The future of the channel
Written by: Sam Fenwick and Charlotte Hathway | Published:

This year’s FCS Business Radio ’19 presided over a great deal of interesting content and comment, with plenty on PoC and the industry’s current challenges and opportunities

The event kicked off with a keynote from Joshua Nichols, strategic accounts manager at Brentwood Communications, which did a great job of setting the scene and reminding everyone of the key trends.

Two of the sessions were focused on PTT over Cellular (PoC). Motorola Solutions’ WAVE EMEA sales lead Dan Faulkner said there are many things that are taken for granted with PMR that have to be considered when looking at PoC. These include a potential trade-off in battery life and PoC call performance, the issues around a possible smartphone-based substitute to back-to-back mode and resilience. When asked by Land Mobile as to whether Ofcom’s new focus on shared spectrum is increasing the company’s interest in developing private infrastructure, Faulkner highlighted its MOTOTRBO Nitro product in the US, which is designed to work using CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) spectrum. He added that Motorola Solutions is looking at making it available globally, but the biggest obstacle is frequency allocation.

Jamie Bishop, general manager – transport at Tait Communications, emphasised the importance of GDPR, as with PoC, “we’re now potentially connecting to a person’s personal device”. It is therefore necessary to discuss the potential issues with clients, which can be time-consuming – “this topic took up as much discussion for the initial 250 users when we rolled out our [PoC] solution for Transport for London as the policies around deploying the DMR system for 9,500 buses. If you’re dealing with large blue chips or public-service-type organisations, you will be getting into conversations with their lawyers.”

Bishop also noted that while a traditional or default PoC application offers personalised names and contacts, picture messaging, text messaging, groups and the ability to make individual calls, along with “all the things that you get on radio – often you fi nd the users aren’t necessarily after all of this”. This is due to both regulatory issues and some of the features not adding value to the customer.

He said conversations with clients around PoC often lead to the discovery that picture and text messaging solutions (typically WhatsApp) have already been unoffi cially adopted by users. He highlighted PoC’s ability to “connect people who are not part of the same business over the same platform… you can, in emergencies [or] in a situation that we know is going to be busy, like a strike, set up short-notice groups between managers in diff erent organisations.”

Chris Cant, systems sales engineer at Hytera UK, focused on her company’s E-Pac and E-Pole mesh network infrastructure products, which address some of the range/coverage issues that can occur in back-to-back mode. They are based on DMR Tier II, but use FDMA for meshing and can support up to 32 hops. They automatically send traffic via the best route to minimise the number of hops.

Cant also discussed Hytera’s PoC software solutions and said Radiocoms has a three-site simulcast DMR system in London and is in the process of connecting P-POC 6000 to it.

Stephen Edwards from JVC Kenwood delved into the technical aspects of wide-area systems, including the advantages of trunked systems and an update on simulcast (which can be used to allow “clickless” handover between sites). He explained that given the shift to IP “and things like PTP – precision time protocol – and GPS timing, you can actually lock everything down and you don’t have to worry about reconfiguring the systems when you move things”. This means it is now possible to use simulcast with temporary systems.

Below: Tait’s Jamie Bishop discussed the difference between theory and practice when it comes to deploying PoC application

Each link in the chain has a role to play

The event concluded with a panel session focused on the future of the channel, which was moderated by Sam Fenwick. One of the key points was that the ongoing skills shortage is an issue and is limiting growth. Neil Owens, director, SFL Mobile Radio, said: “We have an issue with how we’re perceived in the market”, explaining that we are not seen as an exciting sector.

Panellists reflected on Avoira working with universities to introduce industry-specific courses or modules. There was agreement that this approach is one avenue to explore when encouraging young people to consider a career in two-way radio.

The skills needed by salespeople was another consideration. Andy Wilson, managing director at Syndico, explained the process of recommending the right solution for a given application is becoming more complex. This calls for technical, engineering-led sales. Resellers need to examine their staffing budgets to weigh up whether they can bring in new talent with these skills.

Craig Calvert, channel sales director, Motorola Solutions, added that offering technologies such as PoC raises questions for resellers around how they structure their finances. “It is a different sale, and the margins are different. If you’re selling hardware, you’re getting immediate profit. If you’re doing push-to-talk, it’s all recurring revenue. The industry is changing from being a box-shifting industry to a recurring model. We have to adapt to that.”

However, customers are used to paying an upfront cost for two-way radio communications. John Grant, CEO of Digital Angel, said: “The difficulty for us is that we’ve been out there selling PMR for many years saying you don’t have to worry about having monthly bills.” Moving to a cellular solution changes this.

Change isn’t coming fast

The panellists agreed that we shouldn’t focus on emerging technologies and forget the growing opportunities for existing products and services. SFL’s Owens pointed out that “it’s always been ‘this is going to kill PMR’, and it definitely hasn’t. Sometime, push-to-talk is going to be the right solution, but for the moment invariably [PMR] is the better product.”

He added that “the low-hanging fruit is adding push-to-talk to an existing radio system”. There are potential users who don’t know about this possibility, so resellers also need to consider “how do you get those customers who are not existing customers?”.

One audience member said the two-way radio industry is very quiet and enclosed. However, Grant said he is starting to see this change: “There are some younger people coming through and they’ve got that enthusiasm about them. We need more of them.”

Syndico’s Wilson added: “The market isn’t even saturated yet, so there’s lot to do.”

Fenwick asked panellists whether there is a gap in the market for a cloud-based mobile working application that is led by the two-way radio industry. That could be sold by resellers as part of a package, which includes PoC, as well as rugged smartphones.

Wilson isn’t convinced end-users want to use mobile devices in this way yet. He said: “I’m interested to see the stats. Of all the radios that get sold, what percentage are sold with an application attached? I’d guess it would be tiny. The trick is to find out why.”

Near-term opportunities

How can we as an industry get better at selling what we already have in terms of software? The consensus was that manufacturers, distributors and resellers must work together to ensure sellers are comfortable selling newer technologies. Owens said: “People sell what they know and they’re comfortable with. They won’t push it if they don’t know it.”

Grant cautioned that the radio industry needs to prepare for the future, but also focus on providing what users need today. “There’s still not a great desire from the end-user for future technology. It’s up to us to get the skillsets, so when that day comes we can provide the necessary solutions because we’ve got the answers.”

Owens added: “As products change and become more IP-based, if we don’t embrace technology and sell them, somebody else will.”

The key message from manufacturers, distributors and resellers alike was that ‘We’re all in this together’ – a wise sentiment given that some of the issues the industry faces such as the skills shortage are too big to be solved by any single company or organisation.

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