Nicolas Hauswald from ETELM explores how organisations can reduce risk and control costs by deploying PMR networks – even in the LTE and 5G era.
The world of mobile telecommunications is at a hugely exciting point. The world is gearing up for the mass rollout of 5G networks, which will be able to support dramatically faster communications and more data-rich applications than ever before. The opportunities for organisations – no matter what their size or sector – are enormous.
What kind of opportunities? O2 has practically demonstrated how 5G networks can support superfast data streaming, media downloads, virtual and augmented reality applications, through a 5G test bed at the O2 arena and two trials of ‘massive Mimo’ technology in London, in partnership with Nokia. With a little creativity, organisations can use 5G networks to offer new customer experiences, foster greater collaboration between teams and ultimately set themselves apart from competitors.
Easy to presume, then, that professional mobile radio (PMR) networks are becoming obsolete, and that forward-thinking organisations should be embracing the next generation of mobile cellular networks to underpin all their communications – without a backwards glance. Not so.
Yes, the latest mobile networks offer fantastic benefits in terms of bandwidth and speed, and can be the foundation for sophisticated and data-rich applications and communication. However, in various cases, there are powerful justifications to run a PMR network too.
This should not be conceptualised in terms of a competition between mobile cellular communications and PMR. Rather, forward-thinking organisations need to understand the contrasting benefits of both – and therefore, why a blended approach is often the right one. Here are seven key areas that should be considered to help organisations make the decision.
- User control
Most 4G and 5G networks are built and operated by mobile network operators, with a significant focus on serving their consumer subscribers. This means that businesses and other organisations using cellular services are dependent on those operators for the services, functionality and ultimately the cost of their communication services. If they require additional data services to cover sophisticated, data-heavy applications, then these will typically need to be paid for. PMR networks, by contrast, are owned by the organisations deploying them. They can be developed and evolved with that organisation’s precise needs in mind.
- Tailored coverage
Similarly, PMR network coverage is arranged based on specific needs, whereas mobile network operators, as businesses themselves, are focused primarily on adding more subscribers. This can be a critical issue. Emergency services, for example, require full geographical coverage even in extremely rural and remote areas, whereas public operators will typically arrange coverage based on user density. Certain sectors also represent specific coverage challenges. For example, industrial buildings or those in the utility sector often have metallic frameworks, preventing cellular networks functioning inside. This scenario requires a PMR network that has been carefully planned to deliver the best possible coverage.
Resilience is a key concern for all network operators, whether public or private – but the levels of resilience that those operators deem acceptable may vary. For public mobile network providers, resilience targets are based around consumer expectations and satisfaction levels. They need to balance a fine line between network robustness and keeping their costs down and their scalability up. For private organisations, resilience requirements may be much higher in order to support complex applications, heavy data loads or mission-critical operations – but if they do not invest in that level of resilience themselves, who will? O2’s recent network issues in the UK, Vodafone’s outage in the Netherlands and issues from cellular provider Optus in Australia only serve to highlight the importance of considering this issue.
Cybersecurity is rightly a key concern for businesses today, and this includes protecting data in transit throughout communications networks. To be protected from prying eyes data needs to be encrypted from the point of generation and at all points on its journey through the network. Once again, this is much easier to manage with a PMR network as the infrastructure is fully under your control
- Lower lifecycle costs
When deploying a PMR network, the organisation in question has to cover both the capital and the operational expenditure of the system. This might seem like a more expensive option than relying on pre-established cellular networks, where the public operator incurs the cost for deploying, managing and improving the network. However, the managed service costs associated with an organisation using public cellular networks are typically at least two to three times the cost of a capital purchased system, depending on the service level agreements (SLAs) selected and the contract duration. Imagine a transport company deploying video surveillance across its fleet of vehicles. Getting this footage back to a control centre in real time would be significantly cheaper using a private network, as opposed to incurring data charges associated with public cellular networks. Running a PMR network, therefore, can rapidly become the more cost-effective option.
Private networks also places greater control in the hands of the organisations that own them, reducing the chance of unexpected price rises that might be associated with public network providers for example.
- Easier evolution
When any enterprise technology is outsourced the evolution to new functionality can be problematic, and relying on a public mobile network operator is no exception. If an organisation requires new services, whether brand new functionality or an improvement of existing functionality, then they need to either change providers or negotiate with the operator to secure the necessary investment. This can be convoluted and costly, especially if the organisation in question is not one of the operator’s largest customers. By contrast, if a PMR network is managed in-house, then new functions, service improvements and integrations with new technologies can be planned and managed in-house too, in line with the organisation’s needs.
- Technology migration
When an upgrade to a different technology is required, then privately-owned systems can undertake a fully managed ‘soft migration’ to the new technology, meaning a lower risk of disruption to their existing services. Migrations can be carefully planned around everything from service demand to the organisation’s wider calendar. By contrast, for operated networks, such a flexible migration is only possible if the organisation retains the same operator, resulting in a single source network and all of the attendant problems around technology evolution outlined above. The alternative is a ‘hard migration’, switching from one operator to another.
Striking the balance
For many organisations, then, a hybrid approach is most appropriate. Next-generation wireless cellular networks have the potential to underpin hugely exciting applications and services, drawing on the latest augmented and virtual reality technologies and delivering rich media to users almost instantaneously. But for high-value services which require particularly high levels of resilience or security, PMR networks will often remain the best choice. A hybrid approach doesn’t mean a compromise in technology capability either. PMR 4G for example, is fully standardised thanks to the work of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and TCCA, the Critical Communications Association.
In turn, this means that sophisticated integration solutions to ensure seamless interoperability between different users, user types and network types should be a core priority for any organisation taking its communications networks seriously.