From smartphone to digital radio - how communications technology changes our lives

Motorola Solutions
By Bevan Clarke, Professional Commercial Radio Solutions, Motorola Solutions
Friday, 12 October, 2012

For the past decade and more, advances in digital communications have impacted how we live, work, play and connect with each other. From mobile phones to smartphones, digital technology has evolved to the point where our communications devices are an extension of who we are: we manage our lives through them, our schedules and even our habits.

But change has been slower to come to some of the core industries in Australia, and understandably so. Here, critical communications are still the exclusive domain of the two-way radio. In some of these industries - security, mining and transport, to name a few - the arrival of digital communications, in the form of digital radio handsets and their supporting networks, are changing the fundamental nature of how work is done, how lives are saved and how profits are made.

Indeed, the switch from analog to digital technology in two-way radio is shaping the industries that define large parts of Australian society and, by extension, impact our everyday lives. From simple advances like automated ‘man-down’ alerts on a security guard’s radio to two-way text communication and even live video feeds for miners underground, radio is taking digital technology to parts of our society that consumer phones, no matter how smart, simply can’t reach.

Digital radio has now matured past the point where its commercial advantages alone support an investment in the technology. It has, in many other industries such as police, fire and rescue - become the de facto technology for communications, primarily for its safety and rapid response benefits.

Fireman on radio

The coming of age of digital radio neatly coincides with the convergence of smart communications in all spheres and industries. Change - rapid change - is one of the constants of the modern age.

It won’t come as news to anyone that we now live in an information-rich world. Data is exploding - wireless broadband consumption has trebled for each of the last three years. Global mobile data traffic grew 2.3‐fold in 2011, more than doubling for the fourth year in a row, and is predicted to increase 18 times over the next five years.

Smart devices are taking over - according to IDC, smartphones surpassed personal computers in units shipped for the first time in Q4 2010. This trend continued throughout 2011, with smart device sales outpacing PC sales by 30% in Q3 2011.

A major reason for this immense growth in sales has been the development of new applications and features that appeal to consumers. We’ve come to rely on smartphones for the convenience they bring to our lives. In a short period of time, they have become a vital companion that helps us to organise our lives in an era moving with incredible pace. At the same time, Australian industries are undergoing rapid change and must remain focused on becoming similarly agile and flexible.

This is where digital radio has evolved to stand on its own two feet with rapidly advancing technologies that offer significant advantages. Where smartphones provide us with a link to the different modes of communications we’re marketed to consume, digital two-way radio provides the foundation for life-changing, work-changing communications technology in the industries that drive our society.

Digital radio features - such as workforce ticketing - are helping industry to reach new levels of operational performance. This technology makes it possible to send jobs to workers’ radios and to acknowledge the acceptance and completion of tasks in real time.

With digital radio’s integration with Bluetooth, it’s also much easier now to connect radios with other devices such as computers and smartphones.

Another vital development in digital radio technology has been the ability to provide greater safety for staff through advancements like GPS tracking.

two-way radio

One example I often use to illustrate the impact of digital radio in Australia is Wilson. You may know them as that parking company, but Wilson also operates a security company with more than 3000 security officers, a large fleet of patrol vehicles and three operations support centres located in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

Keeping assets and people secure involves having effective staff on the ground. Therefore, for a company like Wilson, the challenge of managing and supporting security staff to not only keep the day-to-day security function flowing but also be able to support the response to incidents effectively is critical.

As long-standing users of two-way radios, the company moved to a digital radio platform to help its transition to new lines of business, improve efficiencies and reduce costs in an increasingly competitive market.

In doing so, digital radio helped to integrate the different divisions of the company, from field personnel to front-desk sales staff, and provided a secure system that eliminated eavesdropping from unwanted parties.

The digital platform and the simplicity of design - one simple push-to-talk button and easily graspable form factor, for example - means that the digital radio will remain a staple of the security industry for decades to come. Not only that, the significant advantages and functionality now made possible by the shift to digital means it is ideal for myriad sectors such as light and heavy manufacturing, security, transport and logistics, hospitality and public service among others.

Digital radios feature an emergency button that can be used to easily notify the support centres of an issue, particularly important for personnel working long shifts in often-deserted parking lots out of normal office hours.

Organisations like Wilson also rely on digital radio features like GPS tracking to monitor staff welfare. The ability to let a superviser know where you are at critical times (for example, when pursuing an offender) is invaluable from an occupational health and safety perspective.

Sometimes where a voice call is not an option, text to multiple recipients can be sent directly from a digital radio receiver, also particularly useful in an emergency situation.

Digital radio also makes more simultaneous talking paths possible, and information such as unit ID, status buttons and enhanced text messages can be programmed into a single digital radio channel.

Digital signals can be handled by standardised antenna systems and existing infrastructure equipment, requiring less capital investment than is commonly assumed. In addition, the digital conversion of a user’s voice reduces external background noises, so the platform is ideal for reducing environmental noise levels during transmission.

Lastly, digital radio provides a migration path that allows for simultaneous use of digital and analog radios. This means that existing investments in analog systems can be recouped and extended while the transition takes place.

The shift to digital radio won’t happen overnight, and in some industries may not happen at all. As with any technology, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For most professional industries, radio is the preferred communication device; and digital technology means radio can deliver many of the benefits of today’s smartphones without any of the smartphone’s consumer-oriented shortcomings.

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