While many end user organisations have a desire to upgrade to digital radio solutions, they often don’t know exactly what digital radio offers them or have a financial imperative to do so if existing schemes are functional. They’ve heard that digital radio offers greater functionality, is ‘the future’ and has wider applications than analogue but their focus remains on voice communications. Equally, customers that use private networks typically have their deployment fully managed by a service provider and therefore aren’t fully aware of the challenges presented by constrained spectrum availability, especially in dense urban areas like central London.
‘Efficiency and cost savings are the main drivers currently,’ says Clarke,’ and in the current market the case for upgrading to digital radio needs to be driven by economics and functionality.The general trends to move to digital radio are driven by a desire to be in the modern age but the clear benefits are not generally appreciated and need to be turned into a rationale for upgrade or new opportunities. Digital radio is more efficient in terms of spectrum usage yet most customers aren’t aware of that – but they will quickly understand if they want extra services or capacity.’
One of the main clear benefits is spectrum efficiency. Does this encourage the end user if they are looking at an upgrade from analogue? ‘Not necessarily,’ says Clarke, ‘unless they have a very large licence bill to pay or they want extra channels, there is no huge incentive to reduce a license fee for a few hundred pounds a year as it is a relatively small amount of money when replacing a system. The radio user community and vendors are the ones who will benefit by freeing up spectrum and this is where the regulator, end users and radio companies need to work together to rationalise existing channels and create more efficient channel planning through co-operation. At least the digital technologies now make this much easier to achieve.’
Nevertheless, Clarke’s company is able to take advantage of spectrum efficient digital radio by supplying solutions in spectrum-constrained areas. Last year, for example, the company deployed a Kenwood NEXEDGE 6.25kHz digital radio solution for the security and management communications of One New Change, the brand new shopping centre in St Paul’s, London. In Westminster, a DMR scheme was introduced across five sites to re-utilise existing channels and also extend capacity. Spectrum will also increasingly dictate the choice of digital technology.
An area where PMR Products has been particularly successful is Private TETRA. Clarke points out that although spectrum efficient, TETRA requires 25kHz channels and availability for spectrum for TETRA outside the government sector is becoming extremely restricted and that poses challenges to the types of single base station deployments PMR Products provide.
Clarke sees the problem becoming critical in the future: ‘Without frequencies, growth of TETRA is very limited,’ he says. ‘It’s important that, as an industry, we’re able to get hold of those frequencies or rationalise the ones we have.’
Digital radio now offers a number of options for applications. TETRA is a very good platform to apply rich technology for private networks.
‘We have installed a lot of private TETRA networks and do things with a slightly different perspective, specific to a customer’s needs,’ says Clarke. ‘In the UK, public sector digital radio has been highlighted by Airwave and TETRA is seen as standard for public safety applications. We’ve moved that technology down to smaller user groups operating from single base stations as a private solution.’
Clarke claims to have 45 customers using private TETRA networks, most of which started in the government sector, but his customer base is now moving into town centre and other multi-user schemes. Among those is Scottish Prisons, at which PMR Products has completed installation and commissioning of a state-of-the-art computer assisted TETRA radio scheme across the entire Scottish Prisons estate. The project, which involves 16 systems, incorporates private TETRA at each site with enhanced features providing facilities to aid the security of the network, safety of users, integrity of the information handled, and improved efficiency of communications.
‘The clear advantage of using TETRA is the private multi-talk group functionality,’ adds Clarke. ‘These customers are looking for a public safety oriented solution and something more akin to the Airwave service. They also want a complete private solution, which we provide.’
In many locations, particularly metropolitan areas, spectrum non-availability makes TETRA a non-starter and effectively restricts technology choices to the DMR and dPMR equipment on existing channels. Both of these technologies are catching up with the more advanced features offered by TETRA, particularly with tier 3 trunked modes already available on dPMR and soon to be on DMR.
There is likely to be a blurring of capability of these competing technologies but each has its own special flavour which will lend itself to a particular application.
‘Clearly there is major opportunity to replace traditional analogue schemes and this is well underway,’ he says. ‘We also see growth potential through the versatility of digital radio flexibility but growth requires more spectrum. This can be generated by using narrow channels. In terms of value for money, people want digital technology but don’t want to pay more for it. They often expect to pay less even though it is more expensive technology, so we have to demonstrate the added value and also give them the hunger to replace and expand rather than stick with the status quo.’
Digital’s significant asset is data and IP connectivity. Most are still focused on audio though. ‘It’s fair to say people want it just for audio and status at the moment,’ admits Clarke. ‘The trick is to get customer to understand what they can do with the technology and use it in a useful way relevant to the business. Often the approach needs to be one of introducing the systems and upselling to additional services later.
'With digital radio you can add features and applications to it later but you have got to bring the customer with you to make sure you don’t oversell the benefits. A lot of features are achievable quite easily with analogue systems so customers don’t necessarily see the benefits. For example, IP interconnect capability is great but getting the customer to understand the benefits of that is not straightforward unless a clear case for improved remote support, for example, can be demonstrated.’
Nevertheless, Clarke thinks vendors can sell solutions based on the improvement in flexibility, the more effective management of spectrum and the portfolio of applications digital radio can support. ‘You can sell on voice codecs and additional features,’ he adds. ‘It’s important not to lose focus on the core principles of private radio schemes though. You have to improve on the analogue experience that users are familiar with and with issues such as lone worker protection, which we have effectively supported in the analogue environment, it’s important that the attributes are mimicked and developed further in the digital domain.’
In spite of the economic climate, Clarke remain