IP technology has wrapped its tentacles around the telecommunications industry and is expanding inexorably in the direction of two-way radios and the customers and markets they serve. Depending on their perspective, this presents either a hardship or an opportunity for dealers, who must understand, sell, install and maintain what could be radically different equipment than what they've been selling for the past three decades.

“It's a challenge, no doubt, for any two-way radio dealer to get into that product portfolio. It's an investment in people, an investment in training, an investment in equipment,” said Myron Polulak, vice president and CEO of New England Communications Systems. “You have to be willing to stick it out, have to have a vision and you need to be responsive to your customers.”

The product portfolio to which Polulak alluded combines “conventional” two-way RF radios and IP. It's more of a product integration than a migration, said Louis Cartwright, owner and president of Cartwright Communication Technology, maintaining that the foundation is still the same even as the layers change.

“A two-way radio is a radio. Somehow they might merge, but the Internet … when it's used with a radio, it has to be a two-way radio,” Cartwright said. “Radio is still going to be radio … it's just another pipe for IP.”

That's close, but not exactly how Quantm Voice Systems, a company developing and marketing gear to the first-responder/emergency services marketplace, sees its equipment.

“It's IP, but we try to integrate with some of the legacy equipment out there,” said Bob Escalle, Quantm's vice president of engineering, adding that the company's equipment merges elements of IP telephony with conventional RF radio.

“If you're sitting at your desk, you have a voice-over-IP telephony terminal unit with a touch screen,” Escalle said. “A person can answer a telephone and at the same time monitor and transmit from a radio channel right from their IP terminal on the desk, and it interacts with the main console. You have these terminals which … look like a regular telephone but do both telephony and radio control on the same unit.”

The units can be configured to talk on specific channels, listen to traffic or tie a voice conversation into the radio, he said.

Quantm is targeting a marketplace fueled both by need and, to some extent, funding from sources such as the Department of Homeland Security. To do an effective job, Escalle said, the company needs the support of the radio dealer network. “[They need] to understand packet networks, understand there is a transition to be made … into more of an IP-type system.”

So far, Escalle said, there is a “fear factor” among dealers because “the transition is happening a lot more quickly than they're willing to admit.”

It's not so much fear as justified wariness about whether all those IP bells and whistles are necessary, said Bob Samo, CEO of Silverado Avionics. For many customers, “it boils down to, ‘Gee, wouldn't it be nice if we had this?’” Samo said. On the other hand, he said, it's the customer's “perceived” need, not the real one, that drives the sale, “so all of us dealers have to avail ourselves of what's going on in the IP markets.”

That means being informed on all sides of the equation, Samo said.

“At the very large entities … the IT departments are tending to take over what used to be radio,” he said. “Now, many of the radio people report to the IT departments, and the IT people don't have a clue when it comes to the radio side.”

Dealers, he said, can help IT personnel understand RF radios, but to do that, dealers also must be committed to understanding the new technology, Polulak said.

“We embraced this about a year-and-a-half, two years ago and rolled this into our product portfolio,” said Polulak, who uses and pitches Motorola's Canopy fixed wireless system. “We're not trying to force it into the marketplace, but surveillance, wireless video and mobile data applications are all over the place.”

The best way to market and support the new range of technology is to employ people who understand both IP and RF radios.

“I understand both sides of it, but everybody else doesn't,” Cartwright said. “You have IP people that don't understand radio and radio people that I assume will not understand IP.”

In some cases, dealers are supplementing their staffs with the necessary expertise.

“We have a gentleman on board now that is exceptionally familiar and capable when it comes to Internet-type applications and RF applications. We need to,” said Sal Dragotta, general manager of Viking Communications.

Dragotta, like others, said he wasn't sure how many others in the business were taking similar steps to understand the impact IP could have on the two-way radio sector.

“I really don't see where a lot of my associates in the two-way radio business are moving in that direction. From what we're seeing here, actual RF is alive and well,” he said.

RF always will be alive and well because it's an adaptable technology, Cartwright said.

“The computer world is now growing into the radio world just like the phone world grew into the radio world,” he said. “Two-way radio has always been there, it's now adding another process across its path.”

Though the move to IP is inexorable and irreversible, the mobile radio space is not necessarily making the migration en masse.

“For the most part, things in our California/Nevada markets remain pretty much conventional,” Samo said. “The first thought in my mind is no big deal. That could be very short-sighted because if you don't pay attention to the IP aspects of the marketplace, it can pass you up in the hurry.”

Steve Orr, vice president and general manager of Cardinal Two-Way Radio, would actually like to see more things develop in the IP space, which, for now, is a niche” business, “like selling accessories. It's a good thing to have, but it's not something you can build your business around,” he said.

But that's not the way Polulak sees it. He sees both a big marketplace and a big market opportunity.

“We're very busy. It's a growth opportunity for our business,” he said. “I clearly do know there are a lot of people saying, ‘This ain't for us.’ That's fine. I'll be happy to take that business because we're growing our business significantly, and a lot of it has to do with broadband.”

Much of the reticence to get into the IP space likely has to do with dealers that are justifiably concerned about reinventing a successful business model.

Still, that's what it will take, driven by “those that are on the leading edge or the high end of the technology, that understand IP and radio and for that matter, phone,” Cartwright said. “All the technologies are now growing together, and [dealers] need to understand all of them.”

And if they don't?

“Dealers, if they're not wary of what's going on and getting educated, will get bypassed, and other larger companies will get involved,” said Escalle, who, as an equipment vendor will sell to the dealers that market his technology. “IP is coming down the pike, and the dealers really, really need to be aware of it and get themselves on board. If not, it's a fast train that's going to catch them by surprise.”