Remote-control voice-over-Internet protocol
It’s a new ball game for the Midland brand of land mobile radio products. The focus is on Midland Radio’s remote-control, voice-over-Internet protocol (remote-control VoIP) product. But the Midland story demands an update.
Former Motorola executive Tony Lane, known for helping to develop Motorola’s dealer program beginning with the Radius product line, heads Midland Radio, a U.S. affiliate of CTE International, Reggio Emilia, Italy. As senior vice president and chief operating officer, Lane directs Midland Radio’s Consumer and Professional Divisions.
The Professional Division was created last year when Midland Radio, Kansas City, MO, bought the FM two-way radio land mobile sales and distribution business owned by Securicor Wireless. That’s the same sales and distribution business once owned by Midland International and previously known as Midland LMR.
No connection exists between the old Midland International and Midland Radio, nor between Securicor Wireless and Midland Radio — except for trademark licenses from each that allow Midland Radio to use the Midland brand name for consumer and land mobile radio products. Nonetheless, many Professional Division employees have made transitions from one owner to another and have worked on the land mobile radio product line for many years.
Ownership of the land mobile radio product line has changed several times during the past 10 years, and it seems to have landed squarely in the hands of a European company with extensive mobile radio experience and business operations dating to 1973. In fact, the Professional Division called on its Eastern European affiliates for engineering services in connection with its latest U.S. radio transceiver product introductions — a step that the Professional Division’s engineering director, David Kingsolver, said has reduced engineering costs to 5% to 10% of the previous typical outlay.
Meanwhile, Kingsolver and Lane expressed enthusiasm for the remote-control VoIP. For one thing, the remote-control VoIP gives users unprecedented and flexible access to a radio system backbone. Take, for example, a federal agency with repeater sites in remote areas that otherwise can be accessed only by local control stations. (A control station is a radio base station with a signal that can reach the repeater.)
The agency’s wide-area computer network connects many of the offices with the control stations. But microwave or other backbone systems connect only a limited number of the repeaters with one another. When users are beyond the coverage of the backbone network available to dispatchers, they can’t be called by using the control stations directly or by using traditional radio remote controls connected to the control stations.
The Professional Division developed special firmware in its base station radio’s central processing unit (the CPU, or computer brain) to optimize its connection with a gateway computer. The gateway computer serves to connect the radio base station with a computer wide-area network, which in turn serves as a backbone to connect any PC on the network with any selected base station with a gateway. Result: immediate connectivity among all gateway base stations.
Besides extending existing local dispatching capabilities to a new network of base stations, remote-control VoIP gives access to users who never had it before. They can use PCs to place calls with dial-up service from desktops or from laptops while on the road. They can dispatch from out-of-state offices and create zone dispatch centers.
Selective calling allows the remote-control VoIP to call an individual, distant radio unit over the WAN. Various methods can be used, including CTCSS, DCS and five-tone Selcall.
A software package has to be installed on any PC intended for use with remote-control VoIP to allow communication via IP packets directly with the gateway computer, which then converts the packets into analog voice or control signals. Off-the-shelf sound cards and digital controllers plug into the PC to allow it access to the remote radio base station over the wide-area network.
The Professional Division’s firmware optimization allows the remote PC to control as many as 64 channels over IP, together with “intelligent scanning,” which stops the radio on a channel and displays the selection on the remote PC. A binary output from the radio gives the computer the channel information, and a status signal tells the PC when to read the data lines.
Kingsolver explained that if a PC is scanning several base stations and one is operating at a remote location, it helps the PC user to know which user group has been selected when the scanning stops on a channel.
He said that scanning is a common requirement that couldn’t be done cleanly over tone line or dc termination connections used by traditional remote controls because it was difficult to transfer the scanning information.
“In land mobile radio, and especially in public safety radio systems, scanning with mid-tier radios is one of the biggest and toughest criteria to meet. It’s common for public safety and government agencies to want fast scanning, priority sampling and sometimes dual-priority scanning,” he said.
Kingsolver said remote-control VoIP has its greatest appeal to users with wide-area computer networks. He mentioned state agencies with many base stations, each with its own centralized dispatch. “We can give them the capability of anyone on the state network communicating with any one of those base stations,” he said.
If disaster strikes
Moreover, if weather, fire, flood, seismic activity or violence should disable a dispatch center, any location with a PC can take over the radio communications network. “You can distribute dispatching as much as you want or need,” Kingsolver said.
Kingsolver said that remote-control VoIP soon would be a large part of the land mobile radio business, and Lane added that many companies in the private sector have offices in many locations, each with on-campus radio systems that could be connected with remote-control VoIP through their existing wide-area computer networks.
“The effect upon traditional dispatch technology, whether trunked or conventional, may be substantial,” Kingsolver said. “What this really allows in the networking realm is to do away with a $100,000 switch and use a $1,000 PC with appropriate software to replace the switch.”
What about sales opportunities for dealers? On the one hand, they may not be selling additional two-way radio control stations onto existing systems. But Kingsolver said that the technology should stimulate sales because it “dramatically” increases the capability of two-way radio. “Customers can get wide-area coverage with a small investment in infrastructure,” he said.
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Midland Radio employs about 50 people and sells its Professional Division’s land mobile radio products to dealers and direct to some key customers. It also uses land mobile radio manufacturer’s representatives to augment the company’s regional sales managers.
The company’s chief operating officer, Tony Lane, came to the company last year after 28 years with Motorola where he helped to start that company’s dealer channel. It’s that very channel that Lane wants to use for land mobile radio sales at Midland.
“We have been using dealers as a sounding board for product development,” Lane said. “We have counseled with a number of dealers to make sure we have the right features and pricing. They’re smart; they know where their market is for this product. And they are going to lead us, rather than us lead them.”
Lane said that Midland’s land mobile products always had a strong brand name and customer loyalty, yet the business was decimated during 10 years of ownership changes. He said that a lot of dispatch business still exists, and that the company has rededicated itself to land mobile radio.
“We must rebuild confidence in our dealer network that we can deliver a high-quality product at a good price when they need it, and that we can support them and their customers after the sale,” Lane said.
Lane said that the company is looking for the best markets to serve where “we won’t get trampled,” referring to some large competitors. “LTR still is in big demand. There still are requests for T-band and lowband. No one is paying attention to lowband. Maybe our role is going to be areas where others are not spending lots of time and energy — and where rightly so they shouldn’t.”
Lane said that the company hadn’t put a hard dollar market value on remote-control VoIP, but that Midland, its customers and dealers see it as “huge.”
“Think about the Internet for a minute,” Lane said. “There’s no reason to think that the Internet won’t do to the radio communications world what it’s done for everyone else’s world. It’s the most marvelous tool.”