Radio set to bounce into 2006 and beyond

By Mike Smyth
Wednesday, 11 January, 2006

Recent natural and man-made disasters have demonstrated the importance of radiocommunications to the basic functioning of society.

In spite of many beliefs that the mobile phone would spell the demise of two-way radio, the industry is buoyant with growth in emergency and marine communications evident.

On speaking with some local industry luminaries, I discovered that many of their concerns focus on training a new generation of radiocommunications engineers and ensuring that electronic developments are incorporated into the latest radio equipment.

No one had any worries about the viability of the industry.

According to Martin Cahill of Pacific Wireless, the industry as a whole suffers from low self-esteem. One way round this, he suggests, is for a rebirth from within "which means we must find ways to increase business margins and profitability so we can offer employees exciting, well-paid careers in two-way".

"We need to create an environment where people are fighting to enter the industry rather than settling for a two-way job, almost as a last resort," he says.

He has a particular problem with outsourcing because, as he sees it, it has been an abject failure. He believes that governments all need to "have a long hard look at the consequences of the popular rush to outsource as happened in the '90s".

But it is not just governments that must act. The industry itself needs to 'get it together' and have a common sense of purpose that others will follow, he says.

On the user side, Martin says the number one concern among the biggest customers is this failure of outsourcing.

"While I was as guilty as any in a previous life of promoting outsourcing as smart business practice, the sad reality is that it is totally disastrous for the two-way radio industry."

Traditional two-way users have not gone away and the impetus for better business efficiency and improved employee safety driven by OH&S continue to give zest to the market.

"While some within and indeed many outside would have believed cellular to be the demise of two-way, the reality has been that within Australia we have a situation where the entire business community would grind to a halt if you took RF communications away from them," he says.

Martin is concerned about personnel for the future. Where once there were vibrant communication departments managing and planning their future two-way needs, today there are few remaining and those that do have even fewer experienced people. Most, he says, will retire within the next five years and there are no replacements on the horizon.

While he agrees that the technology ahead "will allow us to communicate almost anything at any time", the challenge is to have the ability to professionally sell, deliver and support user solutions that provide real benefits, not because the technology allows it but because users need it.

"If we hold the industry up to the light, there are many who help provide leadership in projecting the way ahead," he says.

Martin accepts that China has become the manufacturing centre of the world, particularly in electronics, but he also sees Japan as producing "brilliant, incredible value products".

"This is a situation that while being healthy is shaking the status quo and in many cases is forcing dealers to accept extremely low profit margins to survive. In five to eight years, China will be repeating the Japanese experience.

"The challenge here is to focus on using ever lower manufacturing costs to improve business profitability," he says.

And talking of markets, Africa is seen as the next untapped region by Paul Maloy, managing director of Standard Radio. He believes that over the next 20 years or so, the multinationals will move onto this continent in a big way, just to get away from China.

The niche market of two-way radio, he thinks will not grow by much. The main growth areas as he sees it are with GPS and particularly marine equipment. While the overall economy is buoyant, people will buy marine equipment and interest is strong. Under good conditions he sees marine exports growing from their current 5% to 10-15% in Europe and ultimately to 30%.

He does not consider China to be an unhealthy presence in the market at the moment because "she has risen in status only to a medium fish in a medium pond".

He believes the industry is nowhere near death, especially while it continues to have good support from governments to help with exports. However, he does feel that the short-sighted view of not investing enough hard cash will not guarantee our long-term survival.

As in the electronics industry and many others, training is an ongoing issue, particularly the ability to keep apprentices. Overcoming this problem in his own company is something that makes Paul feel rather proud and puts him in the fairly rare position of preparing for the future. Standard Radio has established its own traineeship program designed to introduce apprentices to an engineering environment much earlier than they would normally expect. This ensures that their interest is maintained and stimulated and they tend to stay the course rather than getting bored halfway through and leaving to do something else.

Mobile radio has been reborn with the demands of public safety and utilities and this resurgence has been led by the digital age, says Steve Jaques, managing director of RF Industries.

"Demand has to meet expectation," he says but the often called for interoperability between, say, the police, fire and ambulance, he describes as "counter productive". It is not necessary for them all to talk to each other because they need to speak their own language - fire to fire, police to police, ambulance to ambulance - a language that would not necessarily be understood between the different utilities.

Although two-way radio networks are expanding with government, the real challenge is to go beyond this and win back the commercial sector. He sees P25 as the coming technology that might turn the corner for the industry but prices between this system and cellular need to be more competitive.

Asked about ensuring there are enough technicians in the future, he says that governments investing in networks could offer opportunities for training through putting something back into the industry.

One of the problems in getting people into the industry is that electronics and radio are lumped together as one technology by departments who could put money into TAFEs.

"The radio industry has no visibility. We need more places for technicians at TAFEs and more encouragement for university level courses."

However, there is a difficulty with achieving this because he believes there is insufficient interaction between the various education bodies, which makes it difficult to design appropriate courses.

Steve is not happy about globalisation because he sees it as forcing the smaller players out of business through such requirements as meeting international standards. Manufacturing is a strength of the industry which should not be dominated by a few single vendors.

Broadband is the way of the future, he says, with 3G and data transmission rates of 348 K already under threat. Tetra he describes as a "phenomenal utility" that has set new standards hence its adoption by Asia, China and Europe. Standardisation, he says, is not really rigid enough and enhancements to equipment outside the standards are not always helpful or desirable. On the question of interoperability he considers it should be "inviolate" but unfortunately this is not always so because it is not tightly enough defined.

"It is a great industry that is continuing to expand," he says.

PDAs that have the power of a desktop PC are not only here but becoming more sophisticated, leading to their wider use.

This view by James Bridges of Bright Software comes as we move into an age of managing data more effectively he believes.

A device, such as a PDA, must have the ability to integrate with any data source and allow information on demand. He sees such devices as raising the bar on productivity because they will make workers mobile who by using radio networks, can instantly get at information held on a remote server. While software provides the competitive edge for companies, we are probably two years away from the really powerful processors that will make such systems super efficient, he says.

By then we should have what he describes as "real application functionality", which is a system that aligns workers to their activities bringing together the gathering and sharing of information. A built-in camera and bigger memory, some of it cards, will also be a feature of this future.

He sees the biggest threat to the new era as being a lack of understanding by those not able to recognise the savings and advantages of this successor to paper-based working and a realisation by them that it is not efficient because it cannot respond as a PDA or a tablet can.

This data transmission theme was taken up by Peter Doyle, commander of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne. He sees digital radio and data as being the technologies that will most influence working in the coming years. From his perspective, equally important are the needs of security and redundancy systems during emergency operations although he feels the industry is beginning to respond to this.

He says that change for change sake, as he has seen, is not good for users as rapid change sometimes undermines planning and efficiency. However, he is convinced that copper cable connections are well on their way out to be replaced by personal communications with their greater convenience and reliability.

Peter, too, sees that training through an apprenticeship program is vital to enable the industry to survive and remain competitive. To help with this he suggests that cost benefits and subsidies should be increased to assist the program.

So, radio stands buoyant despite the fright that mobile phones caused. They are learning to live together in harmony. Broadband is a technology that is ongoing as are PDAs and their future siblings.

Yes, there are fears but some answers are already apparent. Personnel is a big concern. Will there be enough and will they be the right sort? Some of these issues will be resolved without too much heartache. Others may need some harder thinking. But overall it seems that the radio industry is in good shape to take on 2006 and well beyond.

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