By Frank Anderson
A disruptive innovation creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market-leading firms, products and alliances.
As cellular Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks continue to mature, providing better coverage with more available bandwidth, a great migration is taking shape. Technology has advanced to provide push-to-talk (PTT) hard-coded radios and smartphone applications that transport PTT on LTE as an internet of things (IoT) device.
The LMR industry has historically provided everything from simple PTT radios that communicate over short distances to complex wide-area networks. These LMR devices have served businesses, industry, public safety, and personal communications for decades.
As digital technologies have emerged during the past decade, we now have complex Project 25 (P25) systems serving public safety and mission-critical industries. Other digital systems such as NEXEDGE, MOTOTRBO and Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) are providing communications for SMR operators.
Public safety moved to advanced P25 networks as their budgets have allowed. Countless systems were built for cities, counties, regions, and states. But they haven’t come cheap; many systems have price tags in the millions of dollars to provide needed coverage. It’s not difficult to find a portable radio that costs $3,000 or more. Many of these systems have married their future to a specific manufacturer as different feature sets are manufacturer specific. The manufacturers historically placed themselves in favorable positions for future add-on sales throughout the life of the system with little to no competition.
For the past decade, wide-area SMRs have embraced the manufacturers’ digital offerings. Wide-area SMR networks have been built throughout the nation. Hundreds of SMR networks ranging from simple single tower site systems to large interconnected networks are now in place. These systems work well, covering a specific geographic area to provide the SMR’s customer base dependable communications. These systems have also been costly to deploy. The necessary FCC licenses to operate these systems have been difficult to obtain. As available frequencies have been licensed, new channels are now nearly impossible to obtain in populated areas of the country. Even the best-designed SMR networks can easily become exhausted in terms of subscriber loading and available frequencies. If an SMR is unable to license additional frequencies, it essentially halts additional growth. Some of the now decade-old systems are near the manufacturer’s end of life and support. An SMR system operator then must decide to upgrade or replace infrastructure, and many times, the subscriber equipment needs to be replaced too.
LMR networks are built to provide communications coverage in a certain area or region. Few systems are interconnected between cities, so a user is limited to communicating where the network is constructed. No LMR networks provide nationwide communications.
Radio towers and building rooftops are necessary for the correct antenna height. Even the best-designed systems fail to adequately provide predicted coverage many times. In-building coverage many times requires expensive distributed antenna systems (DAS). Not only is the upfront deployment costly, but the ongoing maintenance, network charges, and tower leases are expenses for the SMR operator.
The Great Disruptor
Has a great disruptor arrived to completely change the LMR business as we know it? I believe the great disruptor is PTT over LTE. Future public-safety systems will use mission-critical PTT (MCPTT) on LTE provided by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) or a competing cellular carrier network. These networks will be superior to P25 with priority, security, dependability and geographic coverage from hardened networks. These new public-safety offerings will provide the necessary communications at predicted affordable pricing with competition from multiple manufacturers and new features such as video.
With the entry of PTT over cellular (PoC) devices operating on LTE, the SMR landscape is also ripe for change. The cumbersome and expensive pieces for SMRs — FCC licenses, tower leases, repeater hardware, and backbone costs — are not needed with PoC. A newcomer to the traditional SMR business must do some soul searching before investing in a new SMR system. Why would anybody build a new wide-area SMR system when PoC can provide similar features, secure communications, exponential capacity, and in-building and nationwide coverage?
PoC provides all of these things at an affordable price without building expensive infrastructure. Even the existing SMRs that find themselves at the crossroad of upgrading their system because of a manufacturer’s end-of-life notification should consider PoC. SMRs should think twice before expanding, modifying or replacing an existing system. Gateways and inexpensive interoperability devices are available to connect legacy SMR talkgroups to PoC. This may be a better, more affordable choice than a major equipment forklift.
Will PoC and MCPTT usher in an affordable alternative to legacy networks? MCPTT will be available in the not too distant future. Public-safety decision-makers may be wise to postpone new P25 networks and upgrades. Should a decision-maker recommend a multimillion-dollar P25 purchase to find a subscription-based, affordable solution is just around the corner?
PoC services that compete with traditional SMR offerings are available. PoC can easily replace SMR networks. Coverage area and cost concerns will be replaced by nationwide coverage at an affordable cost.
The SMR business isn’t ready to go the way of a buggy whip factory just yet, but it’s not far off. Many people in our industry have blinders on, thinking that this change won’t come. But it will come, and it will come soon, and it will change the SMR industry forever. PoC will find its way into specialty shops and non-traditional sales channels. The SMRs must compete with these new sales channels for the same customers. The expertise now needed to design, build and maintain an SMR system will not be needed in the future.
There will always be a need for conventional two-way radios for short-distance use, but the lion’s share of wide-area networks will be provided by LTE.
“Once a new technology rolls over you if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” — Stewart Brand
Frank Anderson has 40 years of experience in the land mobile industry. He is a founding partner in A Beep of Joliet, Illinois. His entrepreneurial experience includes founding companies in the paging, cellular, transportation, wireless broadband, tower site, and land mobile industries. Past successes include Diga-Talk.com, a wide-area digital SMR network using NEXEDGE technology. Diga-Talk’s buildout began in 2008 in the greater Chicago area and now has coverage in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. A Beep’s current project is Diga-Talk-Plus, a push-to-talk (PTT) over cellular (PoC) solution that provides nationwide service, offering mobile and portable radios, smartphone applications, dispatch software, and interconnection devices. Diga-Talk-Plus is setting up dealer locations throughout the nation with a turnkey offering. Get more information at http://www.DigaTalkPlus.com.
*This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Mission Critical Magazine