A Global Critical Alliance with a TETRA heart and a 5G brain

In the famous children’s story, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, young girl Dorothy’s world is turned upside down by a tornado that picks up her Kansas home – a familiar occurrence for first responders from the Cyclone State – sending her on a journey into a strange, unfamiliar world where she will have to face adversity and work together with a Scarecrow without a brain, a Tin Woodman without a heart and a Lion without courage, supported by an all-powerful Wizard – who turns out to be very human indeed – to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West and return home.

The world is never as we imagine it to be, and yet anything becomes possible if we can only overcome our fears, resolutely face up to adversity against all the odds and work together as a team, even when each individual member suffers from great frailties and debilitating doubts. If we believe that we can achieve great things, then half the battle is won. We can stay on the Yellow Brick Road and reach the Emerald City.

Facing adversity; overcoming our fears; facing extreme odds; working together for a greater good – this sounds very much like the public safety and critical communications community to me!

TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) was designed and developed by ETSI during the 1990s and promoted globally by a TETRA MoU (now known as TETRA + Critical Communications Association) that has grown to accommodate as many as 160 members from all parts of the globe and all industry and customer sectors. The standard has continued to evolve over the past 20 years and continues to keep hundreds of millions of people safe in 135 countries, with solutions ranging from massive nationwide deployments in United Kingdom (Airwave), Germany (BDBOS), Netherlands (C-2000), Belgium (ASTRID), Finland (VIRVE), Sweden (RAKEL), Norway (Noddnet) and many, many more with thousands of sites and hundreds of thousands of users; all the way down to single-site solutions for casinos, hotels, shopping malls and hospitals, where critical communications is required. This global standard has served its purpose well and new products and services continue to be deployed across every continent.

Of course, there are also many other highly-valued digital trunked radio technologies such as P25, DMR, GSM-R and the proprietary public safety technology, Tetrapol, deployed by the French, Spanish, Swiss, Czech and Mexican governments, to name a few. The TETRA community is now working closely with these other communities to develop a common future broadband standard. It is also estimated by industry analysts such as HIS that there are still millions of basic analogue radios still in operation due to ease of use, low cost and instant access for professionals working in groups. PMR, known as LMR in the Americas, is still alive and well as we will see later this month at IWCE.

Meanwhile, the global commercial cellular industry has been moving forward at a terrifying pace with major new releases of technology on an almost annual basis, driven by the convergence of mobile telephony and the Internet, the relentless application of Moore’s Law to computer processing power, combined with increased consumer appetite for new life-enhancing, time-saving, money-making mobile services. During the late 1990s, the first truly global mobile standard, GSM, allowed the first billion people to talk to each other while on the move; a decade later, Apple’s iPhone opened up new worlds to a new generation of online addicts, too restless to remain tethered to their desks and too desperate to share the latest news NOW with their friends. When a picture posted on Facebook can tell a thousand words, who needs voice anymore?!!

The rapid adoption of 4G, based on 3GPP LTE standard releases, during the early 2010s has challenged all sectors of society and the economy to develop a mobile strategy and come up with new solutions to manage, filter and analyse growing quantities of data in an increasingly mobile, cloud-based, virtualised, Big Data, VR/AR, hyper-connected world that has steadily come to dominate and influence the very physical space in which we live. While police officers, paramedics, fire crews and rescue teams still depend on narrowband mobile radio solutions to communicate with each other immediately, securely and confidentially, the wider public has been taken on a high-speed ride into the future, which – whether we like it or not – will inevitably lead us to the 5G Era, as past trends are extrapolated into this future over the coming decade.

There are a remarkable number of challenges facing the highly specialised public safety and critical communications community, which lacks the financial resources, purchasing power and sheer strength in numbers of the commercial sector:

How to develop a truly global standard that will guarantee interoperability, keep costs down and make sure all existing critical services remain available while also providing all the nice, new shiny bells and whistles in the safe, secure environment required by professionals working under extreme time constraints and heightened stress to save lives?

How to make sure that next-generation public safety and critical communications solutions have all the required secure by design and private by design features, while also offering instant communications, full availability across wide coverage areas at an affordable price for authorities with lower tax revenues, lower budgets and greater demands from their citizens?

How do we guarantee public service and the generation of massive social value that underpins our society, in a complex, dangerous, volatile, increasingly privatised world where individuals are empowered to make their own decisions, but also require the safety net of a robust public safety sector constantly evolving to cope with increased threats?

How can we develop new business and operational models to fund expensive technology re-fits and totally new deployments to a sector that represents perhaps only 1% of the size of the commercial market, has special requirements that increase the cost per unit by an order of magnitude compared to the commercial market; and, when full network and service capacity may only be required very occasionally when a major, often unforeseeable incident or disaster strikes at the heart of the community?

In other words, how do we convince our authorities and our fellow citizens that the public safety and critical communications sector is still a special case? How do we avoid lurching from disaster to disaster, public inquiry to public inquiry, crisis to crisis, avoidable tragedy to avoidable tragedy, without increasing federal, regional and local budgets by excessive amounts that could even lead to bankruptcies or the rationing of other essential services?

There are a growing number of public safety broadband initiatives at different stages of development around the world. This is not the place to go into great detail about all of these (they will be the subject of future articles and reports as the Global Critical Alliance finds its feet over the coming months). The reader can “google” First Net, UK ESN, Korean SafeNet, Mexican Red Compartida, the VIRVE Five-Stage Plan, French Ministry of Interior’s 2×8 MHz allocation in 700 MHz, Australia’s Productivity Commission report and many, many more.

This is also not the place to explain the significance of 3GPP SA6 group dedicated to public safety issues, the contents of 3GPP Releases 12 and 13, and the road to 5G/IMT-2020 during Releases 14, 15 and 16, while still pursuing critical communications’ goals. All these topics will be addressed by the new Alliance in due course.

This is also not the place to discuss possible applications of VR, AR, IoT, Smart Cities, drones, autonomous vehicles, body-worn videos, robotics, quantum computing, nanotechnology, blockchain, cryptocurrencies and many, many more within the future critical communications space. A combination of all the above will influence future societies in different ways and have wide-ranging consequences – both positive and negative – that will need to be factored into future public safety and security considerations.

All the reader and fellow critical communications advocate needs to understand is that we are in the middle of a global process of trying to find the best model or set of models that will allow the first responder community to incorporate the latest advanced communications features into their portfolio of solutions. We are in the early stages of a migration from a fundamentally 2G world to a fundamentally 5G world which will take at least 20 years for us to complete, but which has already started.

At the moment, each jurisdiction is following different guidelines and developing different plans based on past history, cultural and political preferences; the social, economic and financial climate; as well as public safety requirements, priorities and the most urgent day-to-day needs to keep the lights on and keep networks running. A flexible yet visionary, global yet local, simple yet complex, dependable yet revolutionary solution is required.

Who is capable of taking on such a task with at least a reasonable possibility of succeeding?

Who is able to work independently with all authorities, all suppliers, all existing associations, all operators, all customers and all experts to develop and deliver the global framework and guidelines that can be implemented on the local level on budget and on time?

Or who can at least gather the data, develop the vision and point us in the right direction?

I believe that we are in urgent need of a Global Critical Alliance with a TETRA heart and a 5G brain, that can guide us along the narrow Yellow Brick Road towards the dazzling Emerald City, inspired by the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, while managing to defeat all the Wicked Witches of the West along the way. A partisan, nationalistic, fragmented approach will once again disappoint the critical communications community. We need to unite and we need to remain strong and we need to articulate our needs again, again and again to our social, political and economic representatives, explaining why the 5G Era has the potential to turn into our worst nightmare if we do not put safety and security at the heart of our future cities and nations. As the international community starts its discussions over 5G, we must be the centre of attention, the focus of discussions. A lot of work has already been done; it now needs to be channelled into the most productive areas.

Best-effort, over-hyped, over-sold, freemium-app-filled communications solutions are just not good enough anymore in a 5G world. We need a new way of thinking, a new way of living and a new way of interacting with each other in a secure, trusted environment. Our community can make this happen.

So what would be the key requirements and attributes of this new heritage-respecting, forward-looking, focused and mindful Global Critical Alliance?

Here are some suggestions:

– Agreement to support a single globally accepted standard for “broadband trunking” capability as its evolves

– Promotion of interworking between this single globally accepted standard and existing standards such as TETRA

– Guarantees from global developers that this core technology would be able to support all new applications identified in the market and on the horizon, while protecting ongoing investments and user experiences

– All major geographical regions would need to be represented by the membership, allowing economies of scale and lower production costs, while also respecting local, cultural variations – i.e. connectivity with diversity all the way to the edge

– All major sectors, such as public safety, transport, utilities, oil and gas & new emerging sectors would need to be able to voice their concerns and input their requirements

– Applications would be explored on a one-by-one basis according to the Alliance’s resources and capabilities, evolving over time to focus on the most fruitful and profitable areas for research and development, while ruthlessly defending the needs of the critical communications sector in wider forums

– Such an Alliance would produce White Papers and promotional material of the highest quality; participate in public events around the world; be as vocal as possible in defence of global critical communications; approach authorities, regulators and other bodies as a totally neutral industry body

– Such an Alliance would not be a threat to any existing association in our space. On the contrary, such an Alliance would work closely with all other bodies and look to amplify and support the messages and initiatives of fellow travellers in our space

– Such an Alliance would need to have humble origins and a small core of founding members, and yet project itself on a global scale with clear, well-defined, ambitious goals for a critical future still to be defined by those who will have to continue protecting all those who live there.

We live in troubled times and face an uncertain future. Privacy and security are taking on new meanings in such a highly mediated, scrutinised world where switching off and chilling out are no longer options while danger lurks in the shadows. If over the coming months and years, we are able to continue pumping fresh blood through our TETRA hearts while upgrading our brains with 5G-ready software, working together as a team to make up for what each of us lack individually, then maybe we can create a better future for our children and grand-children, protecting them from even more powerful, climate-change-induced cyclones.

So who will play the role of the wonderful Wizard of Oz (the experienced, trusted conductor of the global critical communications orchestra)?

And who will be the Wicked Witch of the West (who continues to purvey dodgy, proprietary solutions to her unsuspecting victims)?

Only time will tell.

So, who will put aside their fears, their negativity, their cynicism and their self-interest, and follow me down this narrow Yellow Brick Road to the 5G Emerald City?


Peter Clemons is the Founder & Managing Director of Quixoticity.

Know more about Peter Clemons and read more of his articles, pls visit his Linkedin page.