2019 Fellow: Our exclusive interview with David Chater-Lea

Can you tell us a bit more about your background? How did you get into critical communications?

Actually, I’ve always been interested in radio, and got an amateur radio licence at the age of 17. So I naturally ended up working in mobile radio and joined what would become Motorola in the UK. One of the most interesting aspects of mobile communications was finding out how your customers worked, to determine what solutions were needed. Police forces were major customers, and it was especially important to understand how they were using their equipment, as radio was a tool for safety as well as communication.

How did you career evolve to standardization?

The industry evolved to go beyond group communications and add data communications. In the case of emergency communications, voice was augmented with status and text messages exchanged between policemen and dispatchers. And in a competitive marketplace where customers want to buy products from different suppliers, you need to standardize the technology. My first experience in ETSI standards was in the late 1980s, with a binary technology working over analogue radio. However, by the 1990s, when digital radio started to arrive, we realized that digital communication needs a great deal more standardization than analogue technology to achieve full interoperability. A standard gives customers and governments confidence that they can buy from one company or another and this encourages competition with more and more features, and also reduced prices.

TETRA is one of ETSI’s biggest success stories. What’s the impact today?

From a European standard, it has become a global standard, now used in more than 110 countries, so actually used by millions of users. The emergency services are the biggest market for TETRA, and right from the start they saw that this could be the technology that they needed for cooperation between countries, and became involved in its standardization. But also, from the early days, it has been used by metro rail systems, and other forms of transport.  It is now in use in many professional applications.

With 5G coming up, is the technology going to change?

TETRA provides speech and data but it can’t give you the speed of a 4G or 5G network, and these higher data speeds will obviously bring new capabilities to jobs in emergency services. Commercial mobile networks benefit from a huge amount of useful data but they were not designed for mission-critical communications. So, as ETSI is part of 3GPP, four years ago we started the 3GPP working group SA6, of which I have now completed two terms as a vice-chairman, to provide new capabilities and define critical communications over mobile networks. They won’t replace TETRA for now, as TETRA has been designed for ultra-reliability and ultimate security, which may not be the case for all mobile operator services designed for commercial services. But if voice is the ultimate communication today that needs to have the highest level of resilience, in the future as data and video gets more built into the users' processes, voice may become slightly less important. We’ll see things evolve then…