Sonim: Not everyone needs a two-way radio

Bob Escalle, vice-president – public safety & defence market segments at Sonim Technologies, Inc, speaks to Sam Fenwick about his company’s recent work and the use of smartphones to reduce the cost of two-way radio refresh cycles

What is Sonim’s take on the transition from mission-critical narrowband to broadband?

We don’t believe that there’s going to be a 100 per cent replacement of LMR by mission-critical broadband for public safety any time soon – it may take years and may never happen. So we focus on the use of smartphones to augment agencies’ use of LMR. There are agencies that don’t need to provide two-way radios to all of their staff – some of them may be just fine carrying a smartphone that has a push-to-talk application running on it, and these and the two-way radio users can communicate to each other through an IP gateway.

There are public safety agencies where departments have transitioned some of their user groups off of LMR radios to 100 per cent on our Sonim devices, such as the animal control folks, parks and recreation, code enforcement – those agency personnel that don’t need to carry a very expensive P25 radio but still can connect back into the primary communications network through a gateway or through the PTT solution, and may be perfectly fine carrying a Sonim XP8 device, not only for PTT, but also for data connectivity and applications that allow them to work much more efficiently.

Normally, when a public safety agency refreshes its handset fleet, it replaces 100 per cent of its radios, but when you bring smartphones into the equation, maybe 25 per cent of the radio users are fine using smartphones instead, and as it costs agencies $650-700 for a smartphone versus $3,000-7,000 for a [P25] radio; they can see huge cost savings. We’re seeing an increase in the ratio of smartphones to two-way radios.

While Sonim has been around since 1999, it’s still fairly new compared with some of the other players in the market. What’s been your biggest challenge in moving from those early beginnings to where you are now?

It’s been a very large but very good learning curve. At first the challenge was how to build ultra-rugged devices, then it shifted to how could we provide them with more features and greater robustness? Our latest generation of products, like the XP5s, the XP3 and the XP8, are based on years of experience and lessons learned. Each generation of smartphones is an improvement thanks to customer feedback. As we provide three-year warranties on our products, we have to build very robust products that last a long time without a whole lot of problems – if not we’d lose a lot of money in the process and this has forced us to build better products.

The feedback we’ve received from the public safety market led to us integrating side connectors to our devices for public safety LMR-style accessories, like remote speaker microphones that screw in and don’t come out. We also have an accessory connector on the top of our devices for things like direct-mode communications. Accessories play a key role in serving our public safety customers – they expect good-quality audio accessories, good-quality in-car mounting accessories, good accessories for holsters and carrying apparatus and so forth; we see the accessory side as one of our key differentiators.

Are there any tweaks you’ve made to make your devices more intuitive and easier to use during moments of intense stress?

We have worked with our application partners to make the user interface much simpler. PTT applications can be programmed to work in the background, so if you picked up one of our smartphones that’s in sleep mode and it was an urgent situation, you could hit the device’s PTT button and you’d be able to communicate via the PTT app that’s running on the device without having to unlock the phone or wake it back up. That’s something that we’ve helped some of our software partners work through.

Speaking of partners, we have well over 800 of them in our partner portal and they range from hardware accessory designers to software folks and computer-aided dispatch application developers. Our partners serve a range of different verticals and a lot of them are very unique in what they do and some of the problems they’re trying solve with their hardware or software. We open up our device to them as a development tool by exposing APIs. This allows them to design their applications to make full use of our smartphones’ buttons and connectors. When we hear what our partners are trying to do, we try to enable their ideas through our platform and help and encourage them in any way we can from a technical perspective, so that they can get a time-to-market advantage with our platform.

Public safety agencies are used to being able to use two-way radios for five years or more and want the same from their smartphones, but the fast-moving consumer world means that many of the components for smartphones have relatively short availability – how do you try to minimise this issue?

When we choose a chipset from our partners like Qualcomm, we try to choose one that has the longest life possible so we can extend the life of our product as much as possible. As I mentioned earlier, we provide a three-year unconditional warranty on our devices, and as we expect our customers to be using them for at least that long, we try to choose technologies and components that will last for the life expectancy of the device platform.

You’ve worked in a number of different companies in the critical communications industry – how would you say Sonim’s company culture differs from theirs?

Sonim still has the culture of a start-up; that’s exciting because you can take a product idea and develop it internally quite quickly – at a larger company that would take a lot of time and effort and sometimes those products and ideas never come to fruition. A lot of us here have a lot of energy and wear a lot of hats. At Sonim, we look for fresh ideas, see if we can make them a reality and, if we think they will generate a good return on investment, we can move quickly.

Sonim recently had an initial public offering (IPO). What prompted it – are you looking to raise money to invest in any particular area?

The IPO was a long time in coming. If we were to acquire other businesses or expand our portfolio, we now have more capability and a much better environment with which to do so than if we were still a private entity. We’re quite excited about it.

What has Sonim been doing recently?

We developed our Rapid Deployment Kit (RDK) a little over a year ago. It incorporates four of our XP8 handsets and is supplied in an ultra-rugged case. It provides a 300-500ft Wi-Fi bubble, and with power-over-Ethernet connections, you can connect things like IP-PBX phones, IP cameras, so it’s designed to set up a command and control centre in remote areas where you may have limited cellular coverage. Where that coverage is absent, you can use satellite to backhaul the IP traffic to the RDK. The Wi-Fi bubble can be extended with external antennas. You can also mesh multiple kits together, so if you have three of them, but only one is within cellular coverage, the other two can backhaul through it and you can do the same with satellite connectivity.

We’re working on an in-vehicle set-up that displays your smartphone’s user interface and the apps you’re using on it on a large touchscreen and keyboard that’s mounted inside the vehicle. That way, with all the intelligence residing in the smartphone, there’s no need for two smart devices and two mobile subscriptions. Some of our competitors already have a similar system, but we’re doing it in a different way with both wired and wireless means of connecting the smartphone to the large touchscreen and keyboard.

There’s also the SLED (Sonim LMR Enhanced Detachable), an accessory for the XP8, that allows direct off-network communication via P25/DMR/TETRA, but not simultaneously – it’s still at the prototype phase. That said, we already have a similar direct mode accessory that operates in the licence-exempt 900MHz ISM band that is limited to 1 watt of RF power – it has a limited range, but it’s still very useful for those with smartphones looking to communicate with each other while outside cellular network coverage.

Finally, we’re participating in ETSI’s MCX (mission-critical PTT, data and video) Plugtests to make sure that our devices are interoperable with the rest of the MCX ecosystem. I’ve been involved in standards bodies for years both as an observer and a participant and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well everyone at these events works together to resolve technical issues or problems with the standards.

Bob Escalle CV
Robert (Bob) Escalle serves as Sonim’s vice-president responsible for its public safety and defence market segments. Escalle has overseen its expansion and continued leadership in these focused verticals. Before joining Sonim, he served as director of product management at Motorola Solutions, where he focused on managing the broadband device product portfolio. Before joining Motorola Solutions, Escalle held various senior-level positions in both product and business management focusing on wired, wireless and semiconductor market segments within the telecommunications industry for AT&T, Cassidian Communications, QuantM Voice, Lucent Technologies, Texas Instruments and Globespan Semiconductor.