This week’s Critical Communications World event saw plenty of heated debate about the future of narrowband TETRA in a broadband world and whether LTE could ever be a suitably dependable replacement. But if you take the long view – say, up to 2030 – it seems possible that the debate will be mooted by the fact that in the coming 5G era, all communications will be critical communications.
That was the message from Peter Clemons, founder of Quixoticity, which is working on a comprehensive research program with the goal of developing a global index showing how 1G/2G critical communications – i.e. narrowband digital trunked radio standards like TETRA and P25 – can evolve to fit in the coming 5G environment.
In Clemons’ view, it won’t be just a question of TETRA et al catching up with 5G, but also 5G being incorporated as a fundamental element of the critical communications mission statement.
“Within Releases 15 and 16, one of the three pillars of 5G is URLL [ultra-reliable low latency], and it’s what we understand as the evolution of critical communications,” he said during a presentation at CCW Wednesday. “And if you look at 5G, it’s very much a multi-RAT environment anyway. So we will see, maybe, the emulation of TETRA networks running over 5G networks. And there are even suppliers of TETRA equipment who are now connecting their TETRA into LTE solutions, while the Airbuses and Motorolas of this world are protecting your existing investment with TETRA and allowing you to develop applications and connect with the higher layers.”
Put another way, the critical comms “niche” and 5G are converging towards the same future – and it’s a future in which all communications will be critical enough to require the high security, reliability and resilience that trunked radio is known for.
Welcome to 2030
To fully understand the significance of this, says Clemons, it’s worth pausing to consider the likely state of the world in 2030, by which time 5G should be more or less firmly established as the dominant mobile communications technology on the planet.
We can start with the changes and disruptions that are already happening around us in 2017 – financial crises, institutional crises as dominant political parties start to disappear, an increase in natural and man-made disasters, and a general sense that societies and economies are on the edge.
“We wake up every morning to see what Trump has been tweeting overnight or what Kim Jong-un has been up to, and terrorism almost seems like a normalized event in Europe,” Clemons said. “We live in scary times.”
Meanwhile, we’re witnessing a generational power shift as the economic system of the past 30 or 40 years reaches the limits of what it can deliver, he continued. “Europe and North America are in relative decline as the Singapores and Dubais become more exciting economic powerhouses, and as China rises in its zone of influence and promotes its Belt and Road initiative. There’s a new opportunity for the Middle East and Africa to jump ahead a few generations of technology.”
Meanwhile, disruptive technologies like blockchain and AI “are already threatening the existing order in Wall Street, central banks, and maybe even Silicon Valley, who will struggle to stay ahead of this wave of decentralization and generational change,” Clemons said.
The list of disruptions goes on – cities rise in importance as national governments struggle to collect taxes and deliver services; virtual communities change the way we define GDP, economies and societies; decentralized organizations attack centralized power in many circumstances, be it in the form of the bitcoin community or ISIS; human jobs give way to robots and AI, creating the need for new service sectors and new skillsets; and of course, cyber attacks will be a constant and evolving threat.
The world of 2030 will be defined by the outcome of all of these trends, Clemons said: it will be a world of many new systems and values that the 10-year-old child of today will feel perfectly at home in when he/she turns 23 in 2030. “It will be a world of new business models, new identities and new ways of seeing the world, while the ‘real world’ remains complex and dangerous.”
A change is gonna come
That’s a taste of the world that 5G will have to serve. To do that successfully, 5G has to be developed and deployed as a secure, end-to-end, mission-critical communications ecosystem, with ubiquitous coverage and universal access.
“If 5G is really the fabric of this new society we’re creating, everybody must have access to it simply in order to be a citizen of the future,” said Clemons.
This vision of the 5G future has implications for the evolution of the critical communications industry itself, particularly in regard to how public safety agencies, first responders and other key customers will use communications, and their requirements for the future.
Put simply, critical communications in 2030 will be far more than push-to-talk – it will be based on flexible platforms and sporting new capabilities and features like broadband data, HD video, big data/video analytics, situational awareness, virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and robotics – the latter two of which will serve as first responders in their own right alongside humans.
All of this will feed into the development of 5G over the next decade or so, and it adds up to the inescapable point that best-effort won’t cut it in a 5G world. “5G will be built upon critical communications whether the commercial community likes it or not,” Clemons said.
That’s the vision – whether we can achieve it will depend on numerous factors, starting with the realization that the private and public sectors have to work together.
“We’ve reached the limits of capitalism,” Clemons said. “We need more [public/private] collaboration. We’re going to see much more value in public service in the future, and all sections of society will need to collaborate.”
That’s going to require a fundamental mindset shift away from not only economic ideologies, but also business practices that put intellectual property ahead of the bigger picture, he added. “We have to defend global standards, because proprietary solutions in the long term – which is what we’re looking at – benefit no one.”
We also need to reinvent institutions, he continued. “We need to move away from GDP and eternal growth, and focus more on what really matters to citizens.”
All easier said than done, of course, because the custodians of those institutions won’t give them up easily. But that doesn’t change the fact that the future that awaits us will depend on all communications functioning at mission-critical levels.
“Critical communications can underpin a better, smarter more fulfilled global society and economy in 2030,” he said, “if we so choose.”
While we’re at it, Clemons noted, we can also finally stop thinking of mobile communications in terms of “G”s.
“Let’s do away with ‘generations’, because it is just confusing,” he said. “Let’s forget about 6G, because it’s no longer about faster data speeds.”