Tracking the analogue to digital shift

The biggest change in the PMR industry over the last few years has been the switch to digital systems. While this has not been as fast as expected, the shift is beginning to accelerate thanks to the arrival of a host of new, more affordable standards such as DMR. Deryn Evans of IMS Research takes a look at the key factors influencing the move away from analogue to digital

Tracking the analogue to digital shift

IMS Research has tracked the mobile radio industry for over 13 years, but 2011 presented one of the most interesting years of activity in the PMR industry to date.

With developments ranging from the first PMR Summit meeting in Barcelona to advances in technology and the forming of new partnerships in relation to provision of broadband data services, the PMR industry continues to evolve and face new challenges.

One of the biggest ongoing events in the industry is the migration from analogue to digital. Although analogue has served users well over the years, it has reached the limits of innovation and is now entering a phase of decline in terms of take-up by new users.

The majority of end users now require more than analogue can offer them. This may be the need for more capacity as their licensed channels are overcrowded or for more flexibility in the way they communicate using both voice and data services.

Spectrum efficiencies

Digital radio services not only provide better battery life, sound quality and inherent signal security than analogue, but they also provide spectrum efficiencies and a strong flexible platform that users can adapt to meet their needs and add new functionality.

There is already a vast array of choices for users looking to migrate their network from an analogue to a digital system. There are, of course, the public safety-oriented traditional digital technologies of TETRA, P25 and TETRAPOL.

But digital options continue to expand with new standards like DMR and proprietary technologies such as PDT being developed around the world. This newer group of digital technologies have been designed to be affordable systems with low complexity; as such, IMS Research refers to this group, comprising of DMR, dPMR, NXDN and PDT, as the ‘Cost-Optimised’ digital technologies.

However, despite the wide range of technology options available, the migration to digital has so far been slower than first predicted. Although the migration started in the late 1990s, at the end of 2010 approximately 85% of all installed PMR radios were still analogue. This was despite the recession of 2009 having a disproportionate effect on analogue shipments; digital radios continued to be shipped and installed despite the economic troubles.

But analogue users appeared to hold off especially when it came to making replacement purchases. Although there was a bounce back in the analogue radio replacement market in 2010, shipments of radios to new users are now of the digital variety and the rate of migration is forecast to accelerate over the coming years.

Digital technology

Although the overall worldwide trend is an increasing migration to digital, different regions are switching from analogue at different rates. The differences are often based on the relative success of a particular digital technology in the region.

For example, TETRA within Europe and P25 in North America have both driven most of the migration in these areas to date. In both of these regions the major public safety and security user groups have migrated their radio systems to digital standards.

However, it should be noted that even though these user groups are large in scale and the networks are national in coverage, the lion’s share of radios are still analogue. This is because analogue radios are operated within smaller networks, but these smaller networks are numerous in quantity.

Legislation is also proving to be a major factor influencing the rate of the switch to digital. In the US, narrowbanding is currently a major consideration for agencies contemplating when to upgrade their system.

This legislation dictates that any non-federal system in the VHF and UHF bands must be operating on 12.5kHz channels, as opposed to 25kHz, and is driving much of the migration activity at the moment.

The deadline by which all systems must comply with the legislation has been set to 1 January 2013.

An interim deadline of 1 January 2011 was set which prohibits the manufacture or importation of any device that can operate only on 25kHz channels after this date. The FCC (the US Federal Communications Commission) also stopped granting any new applications or expansions of existing stations on 25kHz channels as of the 2011 date.

All of these factors are reflected in the PMR market activity for the previous year. Even though shipment data shows that the old guard of digital technologies such as TETRA, TETRAPOL and P25 continue to be popular, dig a little deeper and some more interesting trends emerge. TETRA, for example, had its most successful year in 2011 in terms of units shipped, with 9% growth compared with 2010.

Economic problems

Although the European public safety market continues to be the biggest market for TETRA, economic problems in this region have had an impact.

Consequently, a large proportion of growth has been the result of developments in other regions such as South America, the Middle East and Africa and Australasia, where economic growth is stronger. This is particularly true in the market for ATEX with oil, gas and mining rich nations opting for intrinsically safe TETRA systems when replacing their analogue systems.

That said, arguably the most exciting activity in the last couple of years has come from the newer Cost-Optimised digital technologies that have witnessed a phenomenal rate of growth. A large part of this success can be put down to the price point at which these technologies are pitched at.

Designed to be affordable and low in complexity, with a favourable total cost of ownership, these Cost-Optimised digital technologies are appealing to those outside of the public safety and security applications who wish to replace their analogue systems. Membership of the Cost-Optimised digital associations, in particular the DMR Association, continues to expand with announcements of new members being made on a regular basis.

New devices follow these new entrants bringing enhanced interoperability and increased competition, which will drive further value and make these technologies even more attractive to those users on restricted budgets.

With digital technology now being more feature-rich and affordable than ever, there is little holding users back from replacing their analogue system with digital when it reaches the end of its functional life.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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