Mario Micheli lives and breathes communications. Having started his career in Professional Mobile Radio (PMR) back in 1987, he worked as a system engineer doing radio planning and coverage predictions before moving into project management, where he soon began to unravel the intricacies of the standards and those who use it.
Since then he’s served as board member and director for the TETRA Association and been at the forefront of design specification of TETRA products for SELEX Communications just shy of 15 years. More recently this saw him taking responsibility for the definition of integrated IT and secure communications solutions following the merger between SELEX Communications and Elsag.
Micheli took over as chair of the DMR Association in May 2010 during its infancy and just as things began to move for the technology. However, it’s clear from the way he talks that he has a canny knowledge of the mobile space.
He notes, for example, that the PMR market as a whole (except for emerging countries) is not seeing a significant growth in users. ‘This means essentially that whoever requires a radio to do his job has already got one,’ he says.
Indeed, migration from analogue to digital PMR started back in the late 1990s when the rollout of the first large public safety communications projects began bringing the main benefits of digital, namely secure voice, instant messaging, localisation services, IP data and enhanced spectrum efficiency, to users.
‘A major fact is that today 85% of PMR radios are still analogue, and this is the point where DMR comes into the play,’ notes Micheli.
DMR has been designed with the clear priority to make the migration from an existing analogue network to digital as easy as possible. With DMR using the same channels as analogue and providing the same coverage range as analogue systems, existing sites, antennas and branching networks can be re-used, meaning no new base station sites are required.
Micheli says that cost has been the overriding factor in the move to digital PMR so far. ‘The DMR market in the past two years had a growth rate in the high double-digit range and the outlook is very enthusiastic,’ he explains. ‘We see this also from the continuously growing number of manufacturers joining the DMR Association. As I said before, there are still tens of millions of analogue PMR users out there and sooner or later they will change to digital.’
At the heart of the industry sits the DMR Association, acting as a guarantor of interoperability for equipment supplied by different manufacturers.
‘Open standard solutions have become very important – users hate the idea of being tied to one manufacturer for the whole life cycle of their PMR network,’ adds Micheli. ‘Buying DMR equipment that is IOP (Interoperability Certification Process) certified by the DMR Association offers the possibility of choosing in each case the most convenient product from different suppliers that compete in the marketplace.’
In the development of DMR, Micheli says the main focus was solely on professional communications, with issues like the technology’s Tier 1 standard seen very much as a side product. ‘As far as I am aware there is not very much interest in Tier 1 and no products are available. That might change in the future,’ he says.
With DMR targeting the installed base of analogue users with various types of systems, from very small and simple to large and more sophisticated systems, the standard offers conventional and trunked solutions to satisfy the different user requirements.
So, for example, when the number of channels available at the base stations is relatively low Tier 2 is good because it is less complicated. Whereas, in the case of a high number of channels, Tier 3 would enhance the efficiency of a system.
‘However, there is another important factor, which is the fact that people generally don’t like to change their habits and operating procedures, so for instance if a company has used conventional analogue up to now, Tier 2 might be their preferred choice,’ says Micheli.
Clearly the main benefit of DMR is the ease of migration from analogue and the fact that it fits into 12.5kHz channels, which are prevalent in PMR today. A further advantage, according to Micheli, is the flexibility where we see conventional, trunked and even simulcast systems.
‘As far as disadvantages with other technologies are concerned, I don’t see big ones. However, due to the fact that DMR is a relatively new technology, its feature set is not yet completely exploited,’ he adds. ‘This means DMR could do much more than it does today. The DMR Association is working on this subject. We talk to users to understand their requirements and we work on the development of new features to satisfy those needs.’
Right now, the Interoperability Certification Process is addressing this issue. Furthermore, the fact that most of the DMR radios sold today can be switched to analogue mode furthers the possibility to interoperate with other user organisations.
Today, Micheli says that DMR can be seen at work mainly in the industrial, transportation and utilities industries. ‘Geographically, 62% of DMR users are in America, particularly in the US, where the narrow band act is forcing users to modernise their PMR networks,’ he explains.
‘DMR is a 6.25kHz equivalent technology – not only does it satisfy the current narrow band act but it also complies with more severe requirements for spectrum efficiency that might come over the next decade. This is one reason for the outstanding success of DMR in the US, while 18% of DMR users are found in Europe, 15% in Asia and 5% in MEA.’
As it stands, Micheli says that there is no future standard for DMR in the pipeline even though much activity surrounds the extension of its feature sets. Indeed, he believes its evolution should resemble something similar to what happened around TETRA.
‘Equipment available in the early times of TETRA a decade ago had a basic feature set. Today the features of TETRA are second to none,’ he adds. ‘We expect the same development with DMR.’
However, with there being talk of integrating broadband PMR and PMR networks with LTE, Micheli sees things differently.
‘From my perspective DMR is not going down that way. For our target users, cost is a major factor and there is no case (and no spectrum) for dedicated broadband systems in the future. However, I do envisage workers using both – commercial LTE modems for data applications and DMR radios for the tougher part of their job.’