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LTE Vs. LMR: Pros, Cons & Convergence

Written by Brad Brewer

Land Mobile Radio (LMR) has been in use with Public Safety for many decades and has seen significant technological advancements such as trunking. However, much greater changes are on the horizon. Although not quite at the pace of consumer electronics, more recent LMR advancements have been nothing short of amazing given the technology that was available in the early 1990s.

With no particular bias to any vendor, each LMR manufacturer has strengths and weaknesses. In the end, each delivers a similar product that serves Public Safety well. The differences in features are what distinguish the LMR vendors from one another. This enables agencies to make choices based more on features than the core technology.

Some may argue Harris makes a better switch and backend, while Motorola makes superior user equipment. That is a purely subjective call. Only your agency-specific requirements and evaluation process can dictate what works for you. Harris and Motorola are mentioned only because these are the most common two platforms. Obviously, other LMR options are available.

The evolution of the Project 25 standard, commonly referred to as P25, is resulting in Public Safety replacing their proprietary networks, such as EDACS and Smart Zone to name a few. Most people that work in the LMR technical field agree that P25 is a solution that will continue to serve Public Safety for a number of years. P25 will evolve as Public Safety communication needs change.

P25 LMR is primarily used for voice communication and some limited data applications such as over-the-air programming (OTAP) and over-the-air rekeying (OTAR). The limiting factor in P25 is a result of the digital communication path bandwidth. As with all technologies, data bandwidth demands are constantly increasing.

 

Shift to LTE

The major LMR vendors are shifting their focus to Long Term Evolution (LTE) push-to-talk technology. LTE is well established in the consumer smartphone market, enabling not only voice, but very high-speed data applications that just a short time ago were not possible. Enhanced data technology is one of the main driving forces that make LTE attractive to Public Safety.

While LMR traditionally requires the use of user-specific equipment, LTE enables the use of smartphone-sized handheld devices as a replacement for normally larger and much heavier LMR subscriber equipment. To be fair, most of the LMR P25 vendors have worked diligently in trying to reduce the size of their user equipment, as well as adding features like GPS and data transfer in some fairly small form factors. However, the technology limits these changes.

There is a down side to this, though. The reason those LMR portables are larger is because they typically have a transmit power of 3-5 watts compared to LTE devices at roughly 1 watt. Lower transmit power of the LTR device translates into a much higher radio site density and potentially higher infrastructure costs.

The upside to the portable equipment is the much smaller size offering greater concealment potential, longer battery life, and numerous wide-bandwidth data opportunities.

Current LMR sites are typically stand-alone sites strategically located as a result of extensive radio-frequency (RF) engineering studies. A typical radio site can represent a million dollars or more depending on the location and complexity. Although requiring a greater number of physical locations, LTE sites generally require less physical space and power, resulting in the location opportunities being much more flexible. 

If you build out an LTE private government system restricted to Public Safety only, then who is paying for that? Will it be built to disaster standards? Typically, this is the most expensive option, but what if the infrastructure is built out for not just Public Safety but local government utilities as well? Police/Fire/Ambulance partnering with municipal utilities is something that has been done successfully in the past, so it is still a good cost-effective option if done correctly.

An alternative may be piggybacking on the commercial networks. However, what about throttling? Will the commercial carriers allow priority to Public Safety? If so, how much and at what times? How do you determine performance standards during peak usage hours? Does the front line officer’s ability to receive fingerprints or mugshots in the field get reduced or slowed because of system data load at peak periods? There are lots of issues that need to be sorted out before either can be evaluated fairly by front line officers and technical staff who support the technology.

 

Motorola’s Best of Both Worlds

What if there was something that captured the best of both worlds but builds off existing P25 systems? Motorola is now offering a product called LEX, a ruggedized and compact handheld device designed to deliver data, photos, video and voice quickly, reliably and securely over multiple networks. LEX builds on the LTE design by offering PTT much the same as P25 but with the high-bandwidth capability in a much smaller package than traditional LMR radios.

At the IACP 2013, Motorola demonstrated this new system called “Unified PTT” using a Samsung Galaxy SIII exactly the same as the smartphone some officers carry today. The Unified PTT function and P25 technologies enable Public Safety the opportunity to communicate seamlessly across networks. The uncluttered user interface with a big push-to-talk button and a few menu items enables the user to set call priority and some other customizable elements. The user is able to scan multiple talk-groups and technical staff can set multiple permissions so customization is very flexible.

What Motorola has done is essentially allowed every police manger the ability to stay connected to any priority or incident back home regardless of their location. That is connected with real-time PTT communications with the officers back at their department. Think about the SWAT commander, the gang unit lieutenant, or another key member of the department who has to, for whatever reason, leave the range of their LMR coverage area.

This new application can allow scanning of multiple talk-groups, for the Public Safety leader who oversees Fire, Police and EMS, and set the monitoring priorities. You can also set permissions to include into the P25 conversation, either ad hoc or ongoing for the partners you have in the second-responder community. Consider the scenario with a Chief of a University PD, commercial and retail security staff, as well as public utilities and public works, all of whom can be vital in a mass-emergency scenario.

Reader Service Number 202

 

Harris’ BeOn Convergence

Harris, another major player in Public Safety communications, has been providing P25 LMR PTT for a number of years. The relatively new Harris BeOn app/service is available for devices operating on Android, iOS, and Microsoft Windows, and runs on broadband networks from 3G and 4G commercial cellular to muni WiFi and/or dedicated public safety LTE. 

Launched in 2010, the Harris BeOn solution delivers full Push-to-Talk (PTT) to any smartphone, tablet, or PC operating on a broadband network anywhere in the world where one (or more) of those above mentioned data services is available. 

At the IACP 2013, David Simon, Project Manager for BeOn at Harris, explained that the company had recognized very early on the massive potential represented by the convergence of traditional land mobile radio (LMR) systems and the promise of LTE. “While LMR is the proven technology for first responder communications, radio coverage is inherently limited by geographic coverage area,” Simon said. 

Designed collaboratively by Harris’ LMR and LTE divisions, BeOn bridges any such gaps. “BeOn is designed from the ground up to turn your smartphone into a P25 radio,” Simon elaborated. According to Simon, the BeOn app is the first professional push-to-talk (PTT) solution for First Responders to enable enterprises to “have managed group communications anywhere in the world.” 

With an emphasis on providing constant connectivity for senior leadership—regardless of their physical location, the combination of LMR and LTE PTT applications provides tremendous connectivity capabilities, enabling command staff and other critical team members to participate in incident communications or monitor situations even outside of their traditional radio service area. 

There are numerous Public Safety agencies across the Untied States already using BeOn with this capability as a top-of-mind benefit. Again, one of the primary drivers for BeOn adoption is the ability for administrators, who often find themselves outside of the radio coverage area, to be able to respond to incidents regardless of their location.

BeOn can be used by administrators to maintain radio coverage while they are out of radio system range. BeOn technology is best suited for 4G service and Samsung G4S phones, but in early 2014, the iOS version appeared, allowing the application to be available to potentially all employees using the iPhone and iPad. 

In addition to traditional P25 radio features, BeOn also enables presence, geo-location, and situational awareness features. When used in conjunction with a Harris radio system, BeOn can show the location of both BeOn devices as well as GPS-equipped LMR units.

Built on the Harris VIDA network, BeOn provides a connection between existing P25 radio systems and other IP networks. It is likely the first application to support managed group and push-to-talk communications utilizing most consumer smartphones.

According to Harris, the core feature set mimics the P25 standard. Unlike other generic cellular PTT applications, BeOn contains the industry-standard P25 vocoder, which improves voice quality when communicating with P25 land mobile radios, significantly enhances PTT speed, and enables end-to-end encryption between BeOn smartphones and radios.

The application consists of a server with its own firewall that is linked directly into the radio backbone on one side, and the IP network on the other. Each BeOn server can handle up to 5,000 users and recognizes logical talk-groups established in the digital radio system, allowing designated users to communicate over managed channels much like a traditional digital radio. BeOn-equipped smartphone user IDs and talk-group permissions are administered from the same user interface as radios “making administration far simpler than other solutions, which require manual synchronization of databases,” Simon stated.

Voice communications is just one of the many features that make BeOn an attractive platform. Mapping has tremendous potential for incident commanders who now have the ability to track the location of their officers from a command vehicle during an incident. 

Major advantages are offered by not only mapping BeOn users, but, the ability to map an officer’s location via land mobile radio. The ability to integrate geo-tracking with PTT from PCs and phones provides real advantages in terms of response efficiency and safety. 

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In law enforcement, covert operations or surveillance doesn’t lend itself well to concealing the large LMR portable radios. You are not going to do undercover work with a traditional radio on your hip, but having a Bluetooth-connected mic/earbuds and a mobile phone in your pocket is certainly an option, provided the hardware meets the FIPS 140 standards.

Regardless of what your agency is using today for voice and data communications, there are many options available that can piggyback on existing systems. What is even more impressive is how well vendors like Motorola and Harris have integrated the best of LMR and LTE in some very impressive packages.

 

Sergeant Brad Brewer is a 26-year member of the Vancouver Police Department. He sits on the Ford Police Advisory Board and regularly gives presentations at law enforcement conferences on mobile computing, wireless technology and police vehicle ergonomics. He can be reached at sgt1411@gmail.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2014

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4GAndroidBluetoothFIPS (Federal Info Processing Standards)First RespondersHarris BeOnIP NetworkingiPadiPhoneLand Mobile Radios (LMRs)Long Term Evolution (LTE)Over the Air Programming (OTAP)P25P25 (Project 25)Push-to-Talk (PTT)Samsung Galaxy SIIIWiFi
 
 
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