In the market for... shared radio networks
Written by: Vaughan O’Grady | Published:

Many businesses need two-way radio, but sometimes buying your own system isn’t feasible. So how do you ensure that a network operator has your best interests at heart? Vaughan O’Grady investigates

Two-way radio offers organisations many advantages: one-to-many communication, short call setup time, high levels of availability and resilience, and a host of advanced features in some cases such as location tracking and man-down. However, owning and operating your own wide-area network may not always be the best option, especially for businesses working under OPEX rather than CAPEX models to avoid depreciation and unexpected bills.

Samuel Hunt, director of two-way radio services provider Maxxwave, which owns the UK’s largest independent communications network Ambitalk, says: “Owning and operating your own network is fine, and many utilities insist upon it because most networks do not meet their exacting demands. But the costs are very high, and your average customer would not be able to afford this, so sharing the costs with other users brings it within manageable expectations.”

That is important for Maxxwave’s customer base, described as “everything and anything from blue light ambulances and gritters to buses, taxis, security guards, couriers, traffic wardens and farmers”.

Karl Beach, director of SFL Mobile Radio, whose digital radio networking solution WirralNET serves local utilities companies, skip hire, local government and the NHS, adds: “Networks provided by dealerships will be fully serviced and cost effective; most end users wouldn’t have the communication ability to afford to set up.”

So what do you need to consider when choosing between different public access mobile radio (PAMR) or wide area networks run by two-way radio dealerships and distributors?

It helps to have questions ready. Coverage is a good starting point. Ask for graphs or maps to show how wide an area is covered (although few networks are nationwide and most customers wouldn’t require them to be). There are other pertinent technical questions too, says Hunt. For instance: “Is it in a frequency band where spectrum is hard to get such as UHF or parts of VHF, and once customers are loaded onto it will the performance reduce?”

That said, it’s worth establishing the access level you require: 100 per cent access guaranteed – say during emergencies – may cost more.

You should find out about the operator’s sites: how multiple sites are interconnected, whether there is more than one independent connection into every site, how long on-site battery life is, and whether the sites are alarmed. Some idea of who mans the control room and how it is equipped would also be useful. Not to mention how fault reporting is managed. “On our network when there is a fault we get text messages within five minutes,” says Hunt. “But you would be surprised how many networks rely on the customers to phone up and say there is a fault.” Although, he adds, “with true network redundancy a customer wouldn’t know there is a fault”.

Which itself is another important question to ask during your search: what level of redundancy does the network offer? Hunt says: “Any downtime is unacceptable to most of our customers. So the only way to guarantee 100 per cent uptime is to make sure that if a fault occurs nobody will even notice.”

Beach suggests that potential customers should examine their own specific requirements such as “how many channels or work groups will be involved – for example departmental, security, logistics, factory floor? What features do they require; GPS, lone worker, voice recording, mapping?”

You should also be aware of your own limitations. Does your business involve basements, tunnels, indoor car parks and other areas where radio cannot transmit, asks Beach?

Tim Cull, head of business radio for FCS, the industry association for companies that deliver professional voice and data communications solutions to business and public sector customers in the UK, highlights a number of other factors: ease of doing business, for example, is especially important for users who have limited understanding of radio.

Cost is another consideration, but by no means a straightforward one. Cull explains: “PMR is an efficiency aid: the cost of the system itself can be offset against the efficiency improvements.” The question here is are you spending too little? Cutting corners isn’t advisable – even more so if a cheaper contract means that an employee’s safety is threatened, a call for assistance fails and legal costs are incurred.

The present shouldn’t be your only concern either. Ask your would-be supplier whether future provision is guaranteed. What is the network’s migration path and how will that affect you? In the case of MPT 1327, PMR446 or tiered standards like DMR, this could be prudent. And your own likely future needs, if your company plans to expand say, should be taken into account.

You could simply go with consumer cellular. But a public 2G/3G/4G network is less likely to be useful for mission-critical communications where instant, reliable and push-to-talk connectivity using rugged devices is often required. Mobile can be used for some data requirements, but when these become mission-critical the same caveats apply.

Returning to two-way radio, there are other issues to consider when entering a commercial arrangement with a network provider. Most obvious perhaps (but always worth mentioning) are ease of use and whether equipment from different manufacturers will interoperate on the same system.

And there are still more questions to be asked about sites. The operator’s ease of access for site repairs (many of which are rented from third parties) and the security of their on-site equipment are important. So too is overall network resilience in case of flooding, lightning strikes or surges. Both Cull and Hunt also highlight the standard to which a site is built. “If you have all these requirements the last thing you want is Joe Blow down the road putting it together,” says Cull. Referring to what he calls “ageing of components” Hunt adds: “faults are more likely in five to 10 years’ time… we tend to replace our aerials on a rolling basis every five years”.

Quality of service guarantees and service level agreements (SLAs) will support this effort. “There should be a SLA detailing the uptime and coverage – the provider should happily show you graphs to prove that they actually log this information – and a financial penalty for missing this,” suggests Hunt.

This will automatically answer a number of other questions, Hunt points out. “How they achieve this coverage in terms of site access, overlapping coverage, etc. is irrelevant, because they know that if they do have an outage then there will be severe financial penalties, so they will make sure that there is plenty of overlap!”

Ideally a network provider should, as Beach says, “carry out a full site survey when tailoring the optimum solution, and, most importantly, listen to the customer’s requirements.” But have your questions ready nevertheless. You could even, as Cull points out, use the FCS 1331 Code of Practice for Business Radio Site Engineering to find tips on intelligent questions to ask the responders to your tender.

After all, Cull says, “You have to have absolute assurance whether you’re buying your own [system] or through an operator that when you get it and turn it on it will actually meet your requirements.”

Going it alone?
There may be some advantages to choosing a self-owned and operated network. You are, in theory, totally in control. A small and simple network could pay for itself very quickly. You won’t have to worry about usage spikes from other customers disrupting your calls. And you won’t have to pay a premium for 100 per cent guaranteed access. You can also, suggests FCS’ Tim Cull, disconnect your network if it’s under cyberattack. That would be a fairly drastic response, but at least you wouldn’t have to wait for a decision from a supplier.

However, you will need to have the technical resources to set it all up, solve interference problems, and manage sites yourself. And you may have capacity problems. A shared network might be better placed to offer excess capacity to its traffic, to provide them with guaranteed access. But dimensioning a self-owned and operated network with spare capacity you may never use would be very expensive.

What to consider – the main dos and don'ts of shared radio networks

  • Do choose a reputable supplier
  • Do speak to other people already using the network
  • Do trial the service before you buy
  • Do list what you want the network to do in plain English – and ask for a plain English response
  • Do ask for a service level agreement with financial penalties attached
  • Do check the standard of site engineering (whether FCS 1331 is used, for example). If vehicles are involved check out use of FCS 1362 as well
  • Don’t just buy the cheapest service. It will almost certainly prove more expensive in the long run
  • Don’t let the supplier argue you out of a requirement unless you’re sure you won’t need it. Contract revisions can be expensive
  • Don’t go with a network standard or old analogue network that may be redundant in a few years
  • Don’t ever assume a network is fault-free. Find out how faults are reported and dealt with


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Supporting Information

Related Companies:

Maxxwave Ltd
SFL Mobile Radio
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