Building a case for public safety LTE Close

June 2017: Building a case for public safety LTE

Bottom Line: LTE delivers broadband capabilities and interoperability for mission critical public safety communications. It depends on radio spectrum and network resources and adequate funding for its adoption. Public safety agencies have challenging organizational structures and decision-making processes which typically hinder PS-LTE adoption until major market triggers, such as man-made or natural disasters occur and mobile operator support is achieved. Mobile operators normally depend on other enterprise and mission critical services to support the business case for public safety.


Mobile communication networks are now at the fabric of most societies, but are prone to overload and failure during major crises, such as natural disasters. For this reason, dedicated public safety networks have been deployed, and a variety of trunked radio technologies used, including legacy analog (e.g. MPT-1327), Digital Mobile Radio (DMR), P25, Tetrapol, and TETRA. In many cases, individual public safety agencies have deployed their own private networks. These networks function adequately within the operational silos of the individual agencies, but become problematic during major events, when inter-agency communications are needed. Furthermore, since digital trunked radio technologies only support voice telephony and narrowband data services, they cannot provide the broadband connectivity need for situational awareness capabilities (e.g. smart-city video surveillance). Commonly public safety agents rely on commercial mobile networks for these broadband capabilities.

The Opportunity

The 3GPP, which is responsible for 4G-LTE standardization, is developing features specifically targeted towards business and mission critical services, such as those required for public safety, see Exhibit 1. These features include prioritized and preemptive network access to ensure that mission critical services continue to function during emergencies. They also include specific service capabilities such as Push-to-Talk (P2T) and Group Communications. Because of these capabilities, and others that will be developed in 3GPP Release 14 and 15, it is generally recognized that LTE will be the standard used for public safety in the future. Public safety LTE (PS-LTE) network equipment is provided by a variety of vendors including Huawei, Nokia, and Motorola. PS-LTE is already being used (or planned) in several countries including Australia, South Korea, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Exhibit 1: 3GPP release schedule for mission critical services
Source: 3GPP and Tolaga Research, 2017

A global forecast for PS-LTE subscriptions amongst law enforcement, fire and rescue and emergency medical services is illustrated in Exhibit 2. The forecast predicts that LTE-PS subscriptions will reach 69 million by 2030, of which 29 million will come from the Asia Pacific region. PS-LTE will see robust growth after 2022, when increased demand for broadband capabilities is anticipated, and the availability of radio spectrum and suitable funding and mobile operator support assumed.

Exhibit 2: LTE-PS subscription growth expected with public safety network upgrades
Source: Tolaga Research, 2017

The Opportunity

Although LTE is earmarked for public safety, there are several challenges that countries must overcome for its adoption. Specifically, PS-LTE requires adequate funding for spectrum and network resources, and to support ongoing service delivery. Although most countries have dedicated trunked radio spectrum, the allocations are narrowband and unless harmonized not suitable for PS-LTE. In some countries, such as France, South Korea, the United States and Canada, dedicated broadband spectrum has been allocated specifically for Public Protection and Disaster Relief (PPDR) services. Most regulators have yet to allocate dedicated spectrum, or have no plans to do so. In countries without dedicated spectrum resources, it is expected that mobile operators will provide prioritized access for public safety services, should PS-LTE be deployed. Prioritized access capabilities have already been implemented by several operators in their commercial radio spectrum. For example, Telstra in Australia has introduced its LANES™ program, which enables prioritized access for enterprise and mission critical services. Similarly, BT-EE is providing prioritized radio network capacity to the Home Office in the United Kingdom.

Typically, PS-LTE depends on mobile operators for network resources. The mobile operator business case for public safety can be challenging, even when dedicated radio spectrum resources are allocated. Commonly, network upgrades (e.g. additional cell sites) are needed to meet the service demands for public safety, but the costs for these upgrades cannot be justified by public safety service revenues. Government funding and in some cases regulatory concessions (e.g. FirstNet in the United States) are needed to address the mobile operator business model shortfall. Funding challenges are often exacerbated by the fragmented organizational structures and decision-making processes that are typical of public safety agencies. Some operators, such as Telstra, have broadened the addressable market for their prioritized network access capabilities to include enterprise and mission critical services in addition to public safety. We believe that Telstra’s approach greatly improves the overall business case for public safety, and that many other operators will adopt similar strategies in the future.

Handling the Challenges

Since PS-LTE is complex and can be costly to implement, it normally takes significant political- will for a country to shepherd its adoption. Unfortunately, this political-will has commonly been triggered by disasters, which bring public safety networks into the spot-light. For example, the tragic events of September 11 and hurricane Katrina in the United States were arguably the catalyst for the FirstNet PS-LTE network, and the 2014 ferry disaster in South Korea was a strong driver for its PS-LTE network. However, as these and other networks are deployed, we believe they create blue-prints for countries to follow and adapt. For example:

  • To address fragmented decision making, the Canadian public safety agencies introduced a majority-rules voting system for nationwide technology decisions.
  • To assist business model challenges, the Telstra’s LANES program includes both enterprise and mission critical services, presumably to increase market scale.
  • To ensure that dedicated spectrum allocations are not wasteful, FirstNet allows its mobile operator host (AT&T) to use the public safety spectrum for commercial services when it would otherwise be idle. This also assists AT&T in overcoming the business model challenges that hindered earlier attempts to bring PS-LTE to the US market, and;
  • In markets where trunked radio networks have not been fully amortized, there can be significant resistance to adopt PS-LTE. This has culminated in multi-mode devices that aim on enabling a graceful migration to PS-LTE, albeit with the additional cost of maintaining parallel networks.

As countries establish their public safety network strategies, it is crucial that they learn from use cases in other markets. In addition, we believe that it is important for public safety stakeholders to anticipate the broadband demands in their respective countries and the synergies between public safety and other mission critical services.

About the Author
Dr. Phil Marshall

Phil Marshall is the Chief Research Officer of Tolaga, where he leads its software architecture and development, and directs tolaga's thought leadership for the internet-of-things (iot) and mobile industry research. before founding tolaga, Dr. Marshall was an Executive at Yankee Group for nine years, and most recently led its service provider technology research globally, spanning wireless, wireline, and broadband technologies and telecommunication regulation. He serves on the Advisory Board of Strategic Venue Partners, is an Industry Advisor for Silverwood Partners – Investment Bank, and was a non-Executive Board Member of Antone Wireless, which was acquired by Westell in 2012.

Marshall has 20 years of experience in the wireless communications industry. He spent many years working in various engineering operations, software design, research and strategic planning roles in New Zealand, Mexico, Indonesia and Thailand for Verizon International (previously Bell Atlantic International Wireless) and Telecom New Zealand.

In addition, Marshall was an Electrical Engineer at BHP New Zealand Steel before he attended graduate school. He has a PhD degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, is a Senior Member of the IEEE and the Systems Dynamics Society. His technical specialty is in radio engineering and advanced system modeling, and his operational experience is primarily in communications network design, security and optimization.