Poor man’s multisite trunking
Dressed in a pinstriped suit and carrying a briefcase full of money, opportunity came to many 800 MHz SMR operators during the past decade in the form of a Nextel representative. The opportunity was to sell their systems to Nextel, sometimes for millions of dollars.
The second time around, opportunity has come in the form of UHF and VHF trunked airtime service systems. Some of the same ex-800 MHz SMR operators used their Nextel money to re-establish themselves in the dispatch business. Some are newcomers.
No “one-size-fits-all” trunking system exists. Depending on the urban, suburban or rural nature of a market, whether Nextel has coverage there, what kind of fleet customers need service, and the relative need for multiple-site, wide-area coverage, an airtime system operator might choose one vendor’s product over another.
Texas ESAS system
Lionel Chatel of MTW Communications in Bay City, Texas, has placed his money with Relm Wireless, West Melbourne, Fla., for the company’s UHF “extended sub-audible signaling” multiple-site trunking system.
“We had purchased LTR-Net, but because of the rising mobile unit costs, we had to abandon the system. It started with a reasonably priced radio. But now it’s between $900 and $1,000,” Chatel said.
“Then we looked at PassPort. At the time, there were delays in getting the equipment to work, and the backbone was pricey. On the other hand, several companies make PassPort end-user units, which keeps the price down, but not enough to offset the cost of the backbone,” he said.
“MPT 1327 looked good, but it isn’t backwards-compatible with LTR.”
So, there are the three key factors for many operators: subscriber unit cost, backbone cost and LTR compatibility.
Chatel said that the Relm’s Uniden brand ESAS radio costs about half what the E. F. Johnson LTR-Net radio costs. A Johnson spokesman said that the company supports LTR-Net primarily by licensing the technology to other manufacturers. Two other manufacturers, Motorola and Unimo Technology, have such licenses, but apparently do not make LTR-Net subscriber units.
Chatel said that a choice of backbone technologies makes all the difference in the world when it comes to the cost of linking multiple sites together. His system uses dial-up telephone, sometimes known as “plain old telephone service,” or POTS.
“POTS makes the backbone reasonably priced, compared to T1 or even frame relay. A frame relay 64 k line between two sites was going to be $1,300 a month. We’re doing it with POTS lines for $234. If a POTS connection goes down, it dials itself back up,” Chatel said.
Chatel also said that the ESAS switch that controls LTR repeaters is less expensive, by half, compared to some alternatives.
His system includes three sites in Bay City, Wharton and Victoria. LTR customers who travel from one coverage area to another have to switch manually. With ESAS, the sites hand off automatically, and units have electronic serial numbers in addition to group call. Electronic serial numbers prevent cloning and airtime piracy, allow individual calls and let operators disable radios lost, stolen or linked with unpaid airtime charges.
Chatel’s customers include fleet operators, farmers, petroleum distributors, oil field service companies, cable TV companies and some government agencies. Among others, his system attracts users who go off road.
“Nextel and the cellular companies cover the main highways and are digital so their coverage doesn’t extend far along side roads. We go into the country where customers need coverage,” Chatel said.
Chatel envisions using ESAS to form a large coop network to compete with Nextel for wide-area dispatch customers.
“We are talking to other dealers about forming a large network. As we get more dealers involved, the size will grow. We can incorporate small mom-and-pop operations with one repeater here and there who might go broke without wide-area service to increase their service value and to allow the sale of wide-area dispatch,” Chatel said.
Chatel has ambitious plans — he wants to get several states involved by the end of the year.
Another Texas dealer, Steve Bosshard, owner of Bosshard Radio Service in Temple, said that he envisions a statewide system with rural market coverage that “the big guys don’t want to look at.”
“I’d like to see a unified system throughout Texas using primarily Internet or VoIP to tie tower sites together to compete with Nextel’s ‘direct connect.’ Nextel is formidable, but they don’t fit everything. We need to look beyond ‘one tower, one system’ and look at value-added features,” Bosshard said.
He said he chose ESAS for three reasons:
Relm’s business prospects — Relm’s customer base of government agencies and conventional two-way radio users that includes more than UHF trunking “makes me think they will stay afloat,” he said.
ESAS not new — Bosshard recalled that ESAS first came to market in 1996 in the 800 MHz band.
Backbone choices — “Some multiple-site systems require relatively expensive T1 links. A T1 from Waco to Temple is $1,300 a month, and together with site rental, that makes the front-end cost high. ESAS supports VoIP, which took the cost down to $200 per month,” Bosshard said.
At Relm’s product manager, Ken Klyberg, said that ESAS can use POTS, 2-wire E&M, 4-wire E&M, T1, E1 or VoIP to connect sites.
Mix and match
“Our system is a hybrid. You can connect two cells with POTS, the next cell with microwave, and the next with VoIP. You can mix and match. The network can be configured in a star, mesh or linear fashion, or a combination of each. With the current version of ESAS, you can hook as many as 128 cells together,” Klyberg said.
Klyberg said that ESAS offers seamless roaming, voice mail, paging, GPS and backwards-compatibility to LTR.
“Think Nextel in analog with the added capacity of wide-area group dispatch at the same price. Nextel can do it, but it’s cost prohibitive. They have to light up every tower. We can make those direct-connect calls like Nextel and wide-area group dispatch calls. And the billing is built-in. All you need is someone to send the invoices. It’s an intense solution,” he said.
Chatel was impressed. He put his money — thank you, Nextel — where his mouth is, and bought $950,000 worth of ESAS equipment.
Keeping it easy on the pocket
Another method for multiple-site networking for LTR operators has been available from IDA Corporation, Fargo, N.D., since 1991.
“The Net-Link system is linking thousands of LTR channels today. What it offers is multiple-customer, multiple-site networking for LTR systems,” said Reed Danuser, IDA’s director of marketing.
Danuser said that some other systems, such as PassPort and ESAS, use a switch with an enhanced protocol.
“The biggest difference with Net-Link is that you’re using your existing frequencies, no modification is required to the radios in the field, no phone lines or microwave links are required to connect the sites, and no DTMF or other signaling is required,” Danuser said.
“On the positive side, it’s cost-effective. It’s an elegant, simple solution,” he said.
“The negative side of Net-Link is two-fold. It’s inherently inefficient because it ties up two channels, one at each site, for a single conversation. The other is that it’s not automatic. The system doesn’t know where your vehicle is, so it doesn’t automatically network you. The operator needs to physically change the system and group in his radio to make a network call,” Danuser said.
Net-Link has been enhanced so it will carry three conversations simultaneously.
“What Net-Link does is to create an RF link between the sites, controlled by a PC. You can actually be carrying on three conversations at the same time — one from site A to site B, another from site A to site C, and a third from site B to site C, for example,” he said.
Danuser said that Net-Link attracts any system operator that wants to offer wide-area dispatching, so long as they have LTR systems.
“The charm of Net-Link is that there is no specialized equipment. It’s off the shelf. The investment is modest, and it works and has worked for 10 years,” Danuser said.