HomeMobile EuropeBlue light for data

    Blue light for data


    The challenge for all forms of mobile communication is to deliver and PMR is no exception. Catherine Haslan asks whether PMR technologies can meet that need or will Europe’s emergency services find themselves left in the data dark?

    According to recent research conducted by IDC on behalf of Orange, the time is now right for businesses to begin investing in mobile technologies to improve their workflow. In fact, the research goes so far as to suggest that businesses that fail to develop a mobile strategy will begin to suffer as a result.
    As with any investment businesses are looking to make efficiency savings or productivity gains, or both, and they are looking to do so on processes that are vital to their businesses. Or, to put it another way, they will be looking to mobilise mission critical activities.
    Providing mission critical communictions has long been and continues to be the mantra of Public Mobile Radio (PMR) and Public Access Mobile Radio (PAMR) technologies and the the digital incarnations of these — long-time rivals, TETRA and Tetrapol — are no exception. The problems is that the challenge to them for providing data comes not so much from each as has been the case for the past seven years or so, but from the mass communications cellular technology, GPRS.
    Business-orientated applications and services based on GPRS are flooding onto the market from mobile operators, traditional IT providers such as IBM, Cisco, Intel and Oracle and from  data specialists such as Citrix and ExCellenet. Under such pressure, digital PMR is not only struggling to capture a share of this new market but is facing competition in its traditional stronghold of public safety. 
    TETRA, Europe’s official PMR standard, has been pretty solid for several years (including widespread availability of packet data gateways) and has support with major public safety networks in Finland, Belgium and of course the UK, as well as commercial operations across Europe. Tetrapol has long since had a national network in its native country France, as well as other, smaller solutions in several other European countries. However, in terms of data, both face the same fundamental problem — their data rates are very low and therefore we have to question whether or not these systems are capable of meeting the requirements of today’s professional users, whether they be in the public safety or commercial markets.
    Tetrapol is a narrowband FDMA technology which delivers around 4.5kbit/s. Though hardly about to set sparks flying, Philippe Meleard, business development director  at EADS, nevertheless explains it is far from useless, “We have customers that are using our data solutions today for such applications as fingerprint recognition, AVL and slow-scan video…One is a US Army training camp and the quantity of data they are sending is huge, although it is obvious-ly in small amounts at any one time.”
    However, Meleard did admit that, “When the market is thinking about big data, narrowband PMR as it stands is not the answer.” But, he suggests, “Neither is GPRS.” To back up this statement, he cited the UK’s NHSi project which is looking into ways of providing mobile links between paramedics and hospitals to provide vital information on patients such as BSG statistics. Meleard suggests that the project team looked at GPRS but found it did not provide the availability and reliability required by emergency services. He further claimed that two European public safety authorities had made the decision to go with GSM/GPRS-based services and had been promised dedicated resources. However, Meleard says, “When an incident happened and resources were required, the service crashed because there was not enough time for the network operator to allocate resources.”

    Wideband PMR

    Meleard’s and EADS’ solution is therefore to create a real data technology for PMR; wideband PMR to give it another name.  This technology, which he claims will deliver speeds well in excess of GPRS, “Should be ready within two years and will represent a truly integrated highspeed data and voice solution for PMR.” Impressive though this promise is, this technology does not exist now but the require-ments do and some are already turning to GPRS to meet their data needs.
    North Wales Police is one such organisation. It already has 50 PDA users including 30 operational officers and by the summer it anticipates there will be 200 vehicle-based Window XP tablets and 300 Pocket PC 2002-powered PDAs in active service in its jurisdiction.  This pilot, which will run for two years, provides access to key information sources such as command and control, picture line-ups and the fire arms registry, using a thin client on the device.
    The use of a thin client combined with password protection provides a level of security. As no data is stored on the device confidentiality is protected even if a terminal falls into the wrong hands. However, the system is not perfect — coverage is not ubiquitous and availability and quality of service are not guaranteed as they would be with a dedicated system.
    North Wales police has little choice but to use GPRS as Airwave, the provider of the UK’s national public safety network, is not due to provide a TETRA service to the force until 2006. However, even if it did, the force’s Mike Hughes suggests, “GPRS is our carrier of choice for mobile data.” He continues, “We see TETRA as a complimentary technology as there is an issue with the bandwidth it offers. We could perhaps use TETRA for messaging…but first generation TETRA from Airwave won’t do pictures.”
    While Airwave has chosen not to offer picture services to the force, the packet data function of the TETRA technology is capable of this. It is a TDMA system with four timeslots, capable of a maximum theoretical throughput of 28.8kbit/s. More realistically, it can produce 4.5kbit/s per timeslot consistently and still pictures and even slow-scan video are being transmitted in Jersey on the same Motorola infrastructure as has been supplied to Airwave.
    Indeed, as Brett Smith, product portfolio and marketing manager for Motorola’s Public Safety and Integrated Solutions Division explains, “There is a false belief in the market that TETRA can’t do data and GPRS is the only choice. But it’s about getting the application right for the environment.”  In the case of images, Smith suggests that the solution lies as much with formatting the data correctly as it does with the data pipe. Motorola’s Premier MDC solution therefore includes compression technologies which reduce images to between 4–7K. He explains, “You have to think about what these will be used for. If a police force wants to do an identity parade based on images transmitted to the field then they will need eight or nine shots. The average JPEG starts at 20K, therefore even with GPRS this becomes unfeasible.”
    Smith further suggests that the data market for the emergency services in Europe is still in its infancy and, as such, there are several key applications which can and are being run successfully using TETRA as the data bearer. He cites auto status updates, automated vehicle and personnel location, accessing key information directly from the field, messaging and finally automating reporting procedures to speed up the process as the most compelling for public safety users today.

    PMR basics

    mith goes on to explain that he believes there is a fundamental mistake being made by many observers in believing that headline data rates and grade of service are the same thing. “Predictability and reliability of service are key,” Smith says. “Within Motorola’s Dimetra infrastructure technology there is an ability to allocate multiple channels as necessary. You can drill right down to the individual user  and allocate resources on a particular site and therefore spread the load on the network and maintain the grade of service,” he concludes.
    As anyone involved with GPRS will freely admit, quality of service guarantees are still some way away and, as the likes of MMS gain momentum, so will competition for the radio resource of the network.  Therefore, many remain sceptical about the long-term viability of using a public network for emergency service communications. The increased loadings of the commercial networks will inevitably coincide with increased demand from the emergency services as they too become more familiar with mobile data and the benefits that it can bring to their working practices.
    Finally, there is the issue of cost. Pricing models for GPRS are likely to be volume-based due to the mass nature of commercial services, whereas ‘all-you-can-eat’ is perhaps more of a long-term option on dedicated networks.
    The message coming through from the PMR community is that bandwidth is not everything and the traditional PMR benefits of reliability and predictability of service are as important for data as they are for voice: competing for service with the general public is just not a realistic option. In terms of the future, both the TETRA and Tetrapol camps understand that data speeds need to be increased.
    According to Smith, TETRA2 is certainly a relevant technology here and it provides an all-important migration path to protect investments already made in TETRA. However, he also explains that Motorola has its own research unit working on high-speed wideband PMR technologies. At the moment this work is focused on the US market, where the 700MHz band has been allocated for the purpose, but the developments which are already seeing high speed video streaming and Internet access will certainly translate to Europe when the time is right.
    As Smith concludes, “There is a lot that can and is being done with the bearer as it stands at the moment. The biggest challenge is making sure the technology relates to user requirements; that solutions fit with and meet the key objectives of the customer, whether that be more time on streets for police offices or getting a vehicle to where it is needed in the shortest possible time. By the time the market matures enough to be looking at more complicated data applications, the bandwidth will be available.”
    Just like the cellular market has discovered, PMR users and suppliers are finding that data is about more than just the bearer. Its success is based on applications and the value of those to the user.  However, in terms of the technology, Hughes’ suggestion that bearer-independent applications with terminals intelligent enough to identify, and use, the best available bearer in terms of bandwidth and price sits comfortably with Smith’s vision of the future. He says, “Ultimately the  goal is wideband PMR with something like that, but there is still a lot that can be done with low throughput… Customers need a data roadmap and that is something that we as an industry need to help them with.”