You know how it is, old habits die hard, don’t they? We get used to the way we’ve always done something, so we just carry on doing it the same way. We know it, we trust it, and it works, so why change, right?
Well, there really isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with this approach, after all, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The trouble is if we continue to do the same thing in the same way we’re in danger of missing opportunities to improve, and surely that’s what we all want to do, become better, more efficient and smarter at what we do.
That’s undoubtedly the maxim I’ve always tried to apply to communications. We embraced digital radio enthusiastically when it first came on the scene 15+ years ago, even though doing so was detrimental to us in the short term, it paid off in the long-run. Many saw it as ‘revolution’ rather than ‘evolution,’ but eventually, it eclipsed its analogue forbear, and those naysayers had no choice but to evolve.
And here we are again, at the very dawn (well maybe early morning rather than dawn) of a new communications revolution, one even more exciting and dramatic than that switch to digital over 15 years ago.
It’s the accepted norm that for group communications, we use VHF or UHF dedicated radios, particularly within the security sector, and we accept that this has limitations in range, function & form.
Our range is constrained by the output power of the device itself and the physical environment in which we are operating, meaning there is a finite operating limit, beyond which we cannot stray unless we are fortunate enough to have a wide-area network in place; more of that shortly.
The function is limited pretty much to push-to-talk only. In the main, conventional digital radio (DMR) is a narrowband technology, meaning that anything more than basic voice is pretty much unachievable.
Form factor is also a consideration. Most conventional, full power portable radio devices are quite large and bulky, this being governed by the size of the battery required to deliver a practical operating duration for a full power RF device. Those that are smaller are generally operating at lower RF power; it’s always about compromise.
Enter LTE radios. So, what exactly are they, how do they work, and why should we be considering them? Let’s explore this and debunk some myths!
LTE radios, network radios, PTT, PoC, Push to Talk over Cellular are all terms that are used, pretty much interchangeably, to describe this technology. Essentially, whatever you want to call it, and whichever device it is operating on, it works in the same way.
It is a client-server application. Sitting on your LTE radio is an application that talks to a server, just like Skype or WhatsApp or any other such communications application. That server manages the interaction between your device and any other devices that are also connected. The difference is the application (sometimes invisible to you) delivers a Push-to-Talk look and feel, totally familiar and no different in operational practice to your existing conventional two-way radio.
So, what is an LTE radio? Virtually everyone on the planet uses one daily, we just call it a mobile phone. Because despite what many people may think, a cell phone is a radio. Granted it is a full-duplex radio with great coverage (courtesy of the cellular network operators), and a whole bunch of extra functionality, but it is a radio nonetheless.
So, here’s where the ‘paradigm shift’ comes in. We’re all comfortable with using our mobile phones and expecting them to work almost wherever we go. If we don’t have 3G or 4G, then Wi-Fi is pretty much universally available. Granted, there are some exceptions, but these are becoming fewer as technology improves and the network operators fill in the gaps in their networks.
So, if we are happy that our mobiles provide a universally available communications tool, why don’t we simply flip the switch, and accept that we can also use them for our push to talk communications. Think of the global cellular and Wi-Fi network as a universal radio repeater, and you’ll start to get what I am talking about.
That wide-area conventional radio network I mentioned at the beginning can’t even begin to compete with the might of cellular. THE GRID is our own private, secure, conventional digital radio network that covers the whole of London and is available to our clients to use. But it still has limitations. Go into an underground car park and try to communicate with a colleague in the same building 15 storeys directly above you, and you’ll most likely struggle. Drive out beyond Heathrow along the M4 motorway and you’ll drop out of coverage. Also, it only gives you voice communications, nothing else.
Contrast that with an LTE solution, and we can solve all of those problems, and then some. Even if the underground car park is out of cellular coverage (possible but increasingly unlikely), there may well be Wi-Fi available. On the 15th floor, it is inconceivable that you wouldn’t have 3G or 4G, but if you didn’t, Wi-Fi is pretty much guaranteed. Driving along the M4 corridor, there are very few places where the signal is lost, and even then, it is momentary and, unless you are in mid-conversation, it goes unnoticed.
Not only does this provide seamless voice communications, included in this is the ability to track the location of the users. PTT voice is standard and now, so too is Push to Video (PTV), allowing an instant look for all team members of the situation on the ground. Instant picture messaging, emergency alarm function, private calls one-to-one rather than one-to-many are standard. Even remote control of a device from the Ops Room so that in the event of a compromising situation, they can activate the devices audio and video feeds to view the situation live on the ground.
So that’s covered the range and function elements that I mentioned back at the start; let’s turn to form, which poses one of the biggest challenges.
When I say ‘form’, I am referring to what the device looks like physically. I’ve already described how these systems work, so you know they can be used on an existing smart device, be that iOS or Android. But, therein lies the rub. If you hand most people a phone, psychologically they will treat it like a phone. Their voice procedure (VP) will not be radio VP. Their calls, albeit PTT calls, will still be like they are having a phone conversation rather than a PTT conversation. They’ll ‘fiddle’ with the other apps that are on the device, and for all but the most disciplined operator, it is inviting confusion and trouble. That isn’t just mere speculation, I’ve witnessed this in action on multiple occasions.
The explosion in PoC over the past 6-12 months has been predicated by the availability of hardware that looks like a radio, not a mobile phone. Many devices are coming out of the far east that look identical to a conventional portable or mobile radio. This overcomes the psychological barrier instantly and makes the adoption of PoC much less complicated. They are also much more compact because unlike a conventional radio, they are only sending out very low power signals; hence the electronics and battery can be more compact.
At the end of the day, do you really need to know (or care) how your message gets from A to B when you push the PTT? As long as it works, reliably, why should you worry?
Lastly, and not something I have so far alluded to, is deployment. Let’s go back to THE GRID, our London network. It takes a lot of engineering resource and cost in terms of real estate and licence fees to deploy and maintain a network like that. In the first instance, it probably took us six-months the get everything up and running, and the ongoing costs are significant.
With a PoC solution, deployment can be achieved within minutes, and largely remotely. If the requirement is instantaneous, and you own a smartphone, a single call can have you on the system in less than 5 minutes. If the timescales are less challenging, we can configure and send out bespoke devices within 24 hours in pretty much any quantity. No licences. No range restrictions. No hassles……. no reason not to!
In conclusion, I believe that PoC represents the future of wide area group communications, and I am a died in the wool radio guy, as those of you who know me will confirm, so if I can change then anyone can!
Sure, there will always be those purists for whom change is too radical or risky, and that’s fine too. We’ll continue to provide the solution that is most appropriate to a specific client’s operational needs. But I am in absolutely no doubt that PoC will feature heavily in those solutions as we move forward.
Shifting the Paradigm
By: Andy Clark