How to procure two-way radio
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Following on from last month’s Business Radio 101 feature, Sam Fenwick takes a deep dive into the factors that need to be considered when procuring two-way radio systems and terminals

In our last issue, we looked at some of the basic aspects of buying and using two-way radio systems. In this article, we’re going to go into a bit more depth on the procurement side, which can be boiled down to two main activities: deciding on what you require, then selecting your supplier(s) and arranging for the system’s deployment. The first of these breaks down as follows:

1) Decide on the problem(s) you’re looking to solve
2) Choose the capabilities you need for the radio system
3) Consider the most appropriate device form factors and features for your users
4) Choose accessories.

The first step is arguably the most important. Jonathan Hamill, an independent consultant with in-depth experience in telecoms and IT and who has previously been responsible at VP level for a global line of business with a two-way radio manufacturer, says: “When you think you need a DMR, TETRA or whatever solution it might be, the first thing you should do is close the book, stop looking at technology and define your business problem, because the danger is that you’ll become dazzled by [technology]. There’s always going to be a vendor, reseller or technology company who is going to say ‘we’ve got this whizzy shiny device which can do [this and that]’. And if they’re good, they’ll say ‘this feature can save you money, and this feature can do this, it can add value, it can generate savings, it can boost operational efficiency’… but that’s them trying to tell you how to solve [a] problem [that] you haven’t yet defined. So the best thing to do is try and frame in a paragraph what [your] business problem is, and once you’ve got that you can have a much more intelligent engagement with the market before you go to procurement.”

Part of the reason Hamill says this initial thought process is so important is that not every manufacturer produces and supports the full range of two-way radio technologies, and therefore some may have a vested interest and try to lead a potential customer towards the technology it specialises in.

Hamill adds that potential buyers shouldn’t restrict themselves to considering analogue and DMR radio systems – given what other things such as PTT over Cellular, third-party app integrations and body-worn video cameras can bring to the table. It’s also important to consider whether your requirement is for one-to-one or one-to-many communications and “whether you need a platform such as Android to do productivity apps. Consider all the applications that will help from a productivity point of view and that will dictate whether a particular technology is the most appropriate thing or not.”

Choosing the capabilities you need for the radio system
Two-way radio systems range from extremely simple bare-bones systems where group calls are the only service, to complex trunked systems, which offer a huge variety of functions, though some of these (such as call priority) only come into their own when handling the large number of calls and users that such systems typically support. Some of the features that you may wish to consider include GPS location-tracking, man-down, lone-worker, emergency alarm/emergency call, the ability to remotely stun/revive/kill handsets (vital if they fall into the wrong hands), end-to-end encryption, and over-the-air programming (which is particularly useful when managing large fleets of terminals and making changes to fleet maps on the fly when managing events).

As mentioned in ‘Business Radio 101’, one important consideration is how critical the communications system you are looking to procure will be to your operation. Matthew Napier, channel sales director at Hytera, adds it is also important to consider if “your users [are] at any risk in their day-to-day work. If comms are essential or your users can be at any risk then perhaps you should consider [a] robust system and device with extensive fall-back, prioritised users, emergency features, lone-worker features and a means to interrogate its performance.”

Another thing to consider is that some features are proprietary (developed by a single manufacturer) and that opting for them may lock you into a specific vendor, which is less than ideal.

“Previously my observation of the two-radio industry has been [that it is] quite a closed technology. If you went with one manufacturer, unfortunately you had to buy everything from that manufacturer, which is good for [them] but has been quite limiting for the end-customers,” says Guy Hopkins, managing director of Logic Wireless Europe. However, he adds: “It’s starting to creep in, interoperability has always been a key thing in the IT industry and because the same people are now looking to procure the radio systems, that’s coming across into the tenders as well.

“[DMR] Tier III goes some way towards doing that, but invariably you find when you start sitting down with a customer and they say ‘I want this manufacturer’s radios or portables because I really like [them] and I want this infrastructure from this manufacturer, it’s Tier III, they should work together’, the answer is ‘yes’ most of the time, but there will always be little quirks and things that the manufacturers have designed to give them some differentiation, which means that if you want to make use of a certain feature you have to get everything from them.”

Further reading:
How to buy two-way radios
How to buy PTT over Cellular
How to buy FDMA radio systems

Handsets/form factor
According to Sean Fitzgerald, solutions marketing manager at Motorola Solutions, “once you’ve fixed your feature set you then need to consider where the radios are going to be used, because we and other manufacturers offer different form factors”. He adds that boutique shops or high-end hotels, or even just management staff, tend to want small, slim and light radios, whereas for workers in a factory or a mine, a radio that is tough enough to withstand a lot of punishment is more suitable. Do consider how much the radios could be exposed to dust and water – this will determine the IP rating you’ll require.

Hamill adds it is vital to understand whether you require handset models with screens and large keypads, as if you opt for them and you don’t actually need them, you could be unnecessarily spending an extra 10-20 per cent on terminals without any benefit. Similarly, he recommends considering whether any screen would be visible in the environment your employees work in and if they have to wear gloves; does it make sense to opt for a screenless device with large buttons?

Logic Wireless’s Hopkins adds: “We’ve done a lot of back-to-back tests with various manufacturers and we know that some, for example, have got better RF performance than others and better noise cancelling and audio processing than other radios. Some of it is also based on cost as well; some manufacturers [will] offer products down at the lower end and you know that they’re not going to be as good as the radios at the top end.”

He also notes Tait’s line of coloured handsets, which can make it easy to see which radios belong to which teams, and the way the Hytera PD9 series can handle full duplex calls with a licence and can also be used as a repeater to extend coverage. “But if you take away those things, it’s pretty much of a muchness really and then the only thing that the end-client can differentiate from is how that looks as a system, so maybe some of the manufacturers as a complete system [when combined with their radios] offer significant benefits over [others].”

Why use accessories? Simply put, they allow you to tailor the two-way radio user experience to better fit your employees’ requirements and the environment in which they work – the “wider use-case”, as Fitzgerald calls it.

“[Take a] hotel; it’s a perfect example because they have pretty much every use-case. They’ve got people in reception and the concierge desk, those kind of places that can be a little bit noisy but they don’t want the radios being overheard by [guests] – so they would have nice small-looking radios, typically with an earpiece. Then you might have maintenance people, ground staff that are out and about, so they need tougher radios and [as] they tend not to be so client-facing they don’t necessarily need earpieces. They might have a plant room that is very noisy, so there they need ear defenders – [they’ll need a] different solution for that.”

“One of the things that people [often] don’t appreciate,” says Fitzgerald, “is that if you plug an accessory into a radio, that is a system [under the Radio Equipment Directive (RED)]. In addition, taking a CE-marked radio and a CE-marked accessory and plugging them together doesn’t necessarily ensure [that the overall system is compliant]. That’s an important area for people to consider when they’re looking to procure equipment – have the manufacturers tested and certified their radios and accessories together as a system to make sure that the whole thing is compliant with the RED?”

Radiocoms’ Blythe adds that the rare issues he has encountered with CE and RED compliance tend to consist of customers coming to him with problems with third-party accessories, batteries and chargers, “so we strongly recommend to our customers that they buy the manufacturer-approved equipment”.

What next?
Now you’ve got a good feel for your requirements, it is time to engage with the market and determine who will provide and install the system and which manufacturer(s)’ products you will use. Hamill adds that it is worth considering “if you have the appropriate resources to conduct that market engagement and procurement in-house”, and if you don’t then whether you require one of the many consultants that are available to help you make a “more intelligent buying decision”.

Assuming you decide to handle the procurement in-house, Hamill advises going beyond just looking at the supplier’s [and the manufacturer behind them] track record, while Hytera’s Napier highlights the need to consider “whether the ‘manufacturer’ actually manufactures their own product. If not and the manufacturing is outsourced, then the user should consider whether they are paying a premium for a trusted brand name where the product has actually been manufactured by a third party.”

Hamill adds that you should ask for statistics that give you a feel for the product’s performance in the field, such as mean time between failures, and try to learn where the products you are considering are in the product lifecycle. There is value in looking for something that occupies a happy medium in this regard – not so new that it’s unproven in the field and not so old that it’s either approaching end-of-life or has become a “cash cow for the manufacturer, who is making as many as they possibly can but [they’ve] turned off the tap on roadmap and development”.

He notes that this last point is important “because you might be buying into this device for three to five years” and it is therefore key to understand “what the software upgrade roadmap looks like and what sort of additional functions and features are going to be [added]”. Another consideration here is the after-sales support and service; for example, “where will it be repaired [and] what’s the lead time on spare parts?”. If a device needs to be repaired, you need to know what the expected turnaround will be and whether or not it would need to be sent out of the UK, and the implications of this.

Similarly, Fitzgerald says it is important to consider and discuss with your supplier not just “all of the requirements that you think you’re going to have, or that you want today, but also if you have any future expansion plans for your business, because a good radio system [needs to be designed to] meet your needs today but also with scope to be able to expand and grow if [your] needs change over time”.

Hamill observes that a lot of the companies that procure two-way radio systems lease rather than own their photocopiers and company cars, but “[feel] they have to have CAPEX for two-way radio and IT systems, and maybe that’s not the right answer”. He therefore recommends questioning if there is a benefit to owning the system and thereby tying up capital that could be potentially be put to better use elsewhere, or whether it would be better to lease it or use it under a contract-hire-style arrangement “where you’re paying an operational cost that you can sink into your business and recover VAT from”.

Another consideration is the way in which the system will be tailored to provide the on-site coverage you require. As mentioned in ‘Business Radio 101’, a site survey is essential in this regard. Motorola’s Fitzgerald says to get the most value from one, it is important to show the supplier “everywhere that you want to be able to use the radio system, and rather than just say ‘we’ve got a basement downstairs’, actually go and look at it [with them] because maybe if there’s a lot of metal structures in there, it might lead to a different requirement”.

Finally, think about the service level agreements and after-sales support you will require.

Mark Blythe, director at Radiocoms, says: “If the system is a safety critical piece of equipment then [you] really need to be looking at the timeframe from failure to [when] on-site support is available [and] if possible build redundancy into the system. [Also look to see if] remote access is available; some businesses refuse to have any external IT input into their system, but if [you] can do that [it] gives you a lot more choice in terms of the number of vendors that [you] can work with.

“More and more of the manufacturers are stating that you need to take some sort of service agreement to have support, certainly on software and hardware, so that should be considered as well.”

While as we have seen there is a lot to think about, I hope that this has helped give you a sense of how to go about procuring two-way radio systems, and I wish you all the best of luck with your search.

What to consider: the main dos and don'ts of two-way radio procurement

  • Do start by considering which business problems you’re looking to solve with the technology before engaging with the market
  • Do ask about where the products you’re considering are on their product life-cycle and what level of support they’ll receive from their manufacturer
  • Do think about how accessories can be used to further customise your radios to meet the needs of their users and to make their use more appropriate for the setting in which they will be used.

  • Don’t assume that it’s sufficient to mention the areas where you might have coverage issues. During a site survey, show your supplier every area where you need coverage.
  • Don’t assume that every feature will work on a system made up of handsets and infrastructure from different manufacturers – always consult your supplier

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