The role of Tetra technology in South Africa's Public safety market

May 2000 IT infrastructure

As mobile radio communication moves into the new millennium, TETRA (TErrestrial Trunked RAdio) has been branded the global technology of choice, with South Africa identified as a major growth spot. TETRA is a digital radio technology that offers integrated mobile voice, data and even Internet services with 'walkie talkie' functionality. The agreed standard for a new generation of digital land mobile radio (LMR) communications, TETRA is the only professional mobile radio networks (PMR) standard defined by the European Telecommunications Institute (ETSI).

Where does it fit in?

TETRA's market broadly comprises of three industry segments. The first is the mobile communications segment with its private network operators, nationwide coverage and the cost benefit of low prices for mobile radios. The second segment meets the demands of public safety organisations such as the police, fire brigade and the rescue and emergency services. And the third covers radio systems for transportation sectors (such as the railways and urban transport operators) and utilities.

Public safety within the South African market

Unfortunately, South Africa's emergency services and municipalities have inherited very poor communication capabilities due to fragmented systems. This has resulted in an inability for them to effectively communicate with each other. In the past, South Africa had over 20 different municipalities for which the regulator did not apportion an appropriate dedicated band meaning that requested frequencies were allocated all along the spectrum. Because of its ability to overcome interoperability hurdles, TETRA has the potential to radically improve the effectiveness of service delivery so crucial for the South African public sectors.

As well as its interoperability strengths, TETRA offers blue light services added flexibility when it comes to data transmission. Capable of sending and receiving voice, video and still images, the system gives public safety officers enhanced tools which can improve communication between those in the field and their colleagues in the control rooms.

For example, TETRA enables pictures from a major incident - like a traffic accident or bank robbery - to be sent to and viewed by staff in the control room. It also enables immediate access (less than 300 ms) to the Internet or Intranet sites so mug shots or number plate details can be passed on in seconds to an officer in, for example, a fast moving drug raid. TETRA also allows cross-regional patrolling as its overall design concept includes a 'roaming' facility similar to that enjoyed by GSM users.

TETRA versus GSM

The International Telecommunication Union has divided the world into three regions, of which Africa and Europe form Region 1. The recommended two-way radio standard for this region is TETRA which is set to be at the forefront of a technology revolution.

Telecommunications industry watchers are confidently predicting this will become adopted, not only locally but globally in much the same way as GSM (global system for mobile communication) has been in the cellular market.

Although much confusion exists within the South African market with regard to the role of both TETRA and GSM, they are not competitive technologies.

Each system is specifically tailored to suit the needs of very different markets. TETRA is aimed at the emergency, rescue and government sectors while GSM is suited to one-to-one communication.

With standard solutions for security, group calls, open channel, priority calls and dispatcher room functionalities, TETRA is well-suited to supplying the needs of public safety organisations which cannot be met by GSM.

Why is this technology not currently being used in South Africa?

The South African Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (SATRA) is currently investigating the feasibility of licensing a third party operator to provide radio trunking to emergency and municipal services. SATRA has issued a public inquiry into the matter to which major players in the wireless communication industry have responded, many in favour of TETRA technology. Respondents include Motorola, Nokia, Marconi, Tait and Simoco.

Motorola, in particular, has articulated its belief in the feasibility of a national network operator to provide radio trunking services.

According to Mark Ellis, Director of Sales for Africa, Motorola's proposed solution would be that of an independent industry consortium regulated by a watchdog body, which provides national public-safety radio communications services.

He says: "We responded to SATRA's public inquiry in our capacity as a trunking equipment vendor, but not only because of vested interest in a sound regulatory framework for public safety trunking. We also sincerely believe that the benefits, to South Africa and its citizens, can be optimised by a good framework.

"Our response considers the two most important issues to be the empowerment of historically disadvantaged individuals in ownership and control of radio spectrum, and the backlog in access to public safety radio communication services in certain communities. However, not to be left out of sight is the fact that some public safety radio systems in our major metropolitan areas are in serious need of replacement."

Motorola is well positioned to comment on the need for and benefits of digital radio communication systems in this market, having been involved in two-way radio in Africa since the 1950s.

The company is one of the world's leading forces in the implementation of TETRA systems and is a founding member of the TETRA Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Contract wins include the Public Safety Radio Communications Project (PSRCP) with BT in the UK worth £2,5 (R30) billion, the London Underground system in the UK, Dolphin Telecom in Germany and C2000 in the Netherlands.

In addition to TETRA, Motorola also supports the digital trunked radio standard APCO 25 CAI, which it has recently delivered to public safety customers in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

For details contact Mark Ellis, Director of Sales, Commercial, Government and Industrial Sector, Motorola, tel: (0944) 1256 484350, fax: (0944) 1256 488140, e-mail:,

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