Philip Mason talks to Sepura chief technology officer Peter Hudson about the struggles of the past two years, as well as the future of TETRA in an increasingly broadband-centric era.

Towards the middle of last year, Land Mobile ran an article exploring the impact of the previous – COVID-dominated – 18 months on the business communications sector.

Among other things, this took in the impact of the virus itself, as well as palpable changes to the market in response to the development of specific new technologies. Interviewees included SFL representing the supplier side, and Motorola Solutions, who discussed in particular the increasing popularity of Push-to-talk over Cellular.

In this issue, we are revisiting the topic again, only this time looking at the experience of the past two years entirely from the point of view of a major UK-based radio manufacturer in the form of Sepura. According to the company’s chief technology officer, Peter Hudson, while it has certainly not been easy, the period since March 2020 has actually seen increasing opportunities for the company, often from unexpected places.

During the same timespan, meanwhile, the company has also been able to respond to the changing needs of users with some interesting technological developments of its own. This includes concerted efforts to add extra value to its TETRA offering, while at the same time dipping its corporate toe in the burgeoning mission/business-critical broadband market.

A global downturn?

Going back to March of 2020, the initial reaction to COVID-19 on the part of Sepura was, not unreasonably, one of caution. Indeed, Hudson relates that, at the time, the company “battened down the hatches, expecting the worst”.

As the year progressed, however – again, according to Hudson – the situation was gradually revealed to be less drastic than had previously been anticipated, not least due to apparent increasing use of TETRA, ironically enough, because of the virus.

Expanding on this, he says: “We were expecting customers to stop ordering radios, particularly emergency services organisations, which at the time were under immense pressure with other things. In reality, 2020 actually turned out to be a very busy year supporting those customers.

“One reason for that is probably that there are more emergency services personnel now. Also, they’re not sharing devices, specifically because of ongoing concerns around the COVID-19 virus.”

He continues: “The other thing which has been beneficial to us is the number of refreshes of TETRA equipment we’re continuing to see. Of what you would call the ‘traditional’ Sepura police forces, a large proportion engaged in either a full or partial refresh.

“Going back to what I mentioned earlier, we’ve gained a lot of new business, such as winning the contract to supply the Metropolitan Police.”

For Hudson, one key factor informing current TETRA buying patterns among the UK emergency services – including the ‘refreshes’ mentioned above – is the “reasoned approach” he says organisations are taking in the run-up to ESN.

As he rightly identifies, for instance, police forces will still need to interoperate in the interim period before its arrival, something which is only achievable prior to full ESN transition via continuing use of Airwave. At the same time, those same organisations will likely want to provide the benefits of the most up-to-date radio equipment to their people, having already “sweated” legacy stock for over a decade.

Continuing on a similar theme, Hudson goes on to discuss the situation in the company’s other key markets, for instance the Australian mining sector. According to him, this part of the business has also apparently witnessed somewhat of a bumper two years, coinciding with a spike in the price of iron ore.

Discussing this, he says: “Our major customers in Australia are blue chip companies, and when the market is buoyant they invest in technology. It’s one of our biggest commercial markets and we were very concerned about it [in relation to COVID-19], but they’ve responded really well to the pandemic.”

It would appear that, rather than taking any kind of substantial hit, Sepura has actually done pretty well out of these two most peculiar of years. This is not to say it’s been entirely plain sailing, however, with the company still having had to negotiate its way through the same general obstacles as everyone else.

One obvious area where business has fallen off is around aviation, a sector which has clearly seen a massive downturn across the board following months of international lockdowns. At the same time, Sepura is also having to deal with issues within the manufacturing chain itself, particularly when it comes to securing components.

The latter issue – as readers will no doubt be aware – can be traced to a still-ongoing global phenomenon wherein items such as semiconductors are being produced in far fewer numbers due to a variety of factors (not least the residual effects of the pandemic).

Discussing this, Hudson says: “As with every other technology business, there’s currently a real issue when it comes to the supply of components. It’s taken a lot of hard work to ensure we continue to receive the supply of components we need at a sensible lead time and price.

One thing which hasn’t been an issue, however, is Brexit, which according to Hudson the company prepared for by ensuring its product stock beforehand, both at its Cambridge HQ and with partners across Europe. This was, he says, to take account of potential issues with supply routes.

The future of TETRA

Despite COVID-19, the international TETRA market is clearly still lively enough for a company such as Sepura to do decent business, even in trying global circumstances. At the same time, however, it is impossible to ignore other, more long-term, factors which also have the potential to seriously affect the business radio environment going forward. The most obvious of these is the increasing relevance of broadband in both the critical and business sectors.

This is something which Sepura also began to take account of last year, via the development of its first mission-critical LTE solution, designed to be deployed in-vehicle. Launched at Critical Communications World in Madrid, the product is known as the SCU3.

On the one hand, the development of the SCU3 is an intuitive move, taking advantage as it does of opportunities presented by a changing marketplace. At the same time, you have to wonder just how rapidly that market is going to continue to change, and what the ultimate implications of that might be. Just what is the future of TETRA – and, indeed, other narrowband-based technologies – going forward?

As it turns out, at least as Hudson sees it, reports of TETRA’s demise have been exaggerated. “The change process will be a lot slower than people expect,” he says. “I think you’re actually seeing that now, given how long people have been predicting that we’d be using LTE.

“There is a great deal of work to be done to harden the implementation of the mission-critical LTE standard to give the same level of service and reliability that customers currently have from TETRA. There is also the big issue of accessing spectrum for LTE in bands relevant for use for our customer base.

“What we’re seeing at the moment is customers putting in facilities to maintain and expand their TETRA networks up to 2030 and 2035, particularly in Europe. Those networks could run in parallel with broadband, or they could stand alone. There are also many new
TETRA networks being installed around the world.”

‘Customers’ in this instance could mean emergency services (other than in the UK, which is patiently waiting for transition to ESN). It could also mean companies operating in the mining, aviation and utilities sectors, all of which are, quite understandably, risk averse when it comes to the adoption of new technology due to the safety-critical nature of their operations.

Looking at the question specifically from the point of view of the emergency services, Hudson believes that the most accurate barometer in terms of a shift to mission-critical LTE is the Virve 2.0 network in Finland. The Finnish authorities waited several years before putting the wheels properly in motion, announcing network contracts in 2020.

Alongside the shape of the market, meanwhile, the other factor dictating the future of TETRA is its potential for ongoing development as a technology. According to Hudson, considerable evolution is currently taking place in regard to the standard.

He says: “There are currently two main things going on in the ETSI standardisation. First, there’s an emphasis on group addressed packet data, in order to enable the sending of information to multiple recipients via a single transmission. That will lead to an increase in spectrum efficiency.

“Another is an upgrade of the security algorithms, the fruits of which we’ll probably start to see towards the end of this year. That’s primarily in response to the sheer length of time people have been using TETRA.

“There are no security issues due to the algorithms, but as time progresses, it’s important to keep up to date with computational developments such as quantum computing.”

The other way in which value can be added to TETRA, of course, is via improvements to the functionality made by the manufacturer itself. This is also something which Sepura has been heavily engaged in, for instance via its recent AutoMate product.

The past two years have been truly unique, in terms of both challenges and opportunities for the critical and business communications sectors. Sepura’s experience since March 2020 – at least for the most part – provides encouragement for the future.

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