CIO’s Perspective: A strategic approach to radio technology — Part 1

In this two-part series, John Emerson, Chief Information Officer at Tait Communications, looks at what a CIO needs to know when considering a radio communication system.

John Emerson, Tait CommunicationsThe ubiquitous cellphone works well for most of us, most of the time. Occasionally we get a dropped call or two when coverage plummets, or the odd network outage means we can’t download emails or browse the internet. It’s frustrating, but rarely life-threatening.

Put yourself in the shoes of a police officer or utility worker in a hazardous situation or remote area and reliable coverage becomes much more than a nice-to-have—it’s an absolute necessity. It’s critical to be able to function properly and safety. That’s why it’s known as “critical communications”.

While a CIO wants to make sure the people they’re supporting have reliable radio communications, the idea of operating a stand-alone radio network may not be immediately attractive, particularly when all the other networks in their IT organization are IP-based. These are largely physically wired networks—Local Area Networks (LANs) connected by a Wide Area Network (WAN)—so they’re relatively straightforward to manage. But what about radio?

Well, radio technology has evolved significantly in the last few years. Today’s IP-based radio networks have much in common with modern IT systems and can increasingly interface with them. So it follows that there’s a host of benefits to be gained from managing them together.

IP radio networks
An IP radio network is similar to a physical network, where LANs are joined through a WAN. The radio network consists of multiple base stations serving a large geographic area, all connected through a WAN that can be wired, fiber or landline. This WAN may be a combination of a private network and a commercial vendor’s network. The IP radio network supports voice and some data, although voice communication is usually still its main use. But this is changing.

Communication NetworkIt’s already common for packets of data to be sent via radio networks. For example, sending the location coordinates of a Public Safety officer can be critical to their personal safety as well as to the command structure. Sending a status request and then monitoring a radio user’s response can be equally critical. Similarly, gathering data elements from utilities field staff, such as their location, task-ID and time can provide key input to workforce management systems.

IP data packets can be transmitted over shared lines, but careful radio network design is needed to maintain the quality of real-time voice communications. However, there are potential cost savings because of the opportunity to share network resources.

It’s widely held that the 9/11 tragedy was exacerbated because the police and fire networks were unable to talk with each other. As a direct response, in legislation passed by the US Congress in February 2012, the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) was directed to establish a First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to “…enable first responders to better communicate with each other during emergencies, improve response time and save lives”. Congress allocated US$7 billion for the build-out of the network, with $2 billion of that available to be borrowed by NTIA as startup cash. The remaining $5 billion is expected to come from the proceeds of spectrum auctions that will run through 2022.

What a CIO wants to know:

Strategic fit
The CIO is responsible for making sure that all networks under their responsibility (and all the devices on those networks) will work together; information must be able to move seamlessly from one network to another, especially where public safety is concerned.

Any forward-looking organization will understand the need to expand the use of their networks for closer partnerships between clients, partners and other entities such as government agencies.

Business needs
Technology that has been in operation for many years can hinder effective business functions. The business itself may change, or the technology can simply fail to keep up. As a result, the CIO must be sure that the technology can remain effective and efficient over a long period of time, so that business needs continue to be satisfied.

As well as technology trends, CIOs must keep current with the proposed product roadmaps of their key vendors. Vendors whose roadmaps are not consistent with the CIO’s organization’s strategy are clearly a risk to be addressed and managed.

Open standards
Last century, proprietary standards were common, due to rapidly evolving technologies developed by companies using their own standards. These proprietary standards could be used to lock customers in to a single vendor for a long time, ensuring the vendor could maximize revenue from those customers. With the deployment and use of the internet, open standards managed by independent industry groups—such as the Digital Mobile Radio (DMR) Association or the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APCO)—have replaced proprietary vendor standards, making it much easier to interoperate and to share networks, data and voice transmissions.

From a wider IT perspective, the “cloud” has become the pervasive interoperability standard, using the TCP/ IP communications protocol. Technology has converged on this standard, from radios, mobile phones, landlines (VoIP), traffic signals, security cameras, through to TVs and photocopiers. As a result, the CIO’s job and challenges have become a lot more extensive.

Coverage
Radio Communication TowerConsumer telecommunications companies place their cellphone towers where they can make the most revenue from as many connections as possible. As a result, poor, sparsely populated or semi-rural areas may not have reliable coverage. Conversely, these are areas where Public Safety agencies and utilities typically operate, and their communications requirements must be based on radio coverage, using radio towers that can be easily reconfigured to ensure uniform coverage across an entire region.

In an emergency, such as a natural disaster, or even at peak times of ‘normal’ demand (like New Year’s Eve), cellular networks quickly become overloaded.

In the Christchurch, New Zealand, earthquake of 2011, the cellular network was immediately overloaded as members of the public sought to connect with friends and family. However, the radio network remained available to the Public Safety and associated agencies with a minimal interruption of service, and handled the much higher levels of Public Safety use.

In some countries, terrorists have used cellular networks to detonate bombs via their cellphones. As a result, one of the first things Public Safety does is to shut down the cellular network when a bomb is detonated in a public place.

Reliability of both vendors and their networks
While most networks are designed and deployed with built in redundancy, the CIO must be absolutely sure that any new network vendor—and the proposed network being considered—must be at least as reliable as the network and the vendor they are planning to replace. The most common way to check this out is to talk with other organizations that already use this vendor’s equipment and services, as well as ensuring high availability through the RFP process with clear requirements, specifications and in contracts. Another way to manage the risk of unreliable vendors or their networks is to insist on open standards, to make sure non-performing entities or components can be replaced quickly.

In Part 2 of this series, we look at security, scalability, convergence, and other factors that a CIO should consider in a radio communication system.

Tait Connection MagazineThis extract is taken from Connection Magazine, Edition 3. Connection is a collection of educational and thought-leading articles focusing on critical communications, wireless and radio technology.

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