Taking TETRA into the future

Despite all the talk about next generation mission critical communications, the TETRA radio standard still has plenty of life in it. James Atkinson talks to TCCA CEO Phil Kidner.

TCCA-Phil-Kidner-(CEO)Phil Kidner asserts: ‘TETRA still has a very good future.’ As the CEO of the TETRA and Critical Communications Association (TCCA) he might be expected to say that, but he points to the current roll out of major new national networks in Norway and Germany as evidence.

‘It is not just about upgrading existing TETRA networks,’ he says, ‘so we have to make sure TETRA stays up to date and that people recognise that it has a future for a number of years yet.’

That said, the issue of reserving future spectrum for public safety agencies and the evolution towards LTE is taking up a lot of the TCCA’s time. ‘We are not a standards body of course, but we are working with the standards bodies. We do not want another GSM-R disaster, so when we say we want LTE for critical communications; we mean we want it to be standard LTE.

Global standard

‘Not everything will be in the standard of course,’ he continues, ‘so we are working with ETSI to look at bits that are not standardised. We also want that standard to be global, so we are encouraging ETSI to work with other standards bodies such as the CTSA in China and the TIA in the USA.’

The elephant in the room here is the UK, where the Government’s proposal to abandon TETRA and jump to a pre-standard, and therefore proprietary, version of LTE using commercial bearers is in stark contrast to its European neighbours.

‘The Germans are in a different position here, as they’ve only just spent millions of Euros on a new TETRA network. However, the Finns, Dutch and Belgians, who all have older networks, could all justify building a new one, but they are not. What are they doing? They are all upgrading their existing TETRA networks,’ says Kidner.

Unlike the UK, other European countries with TETRA networks are extremely wary of trusting mission critical services to commercial mobile operators. Belgium, for example, will retain its ASTRID mission critical TETRA network, but on 29 April 2014 it announced an MVNO called BlueLight Mobile, which will enable public safety agencies to buy ‘best effort’ data airtime from the country’s three mobile operators using a single SIM card.

Identify requirements

Kidner says a key focus for the TCCA is to try to identify what the user requirements are for broadband given that most of these are met by the current technology – hi-res video being a major exception.

‘Our other major focus is to make sure TETRA can be delivered to other parts of the world where they are looking to use it, particularly Asia, and North and South America,’ says Kidner. North American utility companies are particularly interested in exploring what TETRA has to offer,’ he says.

‘We have to keep sending the true message that TETRA is here and will be around until 2030 or so,’ he says. ‘We are working on applications, products and innovations and keeping TETRA up to date. Last year, 600,000 TETRA terminals were shipped – a record amount – and there are now some 3.2 million TETRA customers actively using a radio today.’

The TCCA has a diverse membership community of more than 160 organisations representing users, manufacturers, application providers, integrators, operators, test houses and telecom agencies. Kidner points out that the TCCA has some 19 working groups now and only one of those is working on broadband.

‘As an association we have to try to deliver value for very different types of members, such as a pure TETRA provider like DAMM at one end, and huge businesses such as ZTE and Huawei at the other end, and everyone else in the middle – it makes for interesting challenges!’ says Kidner.