Digital drives Africa’s critical comms

African countries are migrating swiftly to digital radio technology, and cost pressures mean they are embracing a wide variety of radio standards – but funding remains a stumbling block for larger projects, reports James Atkinson

Africa’s real GDP growth slowed to 2.2 per cent in 2016, mainly due to the continued fall in commodity prices and weak global economic growth, according to ‘African Economic Outlook 2017’, a report produced by the African Development Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations Development Programme.

However, the report went on to note that: “With dynamic private sectors, entrepreneurial spirit and vast resources, Africa has the potential to grow faster and more inclusively. The continent’s average growth is expected to rebound to 3.4 per cent in 2017. In 2018, growth is expected to consolidate, expanding by 4.3 per cent.”

That view is backed by Ryan Darrand, senior analyst at IHS Markit, who says: “Many African countries have faced economic headwinds due to decreased commodity prices, and the slowdown of economic growth in China has exacerbated these economic woes as price and demand remain low.

“In spite of this, the Licensed Mobile Radio (LMR) market in this region remains buoyant as a combination of a large number of analogue users, technological change and increasing security requirements in developing economies have contributed to the increase in demand for more cost-effective secure digital communications.”

Darrand points out that the economic diversity of the Africa region has opened the door to many LMR technologies, from governmental public safety and security agencies to utilities and industrial sectors.

The TETRA radio standard is prospering in the Middle East and Africa, according to IHS Markit, with more deployments of TETRA in 2016 than were shipped to China. It notes that Africa has a significant TETRA market, accounting for 40 per cent of shipments to the Middle East and Africa.

However, it is the cost-optimised digital radio technologies (DMR, dPMR, NXDN and PDT) that have done particularly well recently, increasing deployments by 30 per cent in 2016.

“The cost sensitivity of this region coupled with the cost-efficiency of these technologies resulted in more cost-optimised digital shipments being deployed in Africa than were deployed in the Middle East. Furthermore, this region has the highest adoption rates of DMR in the world,” says Darrand.

But, as elsewhere in the world, cellular broadband technology such as 4G LTE is starting to make an impact in the traditional LMR critical communications market.

IHS Markit projects that the region will have more LTE devices in circulation by 2021 than in Central and South America put together, with comparable numbers to that of Europe – one of the most diverse and innovative LMR markets in the world. Summing up, Darrand says: “The Middle East and Africa has a thriving LMR market with digitisation gaining pace. IHS Markit projects that this region will be the most digitised in the world by 2021, with 93 per cent of users converted to digital LMR technology.”

Migration to digital
Tunde Williams, head of field and marketing solutions, Europe and Africa at Motorola Solutions, points out there is still a very large installed base of analogue in Africa, but this is changing.

“Migration to digital is the main driver and opportunity in Africa”, but regarding the public safety market, he observes: “Unlike in Europe, where public safety is dominated by nationwide networks, that situation is not replicated in Africa. Instead, we see more regional networks and this is largely due to cost, which is why we are seeing more cost-optimised digital technologies being used rather than TETRA. Lower-cost solutions mostly means DMR.”

Mark Zheng, managing director of SA Hytera Pty, believes Africa is some way behind other countries in catching up with mission-critical radio technology. “In most regions of the world, governments have deployed nationwide public safety networks, but Africa is far from doing this yet.”

Mike Atkins, director at JVC Kenwood, says it is difficult to generalise about the African critical communications market, but observes: “The public safety market is about 80 per cent digital now and even private enterprises like mining, utilities and power have gone digital. The South Africa domestic market has a reasonably sized TETRA market. There is a lot of use of Nexedge [Kenwood’s NXDN digital brand] and there is some DMR, which is growing in the commercial market.”

He adds that there are all sorts of technologies in use in the rest of Africa and the choice of brand and radio standard is often driven by the dealer’s manufacturer affiliations and personal contacts within governments and private enterprises.

Despite Africa’s recent poor economic performance, Atkins argues it has not really affected sales of PMR. “We get on the end of maybe 10 big government projects a year in Africa, some of which never come to fruition, but most do. The market has remained much the same despite the economic downturn. The market for PMR is there, but it is a bit different from the rest of the world,” he says.

The funding challenge
Lack of funding is the main challenge to the development of the African critical communications market. Projects are either domestically funded by governments or externally financed through overseas private investment or foreign aid.

“Most countries do not have sufficient funds to roll out a nationwide TETRA network or even a DMR one for that matter,” observes Zheng. The alternative is to seek funding from overseas. The ‘Economic Outlook’ report noted that: “Foreign direct investment inflows are expected to reach more than $57 billion in 2017.”

Atkins says: “I suppose the choice of manufacturer may be influenced by which country is providing the funding. China is the biggest investor in Africa, but there is still some aid and investment coming in from America and Europe.”

“China’s ‘Road and Belt’ initiative was created for the development of Asian and African infrastructure,” adds Zheng. “China can provide funding to Africa, so if there is a need it is relatively easy to get funding for a national PMR network, which means governments are likely to adopt TETRA.”

TETRA market
South Africa boasts the most developed TETRA market on the continent. Africa’s first TETRA network was supplied by Motorola in 2001 and covers the City of Cape Town metropolitan area. The 32-site network supports 15,000 subscribers and was updated to the Motorola Dimetra 8.2 platform in 2015.

Gauteng province, which includes the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg, has a 68-site Motorola network supporting 35,000 subscribers used by the South African Police Service. Tshware Municipality has a 27-site network supplied by Rohill, which also provides a 13-site network for City Power in Johannesburg. Hytera has supplied two TETRA networks for the oil-from-coal company Sasol in the province.

In 2016, Airbus won a deal to supply TETRA terminals to all three public safety agencies in the Stellenbosch region in the Western Cape. Previously, it supplied a TETRA network for the police in the Eastern Cape. There are also a mix of smaller commercial (mostly mining) and government TETRA networks in KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland, Botswana and Namibia, largely supplied by Motorola Solutions.

Hytera’s Zheng believes TETRA still has a strong future in Africa. “Public safety customers will readily accept TETRA, as it has a proven track record in Europe and elsewhere, and they are looking at the other benefits it can bring. They understand TETRA, but it is more difficult to promote DMR in public safety where it does not have a strong track record yet.”

He adds: “Customers are giving a lot of attention not just to regional voice networks, but also to concepts such as safe cities with integrated CCTV coverage and command and control systems. It is becoming more complex; customers do want more than just mission-critical voice.”

A good illustration of this is the $31m contract Hytera won in July to provide a nationwide LTE-TETRA system to Angola for use by police, firefighters and customs officials. The project will make use of Hytera’s LTE-PMR Convergence Solution, launched at Critical Communications World 2017 in Hong Kong. The Angola system includes TETRA infrastructure, LTE-TETRA multi-mode advanced radios and TETRA radios, along with convergent dispatching systems.

Motorola Solutions’ Williams also thinks TETRA has a continuing future in Africa. The price of TETRA has been an inhibitor, but he points out that the cost is coming down thanks to the increased use of virtualisation and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment for much of the hardware.

“Take the Motorola TETRA Dimetra Express solution,” he says. “Its console is a web-based client and the cost of the hardware is much less than previous generations, so the price difference between TETRA and DMR is reducing. There is also a focus on ‘plug and play’ solutions now to make TETRA very simple to install and operate.”

The Mara North Conservancy wilderness area in Kenya uses a Hytera-supplied DMR system

Cost-optimised digital technology

Nonetheless, as IHS Markit has indicated, cost-optimised digital technologies are making an impact. “The biggest opportunity for DMR is the entry level to replace analogue and there is a lot of adoption there,” notes Williams.

He adds that whereas in Europe there are regulatory bodies around public safety, which usually mandate the radio technology to be used, these kinds of regulations are not prevalent in Africa, so a range of different technology is in use.

IHS Markit’s Darrand says: “DMR solutions provide critical communications for police forces in Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, in addition to other public safety and security (PSS) organisations, such as port authorities in Kenya and Tanzania.”

Zheng points out that most DMR manufacturers now supply entry-level radios that can match analogue on price. For example, Hytera has had success in South Africa with its BD505 handset, which can detect on the same channel whether the signal is analogue or digital and will talk back in either mode.

Recent DMR successes include a Hytera-provided solution for the Mara North Conservancy wilderness area in Kenya. The system comprises repeaters, mobile radios and handsets, along with a dispatch system to support communication among 34 rangers in the headquarters and eight camps.

Another example is the deployment in 2016 of a Tait Communications multi-site DMR Tier III linked network, designed and deployed by South Africa-based Emcom Wireless, for the Lesotho Electricity Company.

Kenwood’s Atkins notes that while there is still a big analogue market, it tends to be very low-tier radios for things such as personal and home security. “It is also worth noting that HF radio is still alive in Africa because there is a lot of nothing between the big cities, and if a national network is not justified you need something to provide communications in the wide, low-population rural areas,” he says.

He adds that in South Africa there are public access networks. One is the 12-site Nextalk PAMR (Public Access Mobile Radio) network in the Western Cape. Installed by Kenwood distributor Global Communications, the Nexedge system provides coverage from Cape Town as far as Vredenberg, Robertson and Caledon, and supports more than 600 subscribers.

Another recent Kenwood Nexedge project involved the upgrade of the radio system used by the South African Defence Force in Kruger National Park. The system, also installed and maintained by Global Communications, provides coverage over approximately 50 per cent of the 19,485 sq km park via eight microwave linked sites with 40 repeaters to support 300 users in 21 user groups.

The LTE challenge
TETRA also faces competition from broadband LTE networks. “LTE is the buzzword right now and PTT over Cellular is gaining traction, especially among commercial customers,” admits Zheng.

“It is attractive for them as they don’t need to buy a network with all the associated infrastructure. It is difficult to install a digital LMR network in Africa with the right site linkage, cables, availability of power supplies and so on. It is also difficult for radio dealers to establish a radio network as big as cellular mobile operators.”

“There is some interest in LTE, but not really for voice,” says Motorola Solutions’ Williams. “It’s the broadband data applications such as video that are of interest. The perception is that LTE is a more advanced technology, but there is also now the realisation that it is not quite there yet for the core requirements that mission-critical users need. Voice is still the dominant application, largely for operational reasons.”

Private LTE networks for public safety may be difficult to get off the ground due to funding and frequency issues. However, faced with pressure from terrorist attacks, Kenya invested in a private broadband network linked to a safe cities concept. Kenya’s National Police Service Commission has deployed a private broadband network provided by mobile network operator Safaricom, partly using Huawei’s proprietary eLTE solution. More than 1,800 HD cameras have also been installed for use by more than 7,500 police officers and 196 police stations.

In April, South African mobile network operator Vodacom partnered with Huawei, using the latter’s LTE integrated trunked radio (LiTRA) application to demonstrate a broadband multimedia trunking solution, which runs on Vodacom’s commercial LTE network. The solution can be accessed using existing consumer LTE smartphones and allows the government to use an existing commercial LTE network.

Yet many African countries have a long way to go in terms of rolling out LTE networks. PMR is therefore likely to be the main choice for some time to come.

“The African PMR market is growing on all fronts,” says Kenwood’s Atkins. “I would not describe it as buoyant, but it is consistent. It is true you need to have local strength anywhere in world, but even more so in Africa. Distributors and dealers must have the right contacts and be respected.”

Hytera’s Zheng adds: “Public safety customers want to deploy a national network, preferably using TETRA. They are serious about this, but the reality is that funding is a huge issue for them. This is why we see a mix of different technologies being used in Africa.”