Spirit of optimism
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Land Mobile takes a close look at three recently developed business communications solutions, discerning increasing user focus on the part of manufacturers going into 2022

It may be somewhat of a cliché to say it, but with each new year inevitably also comes the promise of fresh possibilities and new ways of thinking.

For the business communications sector, this could certainly be the case in 2022, with an increasingly exotic variety of products and solutions continuing to be adopted across pretty much every business vertical. At the same time, we also seem to be reaching the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a development which will likely free up not just movement but also investment.

In this article, we are going to try and foster this spirit of optimism by focusing on several new and innovative solutions, developed by different companies across the sector. While they may be disparate in nature, each of these products is linked by the intention to solve a very specific operational or business problem, as dictated by the requirements of users/the market.

Make it easy

Initially developed and adopted over a decade ago, the TETRA standard is currently facing a potentially uncertain future (at least in the long term), due to increasing interest in the use of broadband within safety-critical sectors. It still needs to evolve in the here and now, however, not just to stay relevant as a technology but also to accommodate the changing needs of its many current users.

One of the most interesting recent solutions to emerge in the TETRA realm is Sepura’s AutoMate, which, as described by the company’s marketing material, “improves an organisation’s operational performance and staff safety by enabling radio automation through geofencing and situational triggers”.

This customised functionality is intended to streamline processes while also eliminating user error within hazardous or busy environments. If you have read our ‘big interview’ from this issue, it will probably come as no surprise to learn that the technology was originally developed in relation to the company’s work with the Australian mining sector.

Discussing its origin, Sepura’s worldwide sales director, Terence Ledger, says: “AutoMate originated as a concept as something for use in the Australian mines. In that environment, you’ve got very large vehicles, big holes in the ground and lots of people moving around. It’s very dangerous.

“They wanted something that would enable them to geofence certain areas, so that if a radio user was there, the control room would know automatically. You could then alert the user via their TETRA device, automatically place them within a certain talk group, and so on. The triggers can be pre-set geofence Bluetooth beacons or other external sensors deployed within the environment."

Drilling down into the specific requirements of the mining sector, Ledger says that much of the desired functionality revolved around the use of short data and the sending out of automated messages. The alerts mentioned above essentially meant making the user instantly aware through audio and visual means.

Moving the conversation on to the emergency services and how they might use the product, Ledger continues: “Thinking of the public safety piece in particular, let’s say you have a situation where a police officer is going down the M11 [Sepura is based near Cambridge]. At the top of the motorway, they could be on a talk group for Cambridgeshire Constabulary, while at the bottom they’re on one for Essex. With geofencing, they’d swop automatically without the user having to worry about it.”

Issues with the network

Our next innovation is in the midst of being developed by Plextek, again with very specific use-cases in mind. Whereas AutoMate streamlines the communication process, however, that company’s work in the field of directional antennas is intended to mitigate interference with it.

At the risk going over information that readers will likely already know, handheld devices tend to operate via the use of omni-directional antennas, which – in Plextek’s words – “are equally sensitive to signals arriving from all directions”. While this mode of operation has obvious advantages, there are also apparent drawbacks, not least when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the signal.

For instance, the more radios there are in ‘hearing’ distance of a particular transmission, the more likely contention becomes, something which in turn needs to be mitigated through coordination of time/frequency. (This, rather pleasingly, is known as the ‘cocktail party’ problem). By contrast, the company’s single-direction antenna concept is intended to enable direct transmission straight towards the intended recipient, while at the same time “separating out signals that arrive from different directions”.

This is intended to improve scalability – particularly within something like a mesh network – while at the same time embedding resistance to jamming. Discussing these use-cases in relation to the origin of the concept, Plextek’s technology director, Aled Catherall, says: “The work came out of interest we had from a particular partner, who I can’t name. Suffice to say that different organisations have different priorities, for instance controlling their radio signature, or attempting to be robust in response to someone trying to stop communication. Another priority, of course, is network capacity.

“Regarding the latter, the solution is going to be relevant anywhere you’re going to find multiple radios trying to talk at the same time. That could certainly include, for instance, the industrial automation environment. There’s a potential advantage to be had with this in critical communications as well.”

He illustrates the ‘network capacity’ use-case with a personal example of a recent drone flight being interrupted by an IoT transmitter (using LoRa), positioned on a nearby wind turbine. It was, in his words, “spewing straight across the comms bands”. According to the company, the single-direction antennas, once developed, will be suitable for use in devices ranging from two-way radio and smartphones to IoT devices.

Spectrum unlocked

Staying on the subject of the network, our final innovation is Nokia’s MulteFire, which the company describes as intended to “unlock global unlicensed spectrum for private 4.9G/LTE”. (Unlicensed spectrum is a term used to describe frequencies which have not been designated in relation to a particular use, such as by the utilities sector).

Launched in the summer of last year, the product was marketed as an “industry first”, combining what Nokia refers to as its Industrial MulteFire router 700 equipment, alongside an access point for the company’s Digital Automation Cloud.

Discussing the MulteFire solution at the time of launch, a spokesperson for the company said: “It is suitable for both permanent networking and temporary deployments, in use-cases such as sporting and cultural events, media broadcasting, construction sites, field hospitals and public emergencies. With deployment available globally, it can be used by customers currently without access to licensed spectrum or to bring additional capacity as a complementary layer to wireless networks.”

According to Nokia’s head of enterprise solutions marketing, Stephane Daeuble, the idea for MulteFire began to germinate around five years ago, with the company already exploring the potential of private networking using unlicensed spectrum, in collaboration with chip manufacturer Qualcomm.

Discussing this, he says: “We set out with [Qualcomm] to effectively take 3GPP standard 4G for use with unlicensed spectrum. They were already planning to facilitate that, in order to provide adequate downlink capacity, via innovations that you may have heard about.

“However, we felt that we needed to develop the downlink and the uplink together, for the purpose of facilitating full private networks. This resulted in a first release which defined the necessary standards, and what needed to be accomplished in order to operate 4G in the 5GHz spectrum. We felt this presented a really good opportunity because of the over-450MHz of bandwidth available globally. It was a prime unlicensed band for us.”

Companies involved in the development and manufacture of business communications are becoming increasingly user-focused. Couple this with the innovation being demonstrated around the technology itself and it is hard not to be optimistic – both in this current, still new, year, and beyond.

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