PMR moves towards a digital future

User needs and technological advances are leading the LMR world in a direction that is broadband focused. Leading industry voices, however, see enabling cellular technologies such as LTE as complementary and working alongside existing technologies such as DMR, dPMR and others for many years to come. Tim Guest reports

PMR moves towards a digital future

In a latest critical-communications report from research house IHS, entitled: DMR, dPMR and Competing Technologies, report author and senior analyst, Elizabeth Mead, looks at technical and market trends as the digitisation of the LMR sector moves forward.

The report predicts that ‘TETRA, TETRAPOL and P25 – as higher-end technologies, will continue to experience uplift in the public safety sector and the migration of analogue systems to these technologies in developing regions will continue’.

But it projects that what it terms ‘cost-optimised digital technologies’ – the DMRs, dPMRs/NXDNs and PDTs (Police Digital Trunking) of this world, which currently make up around 12% of the total LMR installed base will, by 2019, make up nearly 33% of the installed base.

Mead tells Wireless: ‘Throughout the report forecast period to 2019 there will be a strong transition to digital technologies, notably cost-optimised technologies such as DMR and dPMR/NXDN, together with continued analogue migration. By 2019, we see around 80% of revenues being associated with digital technologies, rather than analogue.’

She says that transportation, utilities, oil and gas, airports, industrial markets and the business-critical side of commercial markets will take the major share of cost-optimised digital technologies, specifically in developed regions.

‘There is uptake also in the use of DMR, dPMR and PDT in the public safety and security (PSS) sector in developing regions such as Asia and MEA. These are relatively low-cost solutions, with a major installed analogue base, and we are seeing a migration from this analogue base, particularly in areas where there is a disparate PSS sector with no unified national network. Typically, these small, localised networks look towards cost-optimised solutions.’

Mead emphasises that while the future of the LMR market will be broadband focused, the migration of LMR technologies such as TETRA, P25 and Tetrapol – and even cost-optimised technologies such as DMR – towards broadband alternatives might be a long-term concern.

‘In the medium-term, technologies that dominate the worldwide PSS networks, like TETRA and Tetrapol, will be most affected by the transition as they are used at the higher end and with the early-adopter user base. Ultimately, cost-optimised technologies will be affected by the migration in the very long term.

‘The majority of analogue migration will potentially move to TETRA in some regions but the fastest growth will be to DMR and dPMR. PDT, too, will see mandated uptake in China; it’s an interesting one as it is specific to China. Basically, any new PSS networks will now be PDT and existing TETRA networks are not expected to be renewed; we expect around 1.3 million Chinese users to have switched to PDT by 2019.’

Embrace change
One man who embraces change is CTO at Hytera, GS Kok, who tells Wireless: ‘These digital narrowband technologies will remain as preferred analogue replacement technologies. dPMR and NXDN are very similar FDA 6.25kHz technologies and DMR is the TDMA 6.25e technology. The industry acceptance is almost 2:1 in favour of DMR.’

He adds: ‘A lot of people are predicting the convergence of technology from narrow band to broadband. But minus a secure, feature-rich, spectrum-allocated, PPDR-ready – and much more – solution, I still believe narrowband voice will continue to dominate in public safety due to its resilience, its security, the fact that it’s already deployed and feature rich and has a high level of encryption, as and when required.’

On the subject of migration to LTE, Kok says: ‘I always view technology enhancement as an opportunity. It’s just how we want to build on this opportunity. If we always view new technology as a threat, I think we should all go back and live in the Stone Age.’

He says he believes non-public-safety users in many other industries, who will not have access to LTE spectrum other than via mobile network operators, may be the first adopters of LTE technologies, since their demands are not as critical as PSS needs.

‘They will probably be more willing to accept dropped calls or longer access time and shared commercial LTE lines with some compromise in security, just as any cellular phone users will experience using a commercial LTE,’ argues Kok.

Two-way advocate
One advocate of expanding the capabilities and applications of traditional two-way radio beyond voice is Tim Clark, director, sales, channel products & programmes, Europe and Africa, at Motorola Solutions, who tells Wireless that this has been one of the drivers behind Motorola’s DMR-compliant Mototrbo portfolio.

He says the wide range of applications offered by the portfolio, beyond typical voice capabilities, is key to its success. ‘Voice will always be the number-one application for two-way radio, that’s what it does best and better than cellular and even LTE at this time. It’s instant and reliable high-quality comms for the toughest environments.’

This is why Motorola has invested heavily in applications and in a third-party partner
programme in order to develop those applications. This year the company has seen faster growth than ever in the number of partners joining the programme, with more than 300 worldwide now working on applications for Mototrbo, TETRA and, in the US, P25.

The company runs an annual application partner forum in the Europe and Africa region, where it connects with Motorola engineers and brainstorms ideas. This approach, established in analogue days around 15 years ago, has ‘really exploded’, with digital and IP advances, and since the launch of Mototrbo.

When it comes to longevity, Clark observes: ‘There will always be a need for the robust, high-quality, talk-group kind of communications that two-way radio brings, certainly into the mid-term future. Disruptive technologies such as LTE will certainly have their place, and they will evolve and become a compelling proposition – Motorola is investing heavily in LTE and sees it as a complementary play.

‘That said, customers see two-way radio doing voice best along with applications such as control-room data and low-bandwidth data such as GPS tracking and managing remote equipment. For high-bandwidth data, such as video, then offloading to LTE makes sense.’

LMR’s key attributes
A relatively new kid on the DMR block is Sepura, whose vice president group strategy, Steve Barber, tells Wireless that of the various digital two-way LMR solutions, DMR has the capability to support a wider range of data services than the likes of NXDN/dPMR, making it more attractive to applications developers and, therefore, end customers.

‘A wide range of apps already exist on DMR, especially Tier III, from simple status messaging, location-based services and safety-critical apps such as man-down and lone worker. We are releasing our DDA (DMR Data Apps) capability that delivers a flexible environment on the radios,’ says Barber.

‘This allows the development of form-based applications, using DMR data services to deliver operational information to a back-end workflow management system (eg. hotels, factories, transport, etc).’

He notes that while the ‘buzz’ is around LTE, Sepura sees a continuous need for narrowband LMR systems to meet a different set of requirements to LTE. The caveat, he adds is that this is, however, severely limited by spectrum availability and harmonisation.

He cites a recent survey by mission-critical users in North America, which showed that 82% believe it will be more than 10 years before LTE will replace LMR, while over 60% believe it will be more than 15 years – or never. ‘We see LTE as a complementary standard to our portfolio alongside DMR, TETRA, Wi-Fi and P25. A customer buys a solution to meet requirements; not a technology.’

As far as support for its sales channel in the digital world goes, Barber says that Sepura offers a wide range of support and training through its help desk, global sales engineers and regionally-based sales, support and engineering staff.

‘Our partners have the opportunity to join our MOSAIC partner programme, giving them access to our protocols and interfaces, and enabling them to develop their own value-added applications, products and services,’ he explains.

Catching the imagination
For Ian Lockyer, marketing manager at Icom UK, there’s excitement about the move towards a digital LMR world. ‘Digital seems to have caught the imagination of vendors, and we see that it is now quoted over other radio technologies. It offers many benefits including channel efficiency, audio quality, encryption, data capability, and is ideal for larger bespoke systems.’

He adds that while the company’s digital systems are ‘very popular’, Icom still receives a ‘healthy proportion’ of customers looking for analogue, which he says is down to some industry sectors being worried about the latency in a digital radio, which could cause major operational issues.

Lockyer also sees the driving down of costs of individual units and systems through the proliferation in digital sales being a factor that will ensure LMR longevity against larger systems such as TETRA.

‘We have seen this with a lot of Icom IDAS systems.’ He says that some customers want a fully-fledged digital system packed with features, while others want a more traditional or perhaps simple, push-to-talk system. He also makes the point that IP two-way radios are providing a real alternative for organisations that may not be able to get a licence.

‘We have dealers now that quote three alternatives when they are tendering: analogue, digital and IP. Being fully duplex and having the ability to be easily deployed onto an existing Wi-Fi system are strong reasons why businesses are choosing this technology.’

As for support of the channel in today’s environment, Lockyer says: ‘I think this is where the FCS can step in by being a source of leadership, helping to protect and secure as many opportunities as possible for the business sector against the backdrop of finite radio spectrum, and sharing industry-specific information with the UK vendors.’

A view from the Association
Always a worthy spokesperson for the DMR Association, Marco Morresi explains where he sees DMR/dPMR/NXDN in relation to application support. ‘The DMR Association and its members are very well aware of the importance of apps. One of the activities the DMR Association carried out was to develop a common application interface specification for digital mobile radio infrastructure, to further enhance interoperability – the Application Interface Specification.

‘This interface was defined to provide connectivity for well-known radio network peripherals, such as dispatch consoles and voice recorders, and to support data applications such as location services, workforce management applications and telemetry systems.’
He says that the growing number of application providers that join the association as category 2 members, as well as the commitment of application vendors to join as a category 1 member, is a ‘confirmation that this addition to the standard will further increase the success of DMR’.

He adds that although the Professional/LMR market is still voice driven, applications that allow companies and organisations to manage their operations in a safer, more efficient fashion, are a great added value: ‘One should also keep in mind that the use of many apps results in lower voice call volumes, thus saving bandwidth.’

He says he would be ‘very surprised if DMR’s life expectancy is short’. ‘Although the trend is to talk of migration of LMR systems to LTE-based services, the main requirement for those who have LMR networks is immediate, reliable and secure voice communications. Operators in the consumer market build their networks in order to maximise profit. This means that networks do suffer overload and failures, from time to time.’

As for analogue’s decline, Morresi says this is driven by obsolescence, narrow-banding mandates and by the need to future-proof investments. ‘The fact that a good 50% to 60% of such users are still on analogue means such systems are still able to satisfy their need for immediate and reliable voice communications. The fact that DMR is the number one choice for those migrating to digital is a clear message that the market has identified DMR as the ideal solution for migration.’

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