Many land mobile radio dealers find themselves sailing these days in unfamiliar waters. As IP-based radio systems gain ground, dealers must learn to speak a new language to a new audience: information technology professionals. And as federal grants grow more important in the public-safety communications arena, some dealers are finding that to make the sale, they must take on a new role as grants advisor — and sometimes even peacemaker.

Whether customers in a particular market are actively shopping for IP-based radio systems or are only just asking about them, dealers face the same fundamental challenge.

“Rather than dealing with folks who were very familiar with the radio environment, now you're dealing with people who are more data-, data speed-, computer-oriented,” said Guy Stevens, general sales manager at Communications International Inc. That means “your sales staff has to be a lot more educated because you have to be able to speak ‘IT-ese.’”

Radio sales reps “may have some challenges getting up to speed on the [IP] or computer side of things,” said Nick Ruark, general manager at Quality Mobile Communications. They also must find a way to explain wireless issues to IT professionals who may understand even less about radio frequency (RF) than they themselves do about wired networks.

When the IT staff isn't familiar with RF technology, they develop unrealistic expectations about what a wireless network can do, Stevens said. “Everybody wants to be faster, faster, faster.” However, some of the rules that apply in the wired world don't carry over to the airwaves, he said.

Beyond problems of mutual misunderstanding, dealers also may have trouble figuring out whom in an organization to approach with a sales proposal. As IT issues loom larger in the mobile radio world, “the one guy that used to run the communications is now hiring other people and delegating authority,” said Mike Cherrington, owner of Cherrington Communications. Instead of cultivating one contact, “I have to get hold of this department and coordinate something over here with them and talk to other people and find somebody to talk to them about this. It's not the old ‘hang around the water cooler and fix radio problems.’”

Derek Marchini, sales manager with Cook's Communications, finds that although customers in his market aren't yet shopping for IP-based radio systems, they do want to integrate their analog systems with IP-based dispatching systems. That scenario poses challenges of its own.

People on the IT staff “just don't know anything about the radio industry or how the functions of a VHF conventional radio perform,” Marchini said. However, bringing IT staff into an implementation is “not impossible — it's just another hurdle that you have to jump through to get the IT people to recognize where we're coming from, how the radios perform and how they interact — or how they need to interact — with their systems.”

To bridge the knowledge gap between radio dealers and IT professionals, the key strategy is “training, training, training,” CII's Stevens said. In particular, CII's sales reps take advantage of technology training offered by M/A-COM, he said.

Dispatching systems manufacturer Vega Signaling Products has helped staff at Quality Mobile Communications understand IP. “They've provided us with information and PowerPoints and so on that give us some ideas,” Ruark said. But, he added, he would rather gain some hands-on experience. “It would be nice to be able to actually put something together that uses these protocols and this technology and see what it does in the real world.”

In addition to relying on manufactures, dealers also educate themselves. Trade magazines provide valuable information, Cherrington said. Also, “I keep a close eye on the Internet. I maintain surveillance, I guess you might say, on a lot of chat groups and watch government Web sites” to keep up on issues related to IP-based radio systems.

When building a solution that mixes conventional radio with IP-based computer applications, one key is to get the IT staff involved from the start, Marchini said. That way, “they're aware of what it's going to lead up to, where we need to get to bring them into it.” And if IT staffers need to raise any red flags about their portion of the project, they can raise them early.

Federal grants for public-safety radio systems have proved a mixed blessing for radio dealers. At Smith Two-Way Radio, grants have helped accelerate the sales cycle, said sales manager Terry Griffin. “The last two years, in the state of Arkansas, there have been considerable amounts of grant funds available,” and agencies with cash in hand can make faster buying decisions, he said.

But other dealers report that procurements take longer when grants enter the picture. “A lot of times, the sales cycle on larger procurements can be anywhere from 12 to 24 to 36 months on a public-safety agency actually getting what they're looking for, just based on the simple fact of funding,” Stevens said. “They know what they need, they know what they want, but now they've got to figure out how to pay for it.”

Instead of completing the procurement in six months, “maybe now it takes a year because they have to wait through the granting application period,” Cook's Marchini said. “And then, once they do get approved, the transfer of money into their budget” takes additional time.

“The grant process, from what I can gather, hasn't been very smooth,” Cherrington said, and that applies especially to the volunteer fire departments that comprise much of his company's market. These customers have no prior experience with grants, so when they apply, they often find “they didn't dot an i or cross a t. And they're denied, and they can't understand it.”

In other cases, small agencies lose out when they discover they must match a grant with other funds, and they simply don't have the money, Cherrington said.

The grant process has spawned a confusing situation in which agencies — just to get money — apply for grants to buy equipment based on the Project 25 protocol, Quality Mobile's Ruark said. When they win the grants, they must buy P25 equipment regardless of whether that's the best choice for them.

“The smaller agencies are just so happy to see some grant money to replace some of their decrepit old radios that they don't bother to do the research or give a lot of thought to what it is [they're] doing,” he said.

To reduce the confusion and steer customers toward available funds, some dealers have volunteered to take on the role of consultant. For instance, the growing importance of grants has forced Cherrington to figure out various grant programs to help his customers. That includes making sure “they're filling things out right and know who to contact and things like that.”

At CII, sales reps work with manufacturers to stay informed about grant opportunities and pass that information along to customers, Stevens said. They also take formal training. “For public-safety agencies, just getting the little bit of money budgeted to be allowed to go to a seminar is very difficult. So our sales folks, acting in a consulting-type mode, will go to these seminars and then can share this information with their different customers.”

Customers also may work directly with manufacturers. “A lot of the manufacturers are providing great support on how the agencies can get the money and how to write the applications for the money,” Marchini said.

With “interoperability” a hot buzz word in public safety, another useful strategy for dealers is to help smaller agencies collaborate on grant applications and implementations.

“If you can get a whole bunch of agencies to go together to buy a radio system or a communications solution, it's a lot easier for them to get funding than if each individual little agency tries to do it on their own,” Stevens said.

Unfortunately, small government organizations don't always get along well. “So a lot of times, we like to play the PR kind of folks and get these agencies speaking to each other,” while showing them the advantages of collaboration, Stevens said. “Everyone can buy in together, get the advantage of a single funding source to do a large procurement, but still keep their own independence in their endeavors. It's a neat way to go.”

IP radio according to…

COMPANY LOCATION YEAR FOUNDED LMR BRANDS SOLD
Cherrington
Communications
Scottsdale, Ariz. 1995 BK/RELM
Communications
International
Vero Beach, Fla. 1973 M/A-COM, Kenwood, Vertex, Icom, Tait and others.
Cook's
Communications
Fresno, Calif. 1946 Motorola, Kenwood, Icom, Vertex, Tait, Maxon
Quality Mobile
Communications
Vancouver, Wash. 1976 Motorola, Kenwood, Vertex, BK/RELM and others.
Smith Two-Way Radio Fayetteville, Ark. 1929 Motorola, Kenwood, Vertex, Icom and others.