What's Radio over IP?
Written by: Jon Severs | Published:

With spectrum availability an increasing concern in the capital, Jon Severs takes a look at radio over IP technology, which removes the need for a radio licence

Traditional two-way radio networks are an often-unacknowledged operational necessity for the majority of companies. A good installation coupled with a maintenance agreement with a reputable dealership means radio systems can easily fade into the background. Additionally because the technology is well-established the costs aren’t extravagant enough to attract the concern of many procurement departments.

But is this status quo detrimental? Are companies failing to future-proof themselves or get their money’s worth by not looking at what else is on the market? Those pushing an alternative to traditional two-way radios – radio over IP – would argue yes.

IP radio systems are used in the same way as a standard radio; with individual and group calling options and they are fully duplex. But instead of using the UHF2 band they use a building’s existing Wi-Fi network.

According to radio manufacturer Icom’s marketing manager Ian Lockyer one of the chief benefits of using Wi-Fi is that you don’t need a licence. Indeed, the licence-free benefit has been one of the key marketing messages focused upon in the UK thus far. It has been claimed that in many parts of the country radio licences are increasingly hard to obtain, due to lack of spectrum availability for business applications. For example, in London Icom says it is virtually impossible to get a licence for a UHF2 radio scheme.

However, while acknowledging there is not plenty of surplus spectrum around for business licences, Ofcom says that stating a licence is “impossible” to get may be pushing things a little far.

“The ability of Ofcom to assign a frequency in UHF2 is very much dependent on the requirements of the system; if you need a simple channel for in-building use then you are more likely to get a channel than if you require a duplex channel to cover London,” says an Ofcom spokesperson. “[But] our technical team can usually accommodate requests. There is not a blanket moratorium on supplying spectrum in UHF2, it is judged on a case by case basis.”

So things may not be quite as bad as those offering IP radio systems portray, but there is enough in Ofcom’s carefully chosen words to concern companies that might want radio scheme licences in the future. And there is enough to warrant a closer look at alternatives to the usual go-to systems.

It is important to note that no-one is trying to sell IP radio as a way of phasing out existing analogue and digital radio systems, but more to work alongside them and, to some extent, reduce some of the spectrum demands starting to cause issues.

“We see it providing further choice for the consumer alongside analogue and digital radio offerings,” explains Lockyer.

Gary Leatherby, managing director at radio systems supplier Chatterbox, sees facilities management as the main usage area.

“We envisage that the typical user will be London-based, so struggling to obtain a licence,” he says. “Key sectors we are looking at [for this technology] are facilities management for residential and commercial buildings, events, catering, and retail.”

Main benefits
Because of the status quo mentioned earlier, persuading these sectors to look at an alternative may be difficult. Therefore the likes of Icom and Chatterbox have chosen to focus their arguments around bottom line benefits on cost and productivity, rather than spectrum availability.

“If you are looking for a system where you just want push to talk from radio to radio or an all-call basis this [IP radio] would possibly be an expensive option,” says Lockyer. “[But] if you are a company looking at 20 radio units and a repeater then this is extremely cost-effective. You also have the savings on installation from [not having] repeaters, leaky feeders, licensing, as well as [reduced] labour costs.

“To put communications in a building you would traditionally use a distributed antenna system, maybe including a lift shaft, to get full coverage. With IP radio the process is much simpler as it uses wireless access points around the building.”

“If Wi-Fi is already in place little additional infrastructure is required,” confirms Leatherby. “It is very simple to install so this represents a saving too. The handsets and controllers are very price competitive versus traditional alternatives.”

He adds that one of the advantages of having a more low-cost and minimal disruption installation process is that it becomes viable for short-term use. “Because it can be installed quickly it is suitable for short-term hire, as a recent installation we led at the Royal Opera House demonstrates [see below]. It means clients do not have to invest in a permanent system.”

Lockyer claims IP radio is more flexible for users too. “When a communicator is connected to an optional headset the system is also capable of hands-free full duplex communication, allowing users to transmit/ receive concurrently,” he says.

Despite all these cost and productivity benefits, however, being an initial adopter of new technology is often an expensive business. As such, companies may be tempted to wait until the technology becomes more widespread and economies of scale kick in to deliver lower prices.

However, “We do not foresee significant reductions in the price of CALM IP as it gains market share as it has been priced to be competitive from launch,” says Leatherby.

Despite being launched in the UK 18 months ago awareness and take-up of IP radio is still not widespread. Lockyer says momentum is building though.

“The IP radio system has been promoted to the Icom dealer network, who are traditionally PMR dealers, and we have had success with systems nationwide in a number of different industries,” he explains.

“This is increasing, with deployments in diverse sectors such as mining, listed buildings, hotels, sport, maritime, retail, security and even on skyscrapers. The main issues that are pushing this growth are licensing, lack of spectrum availability and flexible installation. This is making the system even more attractive to business radio users.

“We expect that the range of industries will increase quite rapidly as the good word about this technology gets about and dealers grow more comfortable with it. We also believe that enquiries will increase when organisations find that it starts to become prohibitive to install a radio system in, say, a stately home. There is also the issue of a lack of available spectrum and licences in larger conurbations.”

He says there are two types of standard system: a light version for 20 users with dispatch software, and a full version with a maximum of 100 users (which can be daisy chained with other systems). The technology has also been adapted by some users to create bespoke systems.

“The technology has been used in many inventive ways; such as on safety craft as well as on ocean-going fishing vessels,” says Lockyer. “The applications for this technology are numerous and only defined by an engineer’s imagination.”

Chatterbox only has the Royal Opera House installation currently, but is in discussion with new clients.

Key concerns
Radio over IP is not without its challenges. Anyone who has worked in a large office will tell you that company Wi-Fi is not always as robust as it should be. And Wi-Fi blind spots are not unknown either.

Some experts have concerns about its use in mission-critical situations. In emergencies communications have to be completely robust and it has been suggested that for some companies this might mean installing a traditional radio network alongside the Wi-Fi IP system as a safeguard against Wi-Fi or power outages. Of course, having to do that would make the IP installation pretty pointless. However, Lockyer explains mission-critical applications are not a major use case for radio over IP. “Most applications for this technology are for business, and it does require a robust Wi-Fi system,” he says. “The businesses we have dealt with already have a robust Wi-Fi system and a dedicated department and processes to make sure that it stays robust and not open to disruption; resilience is a critical issue.

“The majority of access points that have been installed have been from manufacturers such as Cisco and Hewlett Packard, with the majority having POE [Power over Ethernet]. If the power goes down a battery backup or a power generator will kick in, providing power to the access points, which will keep the Wi-Fi network going. The handsets draw little power so have the potential to carry on working in full mode for up to 20 hours.”

Leatherby, however, does concede that the company does not advise the use of its CALM IP system for critical use.

“Because the system relies on a building’s Wi-Fi it is only as reliable as that,” he concedes. “For this reason Chatterbox does not recommend the use of CALM IP for critical communications.”

Another key issue is educating the market, says Lockyer. “The challenges have been in selling the technology to the business radio community,” he adds. “I think that there is trepidation because this isn’t normal radio technology but the application of radio technology in a modern way. It may even be outside of their comfort zone.”

He’s confident of getting people onside though, as the system is more akin to the language the buyers are used to.

“It just takes a new way of thinking, and as well as radio specialists we have found that IT professionals are able to see this. Instead of dealing with repeaters it is dealing with [the] language of SSID, IP addresses, MAC addresses... this is something they understand.”

Whether it is in their own language or not, having an extra element sitting on their Wi- Fi network may not be something a lot of IT directors would be keen on. Company Wi-Fi tends to be business-critical already; some may fear another element that is safety-critical too would be an unwelcome intruder.

Leatherby says one way to tackle these fears is for the IT department to be involved in discussions from the start so they can see how little disruption adoption of the IP system would entail. The effect on available bandwidth of the IP host system is minimal – according to Leatherby each radio uses 150 kbps per transmission (300 kbps for full duplex).

As for security, secure encrypted communication is provided by the WPA-PSK and WPA-PSK2 wireless security protocols.

Radio over IP for the Royal Opera House

Credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

In 2015 the Royal Opera House (ROH) in London staged a month-long series of free events called Deloitte Ignite. The aim was to get visitors involved in a diverse range of activities and performances. The events were scattered across a wide area, from the Covent Garden piazza to tunnels and basement offices, so for this event to run effectively it needed an appropriate communications system.

After reviewing a number of systems Chatterbox was chosen and its IP radio system, CALM IP, had its first customer.

The product won out for several reasons. Firstly, there were concerns about the availability of a radio system licence for two-way radio – the ROH specified a permanent two-way system as non-negotiable. Secondly, the historic nature of the building and the difficult and diverse architecture of some of the event venues made installation of a conventional radio system tricky. And tricky usually means expensive. Finally, the ROH already had a Wi-Fi network whose access points provided total coverage, so no additional access points needed to be installed.

The modifications for the system to work, then, were minimal. Two Icom IP1000C system controllers were installed to monitor all radio activity and 25 Icom IP100H handsets with headsets were supplied. All of this was hired rather than bought, further reducing costs for the venue.

“We were delighted that Chatterbox was able to provide a system on short-term hire to give us the coverage we needed,” says Tom Nelson, creative producer at the ROH. “It was perfect for our regular but short-term requirement and has saved us investing in permanent infrastructure.”

The future
As both Icom and Chatterbox are keen to point out, IP radio is at the early stages so its relative lack of penetration into the market and the low awareness of its existence should not be seen as a comment on its usability. Lockyer says this should very much be viewed as an initial foray into the comms sector.

“This is just phase one of a programme into this new technology,” he reveals. “Icom has invested a huge amount of resource into refining it. We expect over time to see further developments and new products.”

Will there be a plethora of UK companies awaiting those iterations with the excitement of an Apple launch? Perhaps not, but with struggles to get radio licences likely to only get worse and the appeal of a less cumbersome infrastructure, IP radio may well catch on for multiple uses. Yes there are challenges, but the status quo is never a fertile bed for innovation so having a new technology shake up the market can only be a positive thing.

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