So what is a Trunked Radio System?
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A trunked radio system is a two-way radio system that uses a control channel to automatically direct radio traffic. Two-way radio systems are either trunked or conventional, where conventional is manually directed by the radio user.
Trunking is a more automated and complex radio system but provides the benefits of less user intervention to operate the radio and greater spectral efficiency with large numbers of users. Instead of assigning, for example, a radio channel to one particular organization at a time, users are instead assigned to a logical grouping, a "talkgroup". When any user in that group wishes to converse with another user in the talkgroup, a vacant radio channel is found automatically by the system and the conversation takes place on that channel. Many unrelated conversations can occur on a channel, making use of the otherwise idle time between conversations. Each radio transceiver contains a microcomputer to control it. A control channel coordinates all the activity of the radios in the system. The control channel computer sends packets of data to enable one talkgroup to talk together, regardless of frequency.
The primary purpose of this type of system is efficiency; many people can carry many conversations over only a few distinct frequencies. Trunking is used by many government entities to provide two-way communication for fire departments, police and other municipal services, who all share spectrum allocated to a city, county, or other entity.
The Main Principles of Trunked System
In essence, a trunked radio system is a packet switching computer network. Users' radios send data packets to a computer, operating on a dedicated frequency — called a control channel — to request communication on a specific talk-group. The controller sends a digital signal to all radios monitoring that talkgroup, instructing the radios to automatically switch to the frequency indicated by the system to monitor the transmission. After the user is done speaking, the users' radios return to monitoring the control channel for additional transmissions.
This arrangement allows multiple groups of users to share a small set of actual radio frequencies without hearing each other's conversations. Trunked systems primarily conserve limited radio frequencies and also provide other advanced features to users.
A talkgroup is an assigned group on a trunked radio system. Unlike a conventional radio which assigns users a certain frequency, a trunk system takes a number of frequencies allocated to the system. Then the control channel coordinates the system so talkgroups can share these frequencies seamlessly. The purpose is to dramatically increase bandwidth. Many radios today treat talkgroups as if they were frequencies since they behave like such. For example, on a radio scanner, it is very common to be able to assign talkgroups into banks or lock them out, exactly like that of conventional frequencies.
Fleet maps and IDs
In some agencies, groups are assigned in a fleet map. This was implemented to make it easier to assign group ID numbers. For example, EMS would be on a separate 'fleet' than police. In those fleets are sub fleets or the actual talkgroups. This system is not as common as the typical trunking method, but they do exist. In some communities, the ID corresponds to a location or agency. For example, it is common to see a '1' or '2' in front of a police group and another number in front of a fire group.
Most scanners that can listen to trunked radio systems (called trunk tracking) are able to scan and store individual talkgroups just as if they were frequencies. The difference in this case is that the groups are assigned to a certain bank in which the trunked system is programmed. In other words, the talkgroups are stored on the trunked bank.
Comparison with telephone trunking
The concept of trunking (resource sharing) is actually quite old, and is taken from telephone company technology and practice. Consider two telco central office exchanges, one in town "A" and the other in adjacent town "B". Each of these central offices has the theoretical capacity to handle ten thousand individual telephone numbers. (Central office "A", with prefix "123", has available 10,000 numbers from 123-0000 to 123-9999; central office "B", with prefix "124", the same.)
If all 10,000 subscribers in "A" were to simultaneously call 10,000 subscribers in "B", then it would be necessary to have 10,000 lines (in telco parlance "trunk lines", or simply "trunks") to connect the two towns. However, the odds of that happening are remote, as the number of simultaneous phone calls is usually much lower. Erlang-B is a common formula that predicts the optimal number of trunk lines actually needed under normal conditions.
This concept has simply been applied to radio user groups, to determine the optimal number of channels needed, under normal conditions, to accommodate given number of users. In the event of a widespread emergency such as a major earthquake, many more users than normal will attempt to access both the telephone and radio systems. In both cases once the trunking capacity of the systems is fully used, all subsequent users will receive a busy signal.
In our example of police dispatch, different talk-groups are assigned different system priority levels, sometimes with "preempt" capability, attempting to ensure that communication between critical units is maintained.
Differences from conventional two-way radio
"Trunked" radio systems differ from "conventional" radio systems in that a conventional radio system uses a dedicated channel (frequency) for each individual group of users, while "trunking" radio systems use a pool of channels which are available for a great many different groups of users.
For example, if police communications are configured in such a way that twelve conventional channels are required to permit citywide dispatch based upon geographical patrol areas, during periods of slow dispatch activity, much of that channel capacity is idle. In a trunked system, the police units in a given geographical area are not assigned a dedicated channel, but instead are members of a talk-group entitled to draw upon the common resources of a smaller pool of channels.
Advantages of trunking
Trunked radio takes advantage of the probability that with any given number of user units, not everyone will need channel access at the same time, therefore fewer discrete radio channels are required. From another perspective, with a given number of radio channels, a much greater number of user groups can be accommodated. In the example of the police department, this additional capacity could then be used to assign individual talk groups to specialized investigative, traffic control, or special-events groups which might otherwise not have the benefit of individual private communications.
To the user, a trunking radio looks just like an "ordinary" radio: there is a "channel switch" for the user to select the "channel" that they want to use. In reality though, the "Channel switch" is not switching frequencies as in a conventional radio but when changed, it refers to an internal software program which causes a talkgroup affiliation to be transmitted on the control channel. This identifies the specific radio to the system controller as a member of a specific talkgroup, and that radio will then be included in any conversations involving that talkgroup.
This also allows great flexibility in radio usage - the same radio model can be used for many different types of system users (i.e. Police, Public Works, Animal Control, etc.) simply by changing the software programming in the radio itself.
Since the talkgroups are constantly transmitting on different frequencies, trunked radio systems make it more difficult for a scanner listener without a programmed trunk tracking scanner to keep up with the conversation.
In 1997, radio scanners compatible with trunked systems appeared on the market. One of the first companies to bring these devices to market, Uniden, trademarked the term trunk tracking on December 5, 1997.
Different Types of Trunked Radio Systems
Trunked radio technologies today have generally diverged into three distinct types or "tiers". These are not "official", but are clearly defined within protocol types:
These systems are extremely primitive in their operation and only just about meet the requirements to be defined as a "trunked" radio system. They generally do not have enhanced features such as data communications or registration awareness. They will only provide simple trunking facilities for voice calls only.
These systems exhibit some of the characteristics of a high tier trunked radio system but not all features. Therefore, they are suitable for small deployments where users are expected to use the entire network available (such as a private system covering a campus or town). Because of their lack of advanced features, they generally are not suited to mission-critical deployments, PAMR type operation or uncoordinated shared user types.
It must be noted that DMR/dPMR true Tier 3/Mode 3 protocols are intended eventually to migrate into the "Advanced Mature high end" list below but today (2015) cannot be classified as such due to major interoperability issues, lack of mature protocol and lack of clearly defined user interface protocol.
dPMR Mode 3 - Has equipment manufacturer interoperability issues.
DMR Tier III - Has equipment manufacturer interoperability issues.
Hytera DMR Tier 3 Trunking Lite
Advanced mature high-end systems
Some trunked radio protocols are of special merit since they clearly stand out from the others for the following reasons:-
Proven technology used on numerous mission-critical applications around the world
Mature, thereby only undergoing minor revisions rather than major feature changes and this must have been case for at least several years
Designed for mission-critical applications
Suitable for networks in excess of 150 sites
Suitable for large numbers of users (in excess of 500 differing user group types)
Support for "subset" coverage areas whereby a particular customer can be restricted to a smaller area of coverage
Network level call confirmation (rather than end to end success/failure detection)
Seamless roaming based upon "vote now" procedures controlled from a central controller, based on RSSI hysteresis or similar
Registration upon site change
Graceful failure modes defined at a protocol level
Data transfer facilities
Presence awareness at network level which only invokes the transmitter sites necessary for call establishment
Centralized control with a degree of over-air control of terminals (such as barring units, etc.)
ESN based terminal security or similar
True and proven interoperability between manufacturers dictated by an open standard
Little flexibility for custom deviations from the standard, ensuring all terminals comply with the standard
Uniform user terminal standard with respect to user interface, tones, dialing schemes, etc.
Such a requirement list dictates that a dedicated control channel with central control (little mobile terminal intelligence) will be used.
MPT1327 was the first mainstream system to meet the requirements of a high tier network and is currently (2015) still by far the world's most successful trunked radio network protocol.
DMR/dPMR does not currently appear on this list due to lack of mature standard (is still under active development), does not meet manufacturer interoperability requirements currently, has significant vendor lock-in issues and has no clearly defined user terminal interface standard.
NXDN Common Air Interface (CAI) was accepted at the meeting of the ITU-R (International Telecommunications Union Radiocommunications Sector) held in November 2016 and it has been added to Report M.2014-3, published in February 2017. It is an open, multi-vendor protocol widely adopted in mission-critical applications in Japan, USA, and mainland Europe.