The direct approach
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
John Swarbrick, founder and CEO of Andromeda

John Swarbrick, founder and CEO of Andromeda, a company focusing on LTE devices and PTT over Cellular (PoC), speaks to Sam Fenwick about the organisation’s development of a PoC device with direct mode

Five years ago, John Swarbrick had a potentially life or death problem while sitting in an event control room as a volunteer for St John Ambulance. He and the other volunteers were providing medical cover for a long-distance family-orientated cycle ride. They received a message saying that a cyclist had collided with a car and urgently needed medical support. “We traditionally use standard VHF radios but we couldn’t contact the crews we needed to because we couldn’t get the coverage that we needed on the route, so we were forced to use mobile phones. Those were okay, but we had problems with missed calls, going to voicemail and things like that. The question that went through my mind right then was ‘Why can’t I have a two-way radio that has that immediacy of communication with the coverage of a mobile phone that always seemed to work?’ That’s where the idea [for Andromeda] came from – a very personal problem I’d encountered that really needed to be resolved.”

He adds: “Having the idea was very much the easy bit. Our first reality check was when we spoke to some electronic manufacturers and designers in the UK.” He clearly remembers a meeting in which he was told that £1.5m in funding “should be enough to get started”.

“That was well out of our reach at that point, so that’s when we started down the hard road of seeing as a small company without access to that kind of capital how we could deliver something with equipment quality and functionality. We’ve done it by working with very small, very specialist UK-based companies and having a very close relationship between the designers and the end customers – working with them to build something quickly, then developing it iteratively until we got it right. We can do this much faster, more efficiently and at a lower cost than a larger company could.”

Andromeda has recently attracted a lot of attention, due to its SmartRadio product, which provides smartphone functionality and PTT over Cellular (PoC) in a two-way radio handset form factor. However, the feature that has attracted the most interest is its direct mode capability – the inclusion of which is remarkably prescient given the publication of a Contracts Finder Early Engagement notice by the Home Office in June to “notify the market that the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) plans to enter into a market engagement exercise to further its understanding of the market options for Device to Device Communications for the ESN”. The SmartRadio is due for commercial launch in Q1 2018 and Swarbrick says Andromeda is “doing very early user trials with prototype devices, assessing the fit of user needs and making sure we’ve got the technology right”.

While Swarbrick can’t provide any details on whether or not Andromeda is in discussions with the Home Office, he is happy to explain why his company developed this feature.

He says: “We started with a very simple product, to provide a radio experience over the mobile networks. Over the past few years, we’ve started to do more events and bigger events and worked with companies all around the world. We very quickly found that while mobile networks’ coverage is fantastic and getting better, there’s still a lot of situations where the coverage isn’t there.

“Quite often you’re in a situation where you can see the person you want to communicate with, but because of the lack of mobile coverage you just can’t. Similarly, you might be at a festival site where the distance is very small but the mobile networks are overloaded. That was holding back our device and that’s when we felt our product had to have the ability to operate as a back-to-back radio.”

He explains that the goal is to enable commercial organisations to take the SmartRadio out of the box, switch it on and be able to operate in direct mode, without spectrum licensing or export restrictions. In that context, “the licence-free, digitally encrypted PMR466 is very interesting, and of course we have to make sure that we comply with the requirements around that. For the public sector, public safety, I imagine there would be a similar experience, but on protected private spectrum.”

He adds: “Historically we’ve been in the commercial and voluntary space and it’s interesting now that the technologies and user requirements in the commercial and public safety sectors are converging. The needs of commercial users today are very similar to their counterparts in the public safety market. The only difference is public safety users can get deep integration with mobile networks for quality of service and priority.

“Wherever they go, whatever they need to do, there’s the possibility that they’re not going to have the coverage that they need. Those situations demand that they can still communicate at least over the local area, because if they can’t, people’s safety is at risk.”

Swarbrick says the company is interested in software-defined radio, as there is “increasing demand to support multi-protocols and multiple frequencies... we’ll probably be looking at moving in that direction”. Interestingly, LTE at low frequencies is of more interest to Andromeda than 5G. “We’re working with some partners in Europe who are looking at repurposing the 400MHz band for LTE. It provides lower throughput, lower speeds but resolves a lot of the situations with poor rural coverage and poor indoor coverage. To replicate two-way radio, the lower the spectrum goes, the better.”

Andromeda’s biggest challenge as a small manufacturer is “attracting the very best engineers and technical people. Our philosophy is we want a very small team, very highly specialised people who really understand our mission. But we’re battling against big brand names and the higher salaries of the City. So, the only way we can attract those people is by having a compelling story about what Andromeda is, what we do and why our work matters. We’ve spent a lot of time on that message.”

On the flipside, “the great benefit of being small is it gives people time to focus and think about what they’re trying to achieve – that’s where the innovation really comes from. My experience of bigger companies is that time just vanishes into meetings and conference calls.”

One obvious challenge is the cost of test and measurement equipment. “It is difficult. We’ve used a lot of outsourced providers who can provide that testing and certification for us. We’ve also come up with ingenious methods of testing internally. For example, we’ve got a physical test lab which uses lots of Raspberry Pis and servos and low-cost motors to do a lot of the PTT button testing and things like that. We work with a lot of early adopter customers. They know they’re going to be at the very cutting edge of technology and the risk involved with that, but for them that’s the investment they’re willing to make to give them an ability that nobody else has.

“When we started the first product, PTT over Cellular was still in its infancy, nobody had deployed it as the sole communications system for an entire event. We provided it to a long-distance cycle event and had numerous teething problems. We were working with an early adopter customer who understood the risk. For us, it was vital we were there experiencing these issues first-hand and really understanding them and being able to address them and define and develop the product, to give it that maturity so that people could really trust it.”

What advice does Swarbrick have for start-ups? “Increasingly people think that to start anything you have to have a venture capital investment in the millions of pounds. The reality is very different. Really focus on what you’re doing and why.” He adds that more and more in the two-way radio industry, the focus is on “what we’re doing, what technology we’re using and the standards we’re complying with, what amazing functionality we can add. We’re forgetting about who is really using the technology and what they’re trying to achieve.”

For example, he highlights the need for end-users to look professional at all times and questions whether this can be done when requiring them to use smartphones. “A lot of our users say they don’t want a device that looks like a smartphone, because they’re performing a work function and not checking their own personal social media. While it’s important for us to have smartphone technology, perhaps its form factor isn’t the right fit.”

As for his ambitions for Andromeda, Swarbrick isn’t focused on scale. “I want it to be like Aston Martin – not big, but highly specialised and the very best at what it does.”

CV – John Swarbrick
Swarbrick started out in the IT industry, working as a Linux Systems Administrator shortly after the burst of the dotcom bubble.

After ten years working within the high-growth tech startup scene in London, Swarbrick moved into technical operations management with responsibility for Cisco’s cloud-based hosted security platform, comprising a global infrastructure spanning 21 data centres and servicing billions of requests per day.

However, the desire to one day start his own company proved too strong to resist and in 2012 Swarbrick founded Andromeda. Three years later Andromeda launched what was arguably the world’s first commercially successful two-way radio that operated over the 3G mobile data networks.

In his free time, John volunteers as a Community First Responder with the Yorkshire Ambulance Service.

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