The shock of the new
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Head of business radio for the Federation of Communication Services, Tim Cull speaks to Philip Mason about the threats and opportunities facing the industry in an increasingly data-aware business communications landscape

For anyone with a background in the UK business comms sector, there are few more respected names than Tim Cull, the current head of business radio for the Federation of Communication Services (FCS).

Having initially begun his career as an R&D engineer in civil defence, he moved on to design devices for Motorola, working on a variety of projects for the company, including the Channel Tunnel operational radio systems.

He has been with the FCS since 2010, where his task is to influence public policy on behalf of the organisation’s members. There is no one better qualified to give their opinion on the current state of the UK’s business radio landscape – or on the opportunities and threats facing it as we move into an increasingly data-driven future.

Licensing assignment system
Speaking of his time at the Federation of Communication Services, Cull says his function is simply to help members optimise their business, through the organisation’s work carried out with regulatory bodies such as Ofcom. One of the best and most recent examples of this is the FCS’s work to help reform the business radio licensing assignment system.

“Right now, the business radio assignment system for licences is based on an assumption that there could be interference if you had two people working on the same channel in the same physical area,” says Cull. “Following an analysis – and taking into account skill on the part of contemporary providers – we believe that number is too low. Things are basically reaching saturation, particularly in places like London, where no more licences were being assigned in the UHF2 band. Soon, that will be the case in quite a few other metropolitan areas too.”

He continues: “We made the point to Ofcom, which is now in the process of changing the number to three in the first instance, and in the fullness of time perhaps to four. Now we look towards addressing the demand for the data-only transmissions that are anticipated and need to be managed in the correct way. That’s an example of the sort of thing I do. That the process has been so effective is a real compliment to Ofcom, because in other countries, the answer would have been simply no, irrespective of consequences.”

The FCS’s achievements around licensing have taken place against a broader background of Ofcom’s 2014/15 review of the UHF spectrum between 420 and 470 MHz (i.e. UHF 1 and 2), prompted in part by questions over increasing usage levels. According to Cull, however, there are equally important questions to consider, primarily around mission-critical data and the growing expectation of users, which seems to be developing in parallel with LTE.

Mission-critical data
Since he first entered it in 1980, Cull has seen numerous, often huge, changes to the communications landscape, such as business radio’s move from analogue to digital technology, a process that began almost a decade ago.

Very little can compare, however, to organisations’ opportunity to put mission-critical data into their daily operations alongside voice, the implications of which stretch into the next ten years and beyond. It is a development that Cull refers to as nothing less than the herald of a second digital revolution. The most high-profile such project is the burgeoning Emergency Services Network. Through it, the UK government is hoping to provide public safety officials with the means to not only speak to each other, but also send video, access the internet and so on.

Quite naturally, non-emergency businesses are now also changing their comms strategy too, tantalised by the prospect of content being sent instantly to their operatives in the field. While this is clearly useful, according to Cull, it is not something that should be taken lightly, particularly in sectors such as energy supply.

“Mission-critical data is a big issue for me,” says Cull. “It wasn’t important at all for decades, but we’re now seeing an unstoppable creep towards it becoming very important indeed. That’s going to define the future.

“We’re in a comfortable situation, because customers are essentially supplementing their business radio with low-priority data needs provided through mobile network providers. However, if that paradigm changes, we’re going to need a mission- or even business-critical, high-reliability data service, and the technology for doing that still isn’t fully formed or defined.”

He continues: “The other big thing to consider is that resilience requirements differ from customer to customer, with – as yet – no global standard for hi-spec, mission-critical LTE to hold things together. There was talk around developing that, but it all seems to have gone sotto voce, as far as I can see.

“Believe it or not, the emergency services are not at the top level when it comes to the need for resilience of service – that would be sectors where there’s immediate risk to life if things go wrong, such as aviation. The Emergency Services Network will be great when it’s finished, but it’s not a benchmark from which LTE resilience can be judged across the board.”

Cull is pessimistic that the commercial networks will help develop a standard for mission-critical use, citing as the main reason prohibitive cost. There are also, he believes, currently no examples of high-data-rate technology that would satisfy more stringent requirements. “You don’t know what you’ve actually got with a system until it works or it doesn’t – and if it doesn’t, that could lead to people getting hurt. Financial or legal redress is one thing, but I honestly don’t care about that if there are corpses all over the floor.”

Tens of thousands of base stations
There are numerous changes facing business radio, both technological – as related above – and political/socio-economic, as represented by Brexit. As it happens, Cull isn’t overly concerned with the latter, primarily because of his (not-unreasonable) belief that society will still need business-critical radio whatever happens. The global nature of the comms market, meanwhile, will also ensure that standards are maintained, with or without the UK being subject to EU legislation, with devices being produced according to what Cull calls “the most stringent regime” (which, at this point, isn’t the UK).

He does have a concern, though, when it comes 5G, particularly in relation to whether the inevitably massive cost will be justified by the benefits it will be able to provide to businesses.

“The 5G story is complicated because – depending on who you talk to – it could be a very expensive solution for a problem that may or may not exist,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t know if it’s going to be a success or not. But what I do know is that if you start putting base stations all over the place, which they’ll have to do because the frequency which 5G works at is so high, you’re going to have to think seriously about cost.

“Ultimately, you’re looking at tens of thousands of base stations, with potentially every single one of them needing a battery back-up of up to five days. If I suggest something like that to our members, people are going to look at me like I’ve gone mad.”

He continues: “The recent move where the UK’s been looking at other bands is obviously sensible, but how that all fits together and works on a global basis is yet to be discussed. Having said all that, I agree that we do need a bolt-hole in the event that critical data starts being needed in big numbers. If 5G is the answer, then bring it on.”

Speaking about where the industry will be in the next ten years, Cull is unequivocal that customers’ demands are only going to grow. “Physical needs won’t have changed – food, electrical supply, and so on,” he says. “But everything will have to be faster and more efficient across the board to deliver increasingly high productivity. Going back to our earlier topic, that means more data. The track record of business using consumer services in a mission-critical environment isn’t great. Hopefully somewhere we’ll be able to meet in the middle.”

CV – Tim Cull
Tim Cull owns and manages Telecom Policy Services, which provides contracted support in a range of areas, including radio-communications services and environmental policy. He previously worked for Motorola, assisting the development of the company’s communications products, including both hardware and software design.

He subsequently moved into government relations, working on broadband communications-related matters, and in particular professional radio spectrum policy.


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