APCO Seminar: LMR and LTE Interoperability for Public Safety

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Coexisting LMR and LTE systems can help keep your public safety agencies running smoothly while FirstNet evolves.

At the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ (APCO’s) annual conference last year, the organization hosted a professional development session titled Interoperability in the Coming LMR and LTE World: What to Expect and How to Be Ready.

Hosted by Federal Engineering, Inc. chief consultant Neil Horden, the seminar outlined how agencies can best adapt to the public safety system evolution from LMR to LTE and prioritize network interoperability through the transition.

4 Key Takeaways for Keeping Public Safety Wireless Systems Interoperable

#1 Embrace the differences between LTE and LMR.

The differences between LTE and LMR systems can be frustrating to agencies looking to update, but remembering the reasons for these differences can spare you a lot of exasperation down the line.

According to Horden, it all has to do with how the two systems originated.

“A lot of people look at [LTE and LMR] and say, ‘It’s all wireless communications, it shouldn’t be as different as it is,’” Horden said. “But you’ve got to remember that public safety communications and the LMR world we live in really grew up together — from a technology standpoint, from an operational standpoint, even the products.”

LTE, on the other hand, developed from the commercial cellular world to provide phone service to many people in dense areas wirelessly.

That’s a totally separate environment, Horden said, and while that inherent difference can be a tricky thing for some agencies to get used to, those who do may find the rewards of coexisting wireless radio systems are worth the effort.

#2 Consider all your options.

Don’t make any decisions on new systems until you’ve reviewed all your choices. FirstNet originated as a commercial consumer product for wireless communications and now takes advantage of those roots to offer a wide range of products and services for public safety agencies.

“FirstNet is the next evolutionary step in LTE for public safety,” Horden said. “It’s really evolving … in directions that public safety requires of its communications networks.”

The coverage, reliability, features and functions of a system like FirstNet, which has commercial consumer origins and then refocused to address the public safety industry, could mean a smoother transition for some agencies, according to Horden.

[FirstNet] comes in and provides a service that is essentially like cellular, but better tailored for public safety,” he said.

For agencies wanting to partner their LMR networks with LTE, it’s important to consider what LTE offers and how it fits in with your agency’s operational needs.

Today [LTE is] mostly telephone-like voice services and Internet-like data services; a lot of it can be looked at in terms of non-mission critical push-to-talk offerings that are out there today, and say, ‘Where do they fit in our organization? Can I apply them to things like administrative and investigative and code enforcement operations?’” Horden sad.

By thinking this way, you lighten the load on your LMR system and extend its operation, but you also start learning about how these services work, what differences you need to make operationally and in policies and procedures to make best use of them, according to Horden.

#3 Know that a switch to LTE won’t happen in a snap.

As LTE increasingly replaces LMR systems in public safety agencies nationwide, it can be tempting to want to ditch your current technology to keep up with the pack. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t a quick change — nor should it be.

“It’s never a flip of a switch,” Horden said. “There’s always a lot of moving pieces and a lot of planning required. I don’t think there’s an agency out there — at least I hope not — that envisions a one-day, one-week or even one-year switch from where they are today, communicating on LAN networks that they’ve evolved and tailored to their needs, to being able to communicate on a network like FirstNet as it exists today, or as it will exist in the near term.”

#4) The ‘coexistence model’ is the norm.

As they transition from LMR to LTE, or from LTE to FirstNet, many agencies struggle between two worlds as they try to adapt their current systems to cooperate with their new ones and keep an eye on the future at the same time.

Additionally, the amount of planning and flexibility required during a technology transition naturally creates an environment where coexistence is the norm, Horden said.

“There’s a lot of issues and considerations that agencies have to deal with as they [figure out] how to handle this double-edged sword,” Horden acknowledged. “It’s ‘How do you work in a world where you have to interoperate?’ and ‘How do you work in a world where at some point you may want to migrate?’”

Part of that coexistence is due to technology readiness, Horden said.

“There are a lot of features and functions that we in public safety need in our communications system that the LTE technologies are only now starting to bring out,” he said. “There’s transition timing issues. We as an industry have a huge investment in our LMR systems. They are of all different ages and stages and levels of support and if you’re in a city, county, state that’s recently put in a $10-, $50-, $100 million dollar network, you can’t devalue that next year no matter what the replacement is.”

Interoperability also requires coexistence of multiple systems, Horden continued.

We in public safety have learned the hard lesson that interoperability is the world we live in,” he said. “No matter what you’re doing in your area or jurisdiction, you’ve got agencies that touch you technically, geographically, administratively. You still have to operate with the entire world around you. And therefore you’re still going to be in this transition period for the period that they are. So we have to get used to this coexistence model as opposed to this transition or migration model.”

About the Author

Lexi Wessling is a freelance writer completing criminal justice studies. She has worked as a writer and copy editor for more than seven years.

Read more about public safety wireless communications in our previous coverage:

APCO Seminar: Maintaining Wireless Radios to Improve Public Safety Communications

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EfficientGov is an independent information service providing innovative solutions to fiscal and operational challenges facing cities and towns around the world.