Looking back at 2017: So long and thanks for all the tech
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

As another year draws to an end, Sam Fenwick hears from figures across the wireless comms industry about the trends they have seen in 2017 and their predictions for 2018

Trying to look back on a year can be difficult, as our industry is one of incremental changes and is no respecter of calendars (with possible exceptions for shows like Mobile World Congress and Critical Communications World). It is often easy to identify the main trends, but much harder to predict the pace at which they occur. With those caveats in mind, let’s turn to our contributors’ thoughts on 2017 and the year ahead.

Richard Searle, director at RadioTrade, feels that the radio market continued to grow in 2017 for a number of reasons: “First, end-users are being made aware of the additional features offered by digital two-way radio and this has led to new users as well as more sales to existing users. Secondly, integration skills are strengthening within the channel and this has led to the supply of some very sophisticated solutions to UK industry.”

He adds there is the opportunity for it to grow further in 2018: “Onsite communications plays such a major part in efficiencies, both operationally and commercially, while wide-area opportunities may open up with PoC and end-users may feel that a ‘business-only’ radio device allowing private and group calling is more advantageous than traditional mobile phone devices.”

He doesn’t expect 2018’s trading conditions to be worse than 2017. “RadioTrade’s sales revenue growth through 2017 over 2016 was 56 per cent and we intend to continue this growth trend. We rely on our partners – concentrating on supporting their growth will automatically benefit us.”

Klaus Allion, managing director of ANT Telecommunications, says there is a perception of greater competition because “companies are smarter with their marketing, so it’s easier for a potential customer to find three suppliers rather than just the one they’ve always gone to, and procurement has got a bit stricter so people need three quotes”.

Allion adds: “Companies are starting to migrate analogue radios across to digital mobile radios, some already have migrated their fleets, some of them are in the process of doing so and we would expect our small share of that business to go up in the next year; it’s gone up this year.” However, he expects there will be a shift away from two-way radio given the current level of mobile network coverage and the increasing popularity of rugged smartphones combined with PTT applications.

Allion says competition over pricing has also increased. “There are companies quoting at very low price levels, to the point where you question how they can survive on such low margins – maybe not all of them will survive, they’re fighting for some deals a little bit too hard.” He adds that the above only applies to situations where the customer is requesting “bog-standard radios”.

“When it’s a more involved process, where the radio becomes a safety and lone-worker device, there’s less competition because to do that and to advise the customer correctly, you have to invest like we do in all the equipment, you have to understand it properly and be able to provide the customer with a solution that suits them.”

Gauging from RadioTrade’s partners and the value and complexity of equipment they sell, Searle has “no doubt that partners selling simple voice solutions will be working hard to stand still as device prices drop and margins tighten. Those that engage in solution-selling with the addition of applications have certainly made greater gains. The market is far less congested in the mid- to high-tier solution sectors and partners that have invested in IP skills and application knowledge continue to do well.”

Searle says: “The radio hire business also continues to amaze me with year-on-year growth. Partners with hire fleets can be busy in the summer when perhaps some of the systems business slows, and therefore fully utilise their teams throughout the year rather than through the normal end-of-year (financial and fiscal) peaks.”

Allion adds that this year, ANT has had much more in-depth conversations with its customers regarding the escalation of alerts and alarms, which he attributes to their growing familiarity with such systems. “A lot of customers want to make sure that whatever they invest in is thought through properly.”

One issue that has been impossible to avoid is Brexit, says Allion. “Everything we buy in euros or US dollars became more expensive. We can’t pass the price increase onto our customers, so it hits our margins.”

Searle says it has also seen “some price increases over the past 12 months due to currency exchange rates making the pound weaker against the dollar. I hope we are now over the worst of it.”

"Market conditions have remained roughly the same in the last trading year and have been comparable with other years," says Andy Wilson, Syndico's managing director. "We are fortunate here at Syndico as our major manufacturers have not panicked and put in place price increases using Brexit as an excuse! That was my major concern for this year, other than that PMR seems to exist in a bit of a bubble where not many outside influences affect demand."

He adds that Syndico has seen "another incredible growth year in 2017", which he says has been comparable with 2016 which saw the company win Hytera's prestigious Diamond Award - Global Distributor of the Year. "I am fully expecting to see this growth continue through 2018 and we have made plans internally to manage this growth to ensure that our partners continue to get first class service.

"We have now seen TDMA digital technology really assert itself as the dominant technology in the UK which in turn has resulted in the manufacturers that focus on this technology as being the clear winners."

Wilson says that: "2017 has also been the year where push to talk over cellular technology has made its mark and become an integral part of the PTT landscape. Dealers have finally taken the technology to the heart and we have seen really substantial sales over and above what we could have reasonably expected in this technology. It is no coincidence that the type of resellers who have embraced the new technologies seem to be the clear winners through 2016 and 2017 and I would expect this to be the case through 2018 as well."

"Although it might seem obvious to say that companies who invest in sales and marketing tend to outperform those who don't I still feel that our industry is trailing behind others when it comes to a willingness to advertise our services and the value that our specific type of communication can bring to companies. Syndico will continue to work with our partners in 2018 to try and rectify this situation," Wilson concludes.

Turning to IoT, Arqiva’s Jon Freeman, product and technology director, telecoms and M2M, says MNOs focused this year on delivering 4G coverage. “The opportunity for 2018 is for MNOs to leverage this in new use-cases; including those which require the enablement of NB-IoT and LTE-M functionality.

“However, it’s not just about the technology, rather a shift in approach from ‘best effort networks’ to ‘defined service networks’. We are at the start of a journey towards this vision of delivering discrete services with different service characteristics for mass-market applications (eg, high-volume, non-critical IoT/M2M) from a single set of infrastructure. For ‘mission critical’ M2M communications there will continue to be a need for dedicated and resilient infrastructure and networks.”

From a small-cell perspective, Freeman adds: “During 2017 we saw significant progress in regards to the ongoing legal/site issues with both the proposed end-of-year adoption of the new electronic communications code and revised planning rules for small cells. In parallel, 2017 also brought the first commercial deployments of small cells in the UK and associated confirmation of a ‘standard’ deployment model.

“2018 will be about leveraging these, in the case of small cells, to achieve volume deployment, and in the macro work the practical application of the code. We will also need to agree further developments in areas such as street access rights/permitting, planning and fibre access to efficiently deliver MNO requirements.”

Speaking globally, CCS Insight predicts that “by 2019, a national regulator [will mandate] coverage of transport infrastructure as part of a cellular licence award. The directive is focused on achieving near-universal coverage on principal road and rail routes, most likely using low-band spectrum such as 700MHz, which is particularly suitable for achieving wide-area coverage.”

John Lillistone, head of capacity and coverage products at Arqiva, says: “In-building demand for coverage and capacity remains high, if not higher than ever. With the reliance on mobile devices for work, good-quality coverage and capacity is of increasing importance. We are seeing a shift to the building owners funding more if not all of the costs as the mobile operators focus their investment carefully.”

The push for greater connectivity isn’t confined to buildings and terrestrial transport networks, it’s in the sky as well. Deloitte Global in its ‘Technology, Media and Telecommunications Predictions 2018’ expects that about a quarter of passenger journeys on planes will be on aircraft equipped with in-flight connectivity (IFC), and “this trend implies that within a few years, the airplane may no longer be one of the last remaining connectivity-free zones – in any part of the world”.

Deloitte Global also predicts: “By 2023, lithium-ion is likely to remain the basis of almost all batteries used in smartphones… As of late 2017, there were no batteries technologies on the horizon that appeared to be sufficiently stable and mature to be tested and factored into supply chains that could displace lithium-ion.” However, it does expect smartphone processors to become more efficient and expects over a billion smartphones to be shipped in 2019 with support for Qi, a wireless charging standard.

Failure to comply...
Researchers at WatchGuard Technologies warn that the commoditisation of wireless attack tools is driving Wi-Fi hackers to focus their attention on intercepting and decoding traffic from wireless devices based on protocols such as Zigbee, Sigfox and Bluetooth, along with RFID, LoRa and 802.11 variations.

WatchGuard believes the same trends that spurred the expansion of Wi-Fi hacking are now beginning to impact criminal activities involving other wireless standards and products, such as cars, gas and water meters and alarm systems.

“Wi-Fi attack tools with simple user interfaces such as the Wi-Fi Pineapple by Hack5 made it possible for amateurs to perform advanced attacks, and there are now some three million ‘how to’ videos online for performing man-in-the-middle attacks on 802.11 networks,” says Corey Nachreiner, CTO at WatchGuard. “These new attack trends are possible due to the affordability and availability of software-defined radios (SDRs), which allow a device to talk and listen to a very broad range of wireless frequencies.”

Derek Weeks, VP and devops advocate at Sonatype, expects the amount of reputational damage caused by a single cyber attack to hit a new high in 2018. “The disclosure of Equifax’s high-profile breach eroded more than $3bn in its market capitalisation. We anticipate Equifax’s loss will be dwarfed in 2018, with a global 500 business losing more than $5bn in market capitalisation following a successful exploit.”

He adds that while General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force in May 2018 (which will require organisations to notify the public within 72 hours or face penalties of up to €10m – or two per cent of prior year revenue, whichever is higher), he expects to see the first €10m penalty for violating it to be imposed by the end
of the year.

“Next year, new security investments will shift from the perimeter to the application development. CIOs, having digested years of evidence that bolstering perimeter defences can only get them so far, will enhance application-layer defences under their direct control,” Weeks says.

2018 promises to be an interesting year for us all. Here at Land Mobile, we’re eager to see the extent to which PMR-LTE convergence solutions and products are adopted by end-users and how traditional PMR suppliers fare against their mobile counterparts when it comes to selling public safety LTE infrastructure.

Looking closer to home, it will be fascinating to see how dealers adjust to the twin pressures of Brexit and greater competition. Could we see the death of that mysterious and much-maligned beast – the ‘rarely spotted’ box-shifter? Only time will tell…

ESN delays’ impact on the supply chain
Late 2016 and 2017 saw the work to roll out the Emergency Services Network come under a great deal of scrutiny from the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. While timetables have slipped, progress continues to be made, with EE steadily increasing its geographical coverage and the award of the framework agreement for mobile devices to Samsung Electronics (see page 8) and the demonstration of pre-emption and priority, along with the PTT app that will be used by the emergency services.

John Thomson, technical sales and support manager at Panorama Antennas and chairman of the FCS Installers group, says that while the delays to the roll-out of ESN can be seen in a positive light, as they mean that the emphasis is on ensuring that the service meets the needs of the emergency services rather than hitting an ambitious target date for deployment, they are making it difficult for the project’s suppliers and in-vehicle equipment installers to budget and forecast the amount of capacity that will be required over the next year or so.

2017 timeline – a year in wireless comms
23 January: Land Mobile reports that the start of ESN transition has been delayed to mid-2018, when previously the first of the regions to transition (the North West), was scheduled for March 2018. More delays are to come

27 January: The Critical Communications Association (TCCA) appoints MA Exhibitions as the organiser for the Critical Communications series of events for an initial period of five years, starting with CCW 2018

9 February: Sepura announces that its shareholders have approved its sale to Hytera

27 February to 2 March: 5G Fixed Wireless Access and Cloud RAN feature heavily at Mobile World Congress

10 March: BT agrees to legal separation of Openreach

29 March: Motorola Solutions files a patent infringement complaint against Hytera, kicking off a series of lawsuits and counter-suits

16 May: Hytera unveils its LTE-PMR Convergence Solution at Critical Communications World in Hong Kong

24 May: The sale of Sepura to Hytera completes, three months later than expected

21 April: TfL launches a massive radio tender for a DMR Tier III compliant system and 9,500 radios for buses, to replace the current analogue MPT1327 system used by London’s buses

25 May: Ofcom provides an update on its plans for UHF Band 1 and Band 2

8 June: The General Election slashes Theresa May’s majority, forcing her to strike a deal with the DUP

11 July: Ofcom imposes caps on mobile spectrum

10 August: Land Mobile reports that ESN has been hit by further delays; at the time, further clarity was to be provided in an update in the autumn, which subsequently failed to materialise and will now take place in 2018

25 August: As part of its mayor’s quest to make London the world’s smartest city, Theo Blackwell is appointed as its first chief digital officer

20 September: Motorola Solutions celebrates 50 years in the UK by opening its Innovation Centre in central London

23 October: Huawei announces Bristol as the UK’s leading smart city, but Juniper Research puts London in first place

28-30 November: PTT over Cellular devices are all the rage at PMRExpo

24 November: ESN mobile device framework contract is awarded to Samsung Electronics

30 November: Chris Pateman retires from the role of CEO of the Federation of Communication Services

26 December: The EU Radio Equipment Directive (RED), which replaces the Radio and Telecommunication Terminal Equipment (R&TTE) Directive, will be implemented into UK law via the Radio Equipment Regulations 2017

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