In the market for... two-way radio
Written by: James Atkinson | Published:

Two-way radio systems have been around a long time, but there are still plenty of pitfalls for the unwary when purchasing new equipment, as James Atkinson reveals

Two-way mobile radio systems are an expensive and often business-critical investment, so it pays to think carefully before choosing a solution, whether you are an existing user or a first-time buyer. But where to start?

Andrew Wilson, managing director at Hytera distributor Syndico, observes that every customer is different, and every potential system will require its own individual planning and design. “As with any requirement, the customer should start off with their total wish list of how they would like the system to work, and then the dealer can design the system around those requirements.”

Ian Lockyer, marketing manager at Icom UK, says: “I think the first thing an organisation should do is put a project team together of interested parties and ask themselves the following simple questions. Why do I need a two-way radio system? What can it do for my operations and health and safety? And who will be using it?”

“You need to consider how many users you have and whether you will want to increase the size of your system,” says Chris Cant, product manager (systems and solutions) at Hytera UK. “What functionality do you currently have and will you want more? What frequencies have you got and in what location? You also want to look at what software platform your system is on and what APIs it supports. How open is it? Flexibility is crucial.”

Motorola Solutions likes to cite its mantra of the five Cs – coverage, capacity, control, capability and cost – as a good way of focusing on requirements. “With capacity it is not just a case of how many people will use the system, but how often and if they just want voice or to overlay data as well. Location-based apps will use up bandwidth,” points out Sean Fitzgerald, solutions marketing manager at Motorola Solutions.

He argues that the capability of the system is perhaps the most important consideration. “You need to decide what functionality you want. It is key that the customer sits down and thinks about this before investing.” Naturally, cost is a major consideration too.

“Customers need to weigh up the cost of buying the system against the [value] to be gained through the efficiency and productivity gains and safety enhancements the system provides. They then need to consider what financial model to adopt: a capex model or lease operating model,” says Fitzgerald.

Scalability is another major factor. “If you have a business you intend to grow, so radio user numbers will increase, or the geographic area will change over time, you should understand how the system is able to scale up to meet those requirements,” says Jamie Bishop, director of marketing and business development, EMEA at Tait Communications.

What radio standard?
Customers today face a somewhat bewildering choice of two-way radio standards ranging from traditional analogue systems, unlicensed PMR 446, to the newer digital standards such as dPMR, DMR and NXDN, not to mention the more expensive, but feature-rich, TETRA and P25 standards.

“The standard you opt for will partly be determined by how proprietary the system you are aspiring to buy is. If it is a DMR supplier, do they use the AIS (application interface specification) protocol, so you are not locked into one vendor ecosystem? You can then mix vendor products and access more apps, so that when you want to expand you can you do so with more choice,” argues Bishop.

Wilson notes that the decision behind which manufacturer and technology to choose is often steered by dealers’ recommendations and the influence they have over the customer. “Overall, as with any other industry, the type and complexity of the end-user requirement combined with available budget will determine the right solution for the end-user.”

Resilience
Another important consideration for end-users is deciding just how robust the radio system should be. However, it can be a bit tricky to assess what levels of redundancy to invest in, as Icom’s Lockyer explains.

“The problem is that there is little material available that is specifically targeted at resilient radio communications of this type. There are many cases where the purchasing professionals have bought on ‘lowest cost’ instead of what they needed. They just had no way of telling the difference,” he reports.

However, Lockyer points to a recently released assessment scheme on the subject issued by the FCS Business Radio Council – ‘FCS 2020: Resilience Levels in Business Radio Systems’. “It provides a straightforward, ‘5-Level’ scheme that allows non-technical people to define their resilience requirements systematically, and it also allows the industry to sensibly raise this discussion with the prospective customer, so that at least they end up with something that is fit for purpose,” he explains.

Hytera’s Cant notes that redundancy considerations come quite high up the list of those investing in a system. “Users need to ask themselves what happens if part or all of the communication system fails. Can you live without it or not? The right level of resilience should be based on the criticality of the operations and systems your organisation depends on.”

Choosing a reseller/dealer
It should be apparent from all the above that choosing the right reseller or dealer partner is critical to selecting the most appropriate radio system and for its ongoing support.

“If it is about protecting staff, business systems and assets, then choose reputable companies who have been around for a good while and who will stay around for a considerable time to come,” says Motorola’s Fitzgerald. “If they have close and long-standing ties with manufacturers, they will be able to choose, install and support better.”

Lockyer recommends that organisations draw up a list of two-way radio dealers based on location and the services they provide. “Research their credentials including company history, industry and manufacture accreditations, ISO and maybe some of their work. A financial background check might also be worth doing.”

Wilson adds: “I would advise end-users to visit the dealer’s premises and meet with the technical and admin teams to make sure they have the resource to look after them from an after-sale perspective. Also, if a dealer can’t demonstrate a good knowledge of the ins and outs of radio system provision with a business that’s similar to yours, look for one that can.”

Procurement process
When it comes to the actual procurement process, the first thing is to get a list of comparative quotes. “Make sure everything that you want is included in the quote including standard accessories, what level of support you will receive and warranty,” advises Lockyer. “Otherwise, you may be paying that later when you have not budgeted for it.”

If the dealer has worked with the end-user for years and understands the business, the customer may be happy to let it choose the solution, according to Robert Green, marketing manager at Hytera UK. However, he recommends that the customer should ask the dealer to demonstrate the product, or even set up a trial.

Wilson adds the caveat that customers should look beyond the upfront capex costs. “Because of the importance of the after-sales support with a radio system, the upfront price of the equipment should be secondary to the ongoing cost and value of the maintenance contract attached to the project.”

Aftercare
Aftercare is hugely important and each customer needs to decide what level of ongoing support they require for system and hardware maintenance, updates and repairs. A manufacturer’s warranty is the obvious place to start.

“Does the reseller offer a support package that is warranted by the manufacturer? It is a sign of the professionalism of the partner whether they are offering that sort of thing and it should be taken out,” insists Tait’s Bishop.

“PMR systems today are IT investments, as they are heavily software-based,” he points out. “So it is the same as any other IT procurement. If it is very small and simple you probably do not need much support, but if it grows, the solution will need to be serviced.”

“The level of aftercare depends on the service and support package you want,” says Hytera’s Green. “Some provide 24/7 cover; others may provide six-monthly upgrades for firmware. How the system is monitored and managed is another key consideration.”

Motorola’s Fitzgerald agrees: “It is important to have someone who can manage the system to update address books on radios or install software upgrades. Good resellers will probably offer on-site cover or generally maintain and evolve the system by adding new features, replacing batteries and headsets and so on. You want someone who understands the full end-to-end system.”

Installation
When it comes to installing the radio system, Fitzgerald warns: “People often want to reduce cost, or cut corners to get things done quickly, but that short-term thinking can lead to problems. Make sure the reseller knows and understands your requirements before you start. If you change something half-way through the installation, you may hit problems.”

“Whoever is managing the project needs to work with all the departments and groups in the business to try and capture their needs ahead of installation,” says Hytera’s Cant. “The actual planning and installation should come down to the dealer. Terminals are not a problem, but there is always a lead time on delivering the infrastructure, so the dealer needs to plan that in.”

Tait’s Jamie Bishop advises finding installers in the UK that adhere to the FCS 1331 ‘Code of Practice for Business Radio Site Engineering: 2013’ and the FITAS (FCS Installer Training and Accreditation Scheme) FCS 1362:2016 ‘UK Code of Practice for the installation of mobile radio and related ancillary equipment in land based vehicles’.

“It is also important that the end-to-end equipment is of a good standard with good-quality combiners, antennas and other peripheral equipment,” says Bishop. They should be checked every 12 months as part of the support package or else the radio can drift off-frequency.”

Future proofing
Finally, it is of course wise to invest in a system that has some juice in the tank to accommodate expansion and upgrades over time. “You need an established manufacturer that has a forward-looking portfolio of solutions,” says Fitzgerald. “You can start out with a simple system, then evolve and grow it. Once you have installed a system, you can always add more functionality.”

Green advises customers to check how easy it is to add on new features, install updates and get the latest firmware. “How easy is it to get hold of the support and engineering teams, or the sales team working with authorised partners? Can the system adapt to future requirements?”

The latter is perhaps of critical importance for two-way radio systems and their vendors as customers are increasingly likely to want their PMR system to interconnect with other types of communication technology and IT systems. Bishop says: “You may want to look at whether your PMR system can connect push-to-talk devices with mobile cellular devices, as you may want to communicate beyond the PMR coverage area, or communicate with other types of devices within the PMR coverage area. If you do not see this requirement now, you may well need it in the future. It’s about providing converged, multi-mode solutions and devices – this is the future.”

What to consider: the main dos and don’ts of procuring two-way radio

  • Do spec out your requirements carefully before investing, paying attention to the level of resilience and availability you require
  • Do ensure your system is easy to scale up in the future and the vendor has a clear development road-map
  • Do choose your delivery partner with care and check they have close links to manufacturer(s)
  • Do insist on equipment demos or even set up a trial
  • Do ensure you have an aftercare agreement that provides the support package you need now and in the future.
  • Don’t overspec, you can add more functionality later as required
  • Don’t ignore spectrum availability issues, especially if you’re in a crowded urban area; consider less-mainstream spectrum options
  • Don’t cut corners when it comes to planning and installation
  • Don’t forget to assess what spares, accessories and service upgrades you need
  • Don’t ignore the potential for interconnecting with other systems.



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