Business radio market provides good pickings

Despite the rise of other radio technologies and the continuing popularity of analogue systems, the cost-optimised digital radio market is seeing strong growth, and vendors believe there is plenty of life in the sector, reports James Atkinson

Business radio market provides good pickings

The popularity of digital Professional Mobile Radio (PMR) systems shows no signs of diminishing. In fact, all the digital PMR standards are growing, according to research firm IHS, including the cost-optimised digital technologies of police digital trunking (PDT), digital mobile radio (DMR), digital private mobile radio (dPMR) and NXDN.

In June, IHS forecast the installed base of cost-optimised digital technologies to grow from nearly 5.7 million radios in 2014 to more than 15.7 million radios in 2019; the most growth of any PMR technology. More than two million shipments were made worldwide in the past 12 months, representing a growth of 30% on the previous year.

The total global installed base of PMR, including analogue, is around 45 million. IHS is predicting that the digital installed base (including TETRA, P25 and Tetrapol) will overtake analogue in 2017.

‘But there are still more analogue cost-optimised radios being shipped than digital,’ notes Thomas Lynch, director for Security and Critical Communications Research at HIS Markit. ‘There are nearly 10 million cost-optimised radios in use at the moment with transportation and utilities being the biggest sectors.’

The cost-optimised digital technologies now have various price tiers from entry level to top tier. IHS says customers used to low analogue radio prices now have access to digital alternatives where previously the cost and system complexity would have been seen as a barrier.

Lynch considers that dPMR should really have been the technology that served that entry-level market, but now that DMR in particular has multi-tier device price points, it seems to have colonised that space. ‘I’m not sure whether that was due to technology, price point or just that those companies with dPMR didn’t have strong enough regional distribution networks to push it,’ he says.

Functionality levels
All the manufacturers Wireless spoke to agree that the various digital radio systems have attained the necessary basic functionality provided by analogue. The feature set may not be as rich as the more established TETRA standard, but they can equal and usually surpass what conventional and MPT1327 trunked analogue offers.

‘In terms of what analogue can do, DMR is already there, but in terms of what digital can do, we are only just beginning. We have not taken full advantage of digital’s capabilities yet,’ says GS Kok, senior vice president of Hytera.

‘Right now a lot of the features we have are voiced based or data features such as mapping. They are still passive, as the terminal just provides the data and a computer somewhere will make use of that data,’ he says.

‘But people expect more from their devices, such as dynamic location-based applications, so they can see where their colleagues are, for example, or be sent information on where something is.’

Barend Gildenhuys, technical director at Simoco Group, agrees that the basic functionality is in place for DMR wide area and multi-site trunking. ‘The DMR Association is now standardising services over that foundation including full duplex calling, encryption, mass re-registration and dynamic group number assignment to create talk groups on the fly.

‘All of these features were defined in ETSI DMR Standard Version 1.7.1., which was published at the beginning of this year, although it will take 12 months for products with those features to come out. Interoperability profiles between vendors will follow a couple of months after that.’

Mike Atkins, managing director, Kenwood European Headquarters (Communications), believes DMR and NXDN are both advancing very strongly in terms of functionality, but that there is always further to go. ‘Virtually everything is covered for what customers want, so it is more a case of the industry finding new things that customers do not realise they want yet.’

There will, of course, be proprietary features added by manufacturers, either because the standard hasn’t caught up yet, or as a way of differentiating themselves in the market. Individual customers ask for bespoke solutions, which also drives additional features that may or may not later become standardised.

‘There will always be non-standard value-add features on top of the standard,’ says Sean Fitzgerald, solutions marketing manager at Motorola Solutions. ‘We do have plans for new models and so on, but a lot of the effort is really about improving the operational systems and adding new features and refinements to the capabilities.

‘If you want something more exacting than DMR then you might as well go for TETRA, as DMR is unlikely to reach the equivalent of TETRA in terms of mission critical features,’ he adds.

Analogue to digital migration
The maturing of the functionality is helping to persuade end users to make the migration from analogue to digital. As GS Kok points out: ‘The migration to digital began in 2008 and we are around 50% of the way to replacing analogue now. But we are still adding new features, as customers are impatient to access the features and data applications they have on their smartphones.’

Most manufacturers report that migration is faster in the mid- to high-tier ranges where customers are looking for more sophisticated solutions and are prepared to pay for them. Jamie Bishop, market manager EMEA for Tait Communications, also points to the wider availability of ATEX products.

‘Industries that were unable to move to digital before – as there were not enough DMR or equivalent ATEX products around – can now do so and that is helping migration.’

With DMR Tier III trunked solutions reaching maturity, the big radio systems users on MPT1327 networks – who may only invest in new infrastructure every 10 to 15 years – are now looking to make the switch.

‘Some users with heavy functionality modes are preparing for a move to digital,’ reports Bishop, ‘and we expect some big infrastructure opportunities in the next six to 12 months. Transport and utilities are the most active sectors across the board in Europe.’

Atkins says the migration to digital has been very quick in the UK, and indeed Europe as a whole, but he says: ‘There will always be lower tiers, almost a consumer type market, that will stay with analogue. The professional unlicensed PMR 446 market is still very strong too for people who just want a back-to-back system without having to bother with a licence.’

Ian Lockyer, marketing manager at Icom UK, agrees: ‘There are a lot of customers out there that are just comfortable with analogue….if it isn’t broken, why fix it? There are also many applications where only analogue will fit.

‘Obviously we are seeing a migration to Icom digital as customers need some of the extra benefits that it can provide. But we are finding that our three chief technologies, (analogue, digital and IP radio operating over Wi-Fi) are happily sitting alongside each other as two-way radio solutions for our customers.’

‘We are finding that that all two-way radio sales are healthy across the board in all business sectors and in all areas of the country. With the evolution of technology, IP radio across a Wi-Fi network has found applications in a broad range of diverse business sectors, so this is a sector that continues to offer growth,’ says Lockyer.

Value of applications
However, there is little question that while digital has the benefit of doubling the capacity of existing analogue channels and providing better quality voice, it is the greater range of applications available that is helping to drive the migration to digital.

‘My gut feeling is that if you just want voice you will stick with analogue and there is still a healthy market there,’ offers Motorola’s Sean Fitzgerald, ‘but the mid- to high-tier customers are looking for the added value that digital can bring in terms of applications, particularly data capabilities.’

‘The main difference between analogue and digital is the applications,’ agrees Hytera’s GS Kok. ‘The iPhone wouldn’t have sold without iTunes and iStore – that’s how they won the customers. I don’t see any difference with PMR, as without applications you cannot really sell.’

As Kenwood’s Mike Atkins points out, it’s really about selling a wider solution, rather than just a radio system. Dispatch, location-based applications, workflow applications, telemetry and data are important ways for manufacturers, systems integrators and resellers to add value, while end users get a better return on their investment, as their network can now provide much more than just voice.

‘PMR can gain over other technologies here,’ asserts Atkins, ‘as it is easier for PMR vendors to create bespoke solutions for particular clients. We will see more and more of this; it is a key part of our industry’s future and we need this because basic terminal prices are falling and we have to keep our businesses running and be able to invest in R&D.’

Simoco’s Gildenhuys observes: ‘You can sell a lone worker or man-down solution that uses short data messaging (SDM) over DMR, but you may also be helping customers fulfil health and safety obligations to their staff. You can also use short data services for telemetry, but it is really about the remote management of assets. So, we need to package solutions around services to make it clearer to customers what the benefit is.’

Both Tait and Simoco have invested in industrial automation products for the utility sector in particular. Simoco’s Pulse range of data modems and integrated remote telemetry units is one example, while Tait’s GridLink is a product aimed at the electricity industry.

‘GridLink end points provide fault prevention and stop network outages,’ says Bishop. ‘Electricity companies get fined for outages, so if these end points prevent that, as well as providing remote control, it adds value to that utility as it can improve their business KPIs. It is a good illustration of the expansion of a PMR network from just mission critical voice services to something that adds more value.’

These kinds of value-add applications mean the supply chain has to get closer to the end user. ‘You need to know your customers much better if you are to advise them more,’ says Motorola’s Fitzgerald. ‘Becoming a trusted advisor may require more work, but the value goes up for us and it also promotes better customer loyalty.

‘We or the reseller are more integrated into their business and that helps with understanding workflows and improves relationships. It also often creates an ongoing revenue stream for the reseller, rather than just a one-off sale, as there is a continuing upsell path,’ he points out.

PMR in the wider ecosystem
There is a school of thought that argues that cellular technology will make PMR obsolete, and there is clearly a movement among public safety agencies to move to broadband solutions. But IHS describes the market entry of LTE into the critical communications world as ‘slow and protracted until now’.

Its June report noted: ‘Challenges surrounding spectrum remain at the forefront, especially for mission critical users in public safety; although similar for other mission critical industries such as utilities and transportation. The cost of spectrum also remains an impediment.’

IHS’s Thomas Lynch says: ‘As far as push to talk over cellular is concerned, the jury is still out as to how effective it will be. I don’t think it will account for more than 10% of the market over the next five years, but it does have the potential to eat into the low end installed analogue base such as basic security, construction and hotels. I am not raising any alarm bells just yet, but it is on the horizon.’

Nonetheless, there is a general recognition among PMR vendors that they need to embrace adjacent technologies and find ways to seamlessly interconnect with them. Most have incorporated Bluetooth and sometimes Wi-Fi into their systems already, for example.

‘4G LTE, Wi-Fi and PMR all have their place,’ observes Simoco’s Barend Gildenhuys, ‘and you’ve got to focus on your strengths, but the focus also has to be on how do all these technologies interoperate to provide multi-communication conduits.

‘There has been an LTE bubble hanging around our industry for a while, but we see a lot of life in PMR still and I think it will remain the dominant technology for private communications networks,’ says Gildenhuys. ‘LTE is great for fast data speeds, but it has a lot of challenges around coverage footprints.’

Hytera’s GS Kok says: ‘The PMR industry will always be around, as the need for voice will always be there, but you need to embrace data if you want your business to grow. Anybody that wants to survive in the future has to look at converging all of their products together, so they work seamlessly, or it will be difficult to expand their business.’

He adds that China was one of the countries looking to migrate to 4G for public safety and other sectors. ‘But it is now investing heavily in PDT, so they may think twice for the time being. They are pushing us hard to come up with a PDT solution.’

‘There is an increasing need to integrate different technologies,’ agrees Motorola’s Sean Fitzgerald. ‘PMR has connected to fixed telephony systems for some time and radios are here to stay, but there are some users who want more integration across other networks and systems.’

Motorola has its WAVE technology to enable PMR users to talk to cellular and other systems and send data, for example. Other vendors have solutions providing this kind of convergence too, but it is not about replacing PMR systems. Rather, it is about extending their reach geographically and technically by enabling them to interwork across other communication systems.

Tait’s UnifyVoice and UnifyVehicle are examples of this. The latter can track people and assets via BLE tags, for example, or access other data applications when tethered to the PMR network.

Bishop reports that Tait’s UnifyVoice is being used on construction sites in conjunction with a DMR Tier III system to enable cellular phone users to communicate with radio users. But it also enables organisations to push data out to staff in the field to improve their situational awareness.

Threats to PMR
All the vendors Wireless spoke to seem pretty relaxed about the threat of rival technologies for now. Most observe, however, that the price pressure at the lower end of the market is intense.

Kenwood’s Mike Atkins says: ‘There is a race to the bottom on price and if you just sat still and did what you were doing 10 years ago you would struggle. You need to adapt to the changing technology and market, and if you do then the numbers are still there. If you offer the right packages you can make money, but you need to be clever to see the opportunities.’

Tait’s Jamie Bishop notes that the price war also has the negative effect of hindering innovation and the ability to deliver advanced applications, but says that his company is little affected by the squeeze, as it decided not to take on the lower end of the market. ‘Otherwise I don’t see much in the way of threats to the industry, although there are always spectrum issues of course,’ he says.

Opportunities for PMR
The general view is that the PMR market is looking fairly rosy with plenty of opportunities ahead in the next few years. So, what might we expect to see coming down the line?

Icom’s Ian Lockyer says: ‘We expect to see developments in the design and manufacturing of communication handsets with massive inroads in the development of SDR and digital technologies, perhaps combining multiple technologies such as PMR, Wi-Fi and LTE. We also think that the industry will seek more inventive ways of making what we offer work for them.’

The company plans a new range of digital models for next year with a new design and functionality ethos. ‘They are software upgradable and will be licensed for different features,’ explains Lockyer. ‘So, you pay for the basic radio and you license up for the features that you want.’

He adds that saturation of the radio spectrum in large cities has caused the industry to look at other technologies to get what they can from existing infrastructure.

‘That is where you see DAS (Distributed Antenna System) being used to increase capacity and extend coverage outdoors and in larger building projects. The pressure to get more and more out of an existing radio system, improve coverage and meet ever increasing capacity will make these more relevant,’ he says.

Hytera’s GS Kok points out that critical communications of some sort are required across many sectors, but while the cellular industry is now picking up on this area they are not finding it so easy.

‘We are in a better position than the big cellular OEMs as we have been designing critical communication products for years. When it comes to converging technologies, most of the
OEMs haven’t got a clue, so they will struggle.

‘They may understand the mass consumer market where they sell loads of smartphones, but we understand critical communications customers much better. The future looks very interesting, but it’s about whether you are willing to embrace change,’ he says.

Tait sums up its strategy as one of optimising and extending PMR to make the most of what it has invested in already, and becoming an essential critical communications partner. ‘This is where you get to a world where we provide a private LTE system from another manufacturer, because we have years of mission critical expertise and knowledge of end user operational procedures, which LTE manufacturers lack,’ says Jamie Bishop.

Mike Atkins thinks the future is about multi-technology and having the right solution for the right user. ‘You have to keep adapting the technology to what the user needs and to the other technologies allied to it. If you can do all that there is plenty of business to be found.’

‘PMR is a very mature industry,’ observes Motorola’s Sean Fitzgerald. ‘There is fairly stable growth in the installed base and we see that continuing. There are other technology threats, but what is interesting is that we have seen some users come back to PMR because of the specific things radio can do so well.

‘Other technologies cannot really compete with the core of what PMR does best, such as instant calling and group calling. It will be hard for anything else to match that for some time yet.’

Photo: Icom

Leave a Comment