The Federation of Communication Services (FCS) Business Radio Event 2016 began with a ‘call to arms’ from its CEO Chris Pateman, who warned the business radio community that it needs to keep itself relevant to customers by continuing to innovate and embracing change.
He also said that it must make sure its concerns are heard by Government and that its voice is not drowned out by bigger, louder parts of the wireless industry. ‘The mobile phone industry knows what it wants and what to put in front of policy makers,’ he pointed out, adding: ‘He who owns the spectrum owns the market.
‘We need to keep exploring what the next thing looks like and we how can take this business forward, as inertia will only carry us so far. We must encourage and equip this industry to take it forward,’ he argued.
Reviewing the year, Pateman (pictured above) said that the new Digital Economy Bill and Brexit showed that the Government had woken up to the policy case the FCS has been making for the last 20 years – that the UK tech industry is world class.
He noted that traditionally the FCS has represented Business Radio, Fixed Service Providers and Vehicle Installers, but now it is playing across multi-technology platforms, including IT resellers and software based companies, which are coming into the FCS sphere as radio gets more software based.
He applauded the Government initiative to set up something new in the shape of a Digital Cabinet and its ambition to drive the roll out of universal broadband and better mobile phone connections, as well as appointing a digital Czar. ‘It is the first time Government has really engaged with the communications industry in this way,’ said Pateman,’ so it is a good time to be us.’
Keeping PMR relevant
Building on this theme, Tim Cull, Head of Business Radio, FCS, noted that the business radio industry now has a wider choice of customers, more analogue and digital voice solutions, and many more software applications to offer end users.
Cull added that far from being an out of date technology, the level of success being enjoyed by business radio is higher than ever before. ‘We do a damn good job,’ he said, ‘and we are seeing continued growth. Our demise has been predicted every year for the last 15 years and every year the pundits are wrong. Let’s keep it that way.’
Nonetheless, it would be foolish to believe the radio industry does not face challenges, as Cull was quick to acknowledge. Assignment congestion is an issue, but Cull said he believed this can be fixed and Ofcom agrees, ‘which is good news’.
Lack of spectrum capacity remains a problem, however. ‘Other market sectors all want more spectrum, but no one is challenged to use what they have much more efficiently. Market mechanisms are clearly not working and they are impacting others by taking all the spectrum and not using it efficiently, because nothing forces them to do so,’ Cull argued.
He pointed out that data derived services, as opposed to just voice, are growing. ‘It’s great to have, but on what spectrum are we going to host this data?’ he asked. He suggested it might be 4G LTE, or later 5G spectrum, and perhaps White Space bands. He also noted that the Internet of Things is a big opportunity. ‘It will happen, and maybe business radio users will want it too.’
Emphasising the resilience factor
Returning to the theme of keeping business radio relevant, Cull observed that PMR still provides a level of resilience that no other communications technology can achieve. ‘Resilience is the real critical success factor for the radio industry: it underpins everything.’
He argued that it is this ability to ensure high levels of resilience that will appeal to many end users and encourage them to either continue using PMR technology or even return to it, as the limitations of cellular and Wi-Fi become more apparent.
‘MNOs offer a best effort service,’ said Cull. ‘But some customers work at six nine levels of resilience. We own this space and the technology can be made independent providing you make the goals. We need to make customers value the mission criticality we provide far more than they do.’
Cull suggested that the FCS can help here by preparing a leaflet for purchasers to explain the value add business radio brings and by providing a Code of Practice on resilience as it relates to radio. It could also set up a template for contracts to help differentiate FCS members’ offerings.
Turning to the future prospects of business radio Cull wondered whether the business is currently limited. ‘Not at the moment,’ he answered, ‘but if a customer needs mission critical broadband data we have a problem and we need to find a solution or we will suffer a slow death.’
Cull referred to what he called ‘mission creep’ whereby end users become more and more reliant on new applications, often perhaps data-based ones, which then become business or mission critical to the organisation.
The industry therefore needs to be able to adapt to this need and provide the solutions. He warned the industry: ‘Your delivered value may be high now, but if you stay still you will start to lose out to other technologies and solutions around you.’
Changes and opportunities
He offered some suggestions as to how the industry can stay ahead, including
changes in the Ofcom Technical Frequency Assignment Criteria from two to three. He pointed out that mobile coverage in rural areas is not good, so maybe something else, such as PMR systems can fill the space, which could be a great opportunity for the industry.
Providing duplex calling, so the system feels and acts like a mobile radio, but a mission critical one, might be another service that would appeal to customers.
Finally, Cull argued that the business radio community needs to find a way to support mission critical data apps in feasible spectrum bands. He acknowledged that this is tricky as there are no free bands at present, which would mean having to dislodge some incumbents. However, sharing spectrum might provide an alternative way of accessing spectrum.
The industry will continue to provide radio infrastructure and terminals and an increasing number of digital applications. However, Cull said that integration into end users’ operational systems is ‘the big one as that is where the value is added and business radio needs to look at this carefully’.
Looking forward, Cull said it was up to the industry and the FCS to address the issue of resources, such as spectrum, and to make customers aware of the importance of resilience and mission critical solutions. ‘The sting in the tail is: how close are we to this future coming upon us?’ he asked.
‘I reckon we’ve got three, perhaps four years to sort out all of the above. There are too many things expected to come to fruition by 2020 and we will have lost the battle if we haven’t got the importance of resilience in customers’ minds by 2020,’ he concluded.
Ofcom’s Vaughan John, Principal Policy Manager, addressed the UHF Strategic Review (420-470 MHz) whose purpose is to establish a long term spectrum strategy to address the business radio sector’s needs and ensure there is efficient use of UK spectrum
Vaughan noted: ‘Voice is still the predominant requirement; that was the very clear message that has come back, and while we see some requirement for data, we’ve not seen evidence of an explosion of data yet. Growth yes, but it is moderate – so perhaps there is not a great need for more spectrum?’
Ofcom’s consultation on the UHF bands has since been published – see full story here. As far as business radio is concerned the main conclusion is that Ofcom does not feel it needs to do anything too drastic, so the likelihood is business radio will see little change in policy.
A report on the FCS’s member survey on future usage of the UHF bands can be found here.
National Farmers Union
The keynote address at the FCS Business Radio Event was given by Suzanne Clear, Senior Advisor (Planning and Rural Affairs) at the National Farmers Union (NFU). She began by pointing out that the NFU is a 55,000-member strong organisation.
The UK agri-food industry is responsible for producing 61% of food eaten in the UK and employs 3.9 million people. Farming is also involved in a far wider supply chain, including tourism and as such is has a wider environmental and economic impact. For example, farms produce half of the UK’s 8.5GW of solar power capacity and 20% of its wind power.
It also uses a wide variety of radio communications out in the field including radios used in harvesting, the deployment of many different types of technology in farm machinery such as GPS, drones, and for security – CCTV, tracking devices, and renewable energy systems.
However, Clear said: ‘Our biggest digital challenge is the lack of superfast broadband and complete mobile coverage. 16% of farms have no cellular coverage and only 4% had superfast broadband in 2015 out of 800 surveyed. Upload and download speeds are often less than 2Mbps in rural areas.
Clear threw down a challenge to the business radio community asking how it could help the future farming. She also reminded the audience that they should not forget the value of voice communications in farming, as it is still an important application. She concluded by encouraging the industry to look at how it can help the farming community integrate its communication systems with other technologies.