Critical comms handsets: an update

The critical communications market continues to be well supported by handset manufacturers. Sam Fenwick takes a look at recent developments and the latest offerings

While much of the underlying performance of any critical communications service hinges on the supporting infrastructure and the clever work to ensure consistent and reliable coverage, all this is essentially invisible to the end-user. What they see, know and experience is the two-way radio terminals they rely on as their ‘lifeline’.

A recent report from IHS Markit sees steady growth in TETRA terminal demand across verticals, led by the industrial sector, which is expected to have a compound average growth rate (CAGR) of eight per cent between 2018 and 2023. Other markets with more than five per cent anticipated CAGR over the same period include transport and utilities, while the public safety market is predicted to grow its TETRA installed base by more than four per cent in the 12 months to December 2020.

The report also sheds some insight into regional trends, with North America expected to record a CAGR of nearly 15 per cent to 2023, Latin America showing almost six per cent and Asia heading towards five per cent. Europe is expected to see less growth but is still on an upward curve, with IHS Markit highlighting expected deliveries of hybrid and broadband terminals in the coming years. The Middle East and Africa region is expected to continue the steady growth it has seen since 2015.

Within the European handset market terminal refreshes are increasing in importance as the growing maturity of the narrowband market has increased the overall install base, and the early adopters of digital technologies are returning to the market to update their terminal fleets. In the UK, the Emergency Services Network (ESN) is running three years behind schedule, so many of those user organisations that hung on to their old terminals, hoping to quickly replace them with ESN devices, are now having to buy new TETRA terminals. Given that ESN was the outlier in terms of the speed of the intended transition of mission-critical users from narrowband to broadband when compared with similar projects in mainland Europe, it is possible that the lessons learned from the project may support the hybrid terminal market, although IHS Markit expects fewer than 100,000 TETRA/LTE terminals will be sold in the next three years and much will depend on manufacturers’ ability to bring pricing down.

The slow nature of the transition is a point that resonates with Eric Davalo, head of strategic development at Secure Land Communications at Airbus. “A network based on 4G, or even 5G, is the appropriate solution to make secure multimedia communication possible, but an immediate switch to PMR-MCX services cannot be easily done, for many reasons: technical, operational and business. For example, standardisation of mission-critical services and the subsequent set of available features are not yet sufficient to cope with the expectations and demands [of today’s TETRA users. In addition], 4G and 5G networks require many additional base stations on-site to reach coverage [equal to that of] TETRA. This leads to a situation where TETRA systems and broadband-based solutions will co-exist for a long time.”

Wavelengths and coverage
As might be expected, several manufacturers chose to announce new handheld terminals at this year’s Critical Communications World (CCW). These included the VHF FT5, which has been developed by DAMM and Funktel. VHF makes it better suited for rural areas as it offers improved RF propagation in rural, wooded or hilly areas compared with UHF, allowing larger cell sites, and therefore more ground can be covered with less infrastructure. The FT5 is supported by DAMM’s BS422 MultiTech Base Station, which can also operate TETRA in VHF. In Australia, DAMM has recently won approval for TETRA to be used in VHF spectrum.

However, I wouldn’t hold your breath for massive new innovation in terms of future TETRA or Tetrapol terminals. “We do not foresee major changes or new terminal releases,” says Airbus’s Davalo, “given the maturity of TETRA/Tetrapol markets that already cover almost all segments of professional radio communication markets. Of course, there will always be incremental upgrades, but the big developments are likely to be in building the fundamentals for hybrid transition and offering the capability to integrate them with security and control broadband-based applications, and new-generation IoT (Internet of Things) capabilities.”

That said, it is interesting to note the way in which Sepura has been working to expand the functionality that can be delivered by TETRA terminals via AppSPACE, the company’s app platform, to smooth the transition to new technologies. This includes Lost Radio Alerter, which works in conjunction with a Bluetooth tag on the user’s person to cause the radio to emit a loud alert if it is separated from the user, and can escalate this if it is not answered by sending a message with ID and GPS location data to a team leader or control room. Another useful app is Radio Asset Logger, which requires users to log into a radio before use, making them more accountable for the condition of their radios and thereby allowing organisations with pooled radios to see some of the benefits that are normally associated with individual issue.

Returning to hybrid terminals and CCW, the event bore witness to the unveiling of Hytera’s PTC680 Multi-Mode Advanced Radio (TETRA/LTE), which has a narrower form factor than the company’s previous multi-mode models and weighs 325g.

The company has retained the previous model’s dual display design, while layering three programmable keys below the screen to “put more one-touch functions at users’ fingertips”. The PTC680 features patented ‘front cavity expansion technology’, which is used to generate up to 128dB of audio, with clarity also being achieved via digital acoustic microphones and audio-processing algorithms. Hytera is expecting to offer roaming over IP across TETRA, LTE and Wi-Fi networks in the first half of 2020.

A change of heart
The PTC680’s reduced size and weight directly address some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the hybrid device approach from within the industry. It is worth noting that one previously outspoken critic of hybrid devices, Motorola Solutions, has turned an abrupt about-face with the recent launch of APX NEXT, which plainly speaking is a P25/LTE hybrid handheld touchscreen terminal. However, a company spokesperson says “it is first and foremost a P25 radio, built to the same tested standards of the APX line of radios. APX NEXT adds concurrent LTE services that are additive and complement LMR mission-critical communications.”

They also state that it comes with a 12-hour battery and has an optional 18-hour battery to ensure a full day of operational efficiency. They also claim that “it offers exceptional ergonomics and it is our smallest APX radio yet” – impressively the APX NEXT weighs only 15 grams more than the P25-only APX 8000.

Like Airbus’s flagship TETRA/LTE hybrid terminal, the Tactilon Dabat, Motorola’s APX NEXT can automatically roam from narrowband when the signal strength is low to broadband and back again. However, its most impressive (and long anticipated) feature is ViQi, a virtual assistant that allows first-responders to query databases using natural language interactions, such as “ViQi, run a licence plate”. Motorola Solutions is working on future versions of ViQi to allow it to call for vehicle assistance, take statements and perform foreign-language speech translation. It will be integrated into other solutions as the company continues to research, and collaborate with users on, new ways to streamline officer workflows and improve decision-making through leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning.

It will be interesting to see how quickly ViQi becomes available to TETRA users and the extent of any integration with Motorola’s Pronto mobile working solution for public safety agencies. ViQi is currently available in the US and the company says it is “looking at expanding to other regions and protocols in the future”.

One good example of technology transfer from P25 terminals to those supporting other protocols comes from Tait Communications and its latest P25 and DMR terminals (the TP9600 and TP9500, respectively).

Anthony Blyth, its global marketing director, says: “The TP9500 and TP9600 are able to share the same battery and charger technology as [our] TP9300 (DMR) and TP9400 (P25) [terminals] and deliver the same shift life even though we’ve added a colour screen almost twice the size of the TP9300 and TP9400, two microphones, extra audio processing, and significantly louder audio output. Tait DMR customers are benefiting from P25-driven technology such as the dual-mic active noise cancellation that is now a very common feature in P25 devices.”

While the handset market is experiencing evolution rather than revolution, manufacturers are still making impressive progress, with much focus on ensuring that operation is kept as simple as possible for the end-user despite increasing complexity in terms of the underlying connectivity. Due to space limitations, I’ve not been able to delve into LTE-only terminals, but this will be remedied in a future piece.