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Should CIOs still bother with radio?

Should CIOs still bother with radio?

Radio is by no means a technology that is past its prime. Nor is it a technology that exists separately outside the realms of today's IT departments or CIOs.

The 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 that we can’t download emails or browse the internet — when that happens it’s frustrating. However, to a police officer or utility worker in a remote area, reliable coverage is not merely a nice-to-have but an absolute necessity — to be able to function properly and for personal safety. While a CIO may want to ensure field workers have reliable radio communications, the idea of operating a standalone radio network isn’t immediately attractive, when all of the other networks in the organisation are IP-based. As these are largely physically wired networks — Local Area Networks (LANs) — connected by a Wide Area Network (WAN), they are relatively straightforward to manage. However, radio technology has evolved significantly in the last few years, and today’s IP-based radio networks share much in common with modern IT systems.

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, fibre or landline. This WAN can be a combination of an organisation’s network and a commercial vendor’s network.

While the IP radio network can support voice and a limited amount of data, voice communications is still the main use. However, small data packets are increasingly becoming common as applications become available.

IP packets can be transmitted over shared lines, but care must be taken during the design of a radio network to ensure the quality of real-time voice communications is maintained. However, there are potential cost savings available because of the opportunity to share network resources.

What a CIO wants to know

Strategic fit

The CIO is responsible for ensuring all of the networks (and the devices on those networks) work together. The 9/11 tragedy was exacerbated by the police and fire networks being unable to talk with each other. Information must be able to move seamlessly from one network to another, especially where public safety is concerned.

Business needs

Technology that has been in operation for many years can become a hindrance to effective business functions. Businesses can change or the technology can simply fail to keep up. As a result, the CIO has to be sure that the technology is able to keep up over a long period of time, to ensure business needs are met over the long term.

Open standards

Last century, proprietary standards were common, due to the rapidly evolving technologies developed by companies using their own “standards”. These proprietary standards were used to lock customers in to the one vendor for a long time, ensuring the company was able to maximise revenue from customers. With the deployment and use of the internet, open standards managed by independent industry groups have replaced these proprietary vendor standards, making it much easier to share networks, data and voice transmissions.

Coverage

The telecommunications company places its cellphone towers where they can make the most revenue from as many connections as possible. As a result, the poor and semi-rural areas may not have reliable coverage. Unfortunately, these are areas where public safety agencies and utilities commonly operate. This means operating requirements must be based on radio coverage, using radio towers that can be easily reconfigured to ensure uniform coverage across a region.

Reliability

While most networks are designed and deployed with redundancy built in, the CIO must be absolutely sure that any new network vendor under consideration must be at least as reliable as the network vendor it might replace. The most common way to check this out is to talk with other organisations that already use this vendor’s equipment and services.

Security

With increasingly sophisticated and aggressive cyber-attacks, security has become a must-have. Not only is access security important, but high-level encryption has also become essential. Radio networks are very secure, due to high government use and security requirements, and are usually private, ensuring others cannot access transmissions as easily as they can on the public cellular network.

Scalability

While public safety entities may not be physically expanding, regional mutual support agreements are becoming increasingly common. As a result, the newer networks tend to expand and replace the older networks, so that all parties can communicate by consolidating on one standard. Utility CIOs understand that their companies may expand by procuring other utility companies. Either way, a smart CIO is going to make sure that the network can be scaled up, to cover any possible eventuality.

Management

To perform consistently, any network requires ongoing support. Whether it is user administration, security, device monitoring or network monitoring, these functions are all key to maintaining network integrity and performance. CIOs will want an extensive network management tool to be able to perform management functions effectively over the long term.

Redundancy

It’s already been mentioned that redundancy is built into most modern networks. However, due to the critical nature of public safety and utility work, having multiple networks provides the most redundancy. As most organisations already use the local public cellular network for a number of functions, a radio network is a very cost-effective way to ensure the additional needs of an organisation are met.

Interfaces

As radios become more intelligent and IP-based, interfaces with other networks (e.g. wi-fi) become common. Data interfaces with IT systems also become possible through these other networks. CIOs know that demands for integration are only increasing and that stand-alone systems are becoming rare. Any radio vendor not providing open-standard interfaces to other networks and IT systems risks losing sales, as potential customers walk away from probable vendor lock-in. These days, that is probably a career-limiting decision.

Convergence

Over the past 30 years, IT systems and networks have become more complex, to the point where it’s all very difficult to manage. Organisations wonder why their IT departments can’t get anything done, when in fact IT staff are working long hours to keep many different technologies going. CIOs are actively looking for ways to simplify their networks, systems and processes. As can be seen in the comparison table, the commonality between these networks is increasing to the point where network management tools will be able to handle both internal IP networks and radio networks on the same console.

Cost effectiveness / lifecycle

With continual downward pressure on IT budgets and increasing demands for service, being the CIO these days can be a thankless task. Predictability of costs is essential, as well as reasonable component cost, so that there are no surprises. As radio technology is built to last more than three times that of cellular, the costs can be spread over a much longer lifecycle of 10 to 12 years (see guide below).

To conclude, radio is by no means a technology that is past its prime. Nor is it a technology that exists separately outside the realms of today’s IT departments or CIOs. It has evolved significantly, using many of the same technologies used by the ubiquitous cellphone. It has an essential role in public safety and utility organisations that require mission-critical communications outside of population-dense areas. When issues such as coverage, reliability, security, robustness and cost are fully considered, a radio network offers genuine business value to many organisations.

Sidebar: Lessons from a 'perfect storm'

When a natural disaster strikes, the commercial telecommunications company networks are immediately impacted. Wireless phone providers told the Federal Communications Commission that the day after Hurricane Sandy landed on October 29, 2012, more than 25 percent of cellphone service went out in the 158 counties in 10 states most affected by the storm. Services worsened in many areas as generators serving cell towers ran out of fuel. Entire households were without communication as their bundled services (mobile phone, internet and landline) failed completely.

When the Richter 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 2011, the telecommunications networks were severely damaged and there was low availability within the city. The radio networks used by public safety agencies were restored within 24 hours and continued to perform throughout the following aftershocks. This earthquake had the third largest shock force ever recorded and is on track to be the third most costly to repair the damage.

These examples highlight the importance of having redundant communication systems operating across different technologies within a regional area.

John Emerson is the global CIO of Tait Communications.

Related:

John Emerson takes on the global CIO role at Tait after ICT leadership roles offshore.

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