LMR (licensed mobile radio) users are handling more data in their day-to-day operations. IMS Research, now part of IHS (NYSE: IHS), has tracked the critical communications market for over 14 years. In this article, it addresses some of the factors that are driving change in broadband PMR/LMR solutions, and increasing the demand from LMR users, particularly in public safety, for more data.
End Users & the Demand for Data
As part of the research, IHS carried out an in-depth user survey on the opinions of LMR data users in North America and EMEA. Users were questioned about the applications where they will use data and about what they perceived as the biggest obstacles to increasing data use on their LMR network.
Responses showed the most used data applications were personnel monitoring, man-down capability, remote control of devices, and the mobile office. When questioned about which data applications were most critical to the LMR user’s needs, man-down capability and personal monitoring remained the most cited.
When questioned about the main barriers to use of new data applications the results were not surprising; ‘budget limitations’ was the leading factor, followed by ‘not supported by LMR networks’. The third largest obstacle was ‘frequency/capacity issues’. These factors are discussed further below, but these views support the general view in the industry – that funding and spectrum tend to be the most important issues when it comes to increasing data use.
Data use on traditional LMR Networks
Data use on traditional networks is anticipated to increase steadily over the next five years. Two main factors are driving this growth. The first is the slow uptake of private cellular technologies. Issues such as spectrum and funding remain major challenges, and as a result many users are resorting to data use over their traditional LMR networks until these problems with private cellular network issues are resolved. Secondly, the transition to digital is gathering momentum; as a result, many more LMR users have access to data functionality over their LMR network.
The strength with traditional LMR networks for data use is that the network technology was designed specifically with LMR/PMR users in mind. However in the age of increasing data, it is applications such as video streaming that LMR users want, and such data hungry applications are not necessarily supported by LMR networks. A major weakness with the PMR/LMR data solutions is that the cost of a good data rate is the allocation of further spectrum. Since spectrum is already a valuable resource, this could be a main inhibitor to longer term uptake.
Data use on Cellular Networks
For LMR data users, commercial cellular networks are being used as an interim solution while the problems with private mobile broadband are resolved. Commercial cellular is useful as it delivers the capability to stream high-bandwidth applications and is available in most major metropolitan environments. In the user survey carried out by IHS, both the non-public-safety and public-safety users were using commercial cellular networks to address their data needs.
However, use of commercial cellular networks is not without its problems, as there is an important lack of control over the network. In major emergencies, mission-critical users utilising commercial networks are at the mercy of network traffic; and it is likely that there will be limited access. At these times, when mission-critical users require their broadband communications the most, commercial cellular networks are in no way ideal – particularly for public-safety users.
Nonetheless, despite some of the flaws associated with commercial cellular and the lack of control over the network, growth in data connections over commercial cellular by LMR users is predicted to grow while uptake of private LTE remains restricted.
Most end users acknowledge that the LMR industry will move to private LTE. Despite much hype about the transition to digital technology, a large majority (about 75%) of the installed base of LMR radios remain analogue and similarly the transition to private LTE is projected to take many years. As previously mentioned, spectrum allocation and sufficient funding remain the two greatest challenges to uptake of private mobile broadband solutions.
Much uptake in the near future will be in North America in the United States, where the 700-MHz spectrum allocation and $7 billion government funding is leading the way in private LTE rollout. Recently, spectrum allocation for dedicated public-safety private LTE networks was announced in Australia and the UAE. China is also making substantial progress towards a private LTE roll out. IHS understands that Europe will remain the region moving the slowest to private LTE uptake. It is very challenging to allocate harmonized spectrum across many countries; IHS does not expect spectrum allocation until 2017 or 2018. However, IHS expects that, by 2020, real growth and uptake of private LTE networks in the public safety sector will be seen.
End users are now demanding increasing amounts of data and functionality from their communications. Technologies such as TETRA TEDS and P25 data are useful; however, they lack the high-bandwidth functionality that cellular networks provide. For those LMR data users demanding high bandwidth applications now, such as video streaming, many users will make do with commercial cellular solutions for now. This will likely be the case until a time when spectrum and funding are available for private cellular solutions that will unite the high-bandwidth functionality of cellular with the security and resilience of traditional LMR. However, like the transition to digital, the migration to private LTE is expected to take many, many years.