The technology industry is fundamentally forward-looking. Organisations in all segments and specialisms are focused on developing the next disruptive tools and applications, and figuring out new ways of applying processes and protocols. The very concept of digital transformation foregrounds change and progression.

We see this repeatedly in the radiocommunications sector. Next-generation technologies such as LTE networks take up most of the headlines – and rightly so. LTE is having a fantastic impact on a range of different industries and applications.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of areas in which a mixed technology approach is still vitally important and where longer-established technologies must be blended with more recent ones. Consider, for example, TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio), the European standard for trunked radio systems which was first published in 1995. It might seem an outdated technology in the world of ever-advancing digital technology, and yet it is still hugely relevant, and is playing a central role in some of the most dynamic and futuristic context of all – like smart cities.

Smart cities: the interplay of old and new

Smart cities have gained a huge amount of attention over recent years, partly through innovations in technology and partly through broader discussions regarding the growing, and increasingly urbanised, global population.

Smart parking systems, smart street lighting, smart rubbish collections, smart utilities grids – many of these innovations are already a reality in different parts of the world, and they are gradually becoming more and more integrated. The vision of a truly cohesive and interconnected smart city is very much within our grasp.

But for all these innovations, one of the most essential elements of a smart city is something very long-established – its transport infrastructure. And classic PMR networks – specifically, TETRA networks – still have a huge role to play in supporting transport infrastructure for smart cities.

Let’s take a closer look at how.

TETRA: driving transport in smart cities

There are two interplaying trends in transport for smart cities which underpin the need for critical communications networks.

First, as cities grow it becomes increasingly important for them to offer cost-effective and highly-efficient transport services. These must not only be able to get people to and from home and work, but also to public services, particularly as populations age. And they must be able to do in the most environmentally efficient way possible, as cities and nations battle climate change.

Second, transport networks must able to harness data for dynamic decision-making – such as assigning particular drivers to particular tasks, or proactively rerouting vehicles around incidents and disruptions. The digital era has vastly increased both the volume and the complexity of data which transport providers have to work with – from GPS trackers mapping the location of every vehicle within a fleet, to sensors which measure passengers, loads and vehicle conditions – even the health and wellbeing of drivers. These data can build a very rich and dynamic picture of the whole transport network – and ultimately drive the efficiencies and responsiveness which are so important – but they need a robust and reliable communications network to underpin them.

This is where TETRA comes in. Specifically designed for the emergency services, government agencies and the military, TETRA is designed with resilience, reliability and security at its core. This is vital for any communications network underpinning mission-critical infrastructure – which the transport networks within smart cities are undoubtedly part of. And TETRA still operates more reliably than many newer technologies when it comes to handling communications over long distances – again, clearly a core demand of transport networks.

However, to support transport for truly smart cities, TETRA needs to be augmented with LTE networks, which offer greater capabilities when it comes to video and data-rich applications.

In practice, this could mean a rail operator using a TETRA network for core voice communications. These cover mission-critical operations such as the communication between driver and stations or signalling staff. Then, an LTE overlay could offer high-bandwidth data communications for real-time passenger information apps, delivering the high-quality passenger experience expected as part of genuinely smart cities.

TETRA might be over two decades old, but it has a hugely significant role to play in some of the most forward-looking and transformative technological innovations of the moment, with new networks still be deployed in transport scenarios every year. Providing a robust and secure voice communications infrastructure for transport providers remains critical to driving the smart cities of the 21st century.

By Nicolas Hauswald, CEO of Etelm