — which had been adopted by wireless giants AT&T and Verizon as their 4G standard for wireless development — beat out a rival technology called WiMAX, a technology standard which had been developed by Sprint and Clearwire.

So why did public safety choose LTE? In essence it was a matter of expediency — LTE was simply more closely aligned with the public safety 700 MHz radio band.

Harlin McEwen, who serves as Chairman of the Communications & Technology Committee for the IACP and as Chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust explains, "The only reason we chose LTE over WiMAX was that we had spectrum at 700 MHz and WiMAX was not developing any standards for 700.

"Verizon and AT&T had both announced that they were going to use LTE in 700, so it wasn't a hard choice for us to say, 'If we're going to move into the next generation, we've got to work on the coattails of these two big companies who are going to develop 700 MHz systems.'

"Nobody is going to build WiMAX in there unless somebody buys some spectrum to do that, and the only spectrum left is D-Block. And that's not enough to do a robust system — that's why we keep telling people, 'Give us the D-Block to add to ours and we'll have enough [spectrum] to do a robust system. Alone, we don't have enough and the D-block doesn't have enough.'

"So that's the reason we chose LTE. It had nothing to do with the technology being better than WiMAX. I've been told that although they're different, there isn't a lot of difference in the way they perform or the quality of the service."

McEwen concludes, "We're really talking about fourth generation — next generation, faster quicker, better, improved — broadband service, and LTE is the one we chose. But to the rank and file police officer or firefighter, they don't care which one we use — they just want it to work."

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