Bridging the gulf between IT and RF
As software becomes more important in controlling mobile radio systems — and as more organizations move voice and data systems onto a common IP platform — the boundary between radio communications and information technology is turning into a highly porous membrane.
Already, many public-safety agencies have put their IT departments in charge of their mobile radio systems. If IT professionals don’t directly buy, implement and maintain radio frequency (RF) systems, often they supervise the RF professionals who do. More important, they often control those budgets. This trend poses some interesting management challenges.
One such challenge springs from the cultural divide between RF professionals and the IT specialists to whom they now report.
“Typically, where a government entity has integrated its radio systems group … into the IT group, some radio persons tell me they have a very difficult time explaining and getting [what they need] to keep up with technology and standards,” said Emery Reynolds, retired radio system manager for Arapahoe County, Colo., and now with the consulting firm BearingPoint. “Since IT does not usually understand radio systems, they’re treated as the bastard child.”
According to Bill Carter, director of wireless special programs at the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications, voice radio systems that have outlived their life expectancy are not replaced because they’re not being funded — instead, computers and related systems “seem to get higher priority” in budgeting decisions.
“As far as I see it, most IT people don’t consider the voice radio system as being a primary system,” Carter said.
Moreover, some RF professionals express indignation over operational decisions made by higher-ups with a background in IT. One — a former telecommunications manager with a major city — tells of a “data dude” who didn’t understand “that radio systems and data systems do not have common performance, maintenance or operational methodologies.” That manager “to this day is trying to remold the real-time performance needs of radio and telephone into a typical IT model, where you can keep on repeating data streams until the system gets it right,” he said.
Also, IT professional “has managed to alienate virtually every radio user — 2000-plus — because he often chooses political solutions rather than operational solutions when there are complaints.”
The melding of IT and RF organizations doesn’t always lead to rancor. “I have also seen success stories come about, where the IT [professional] has a reasonable appreciation of the radio side of the business,” BearingPoint’s Reynolds said.
He cited a successful integration in Larimer County, Colo., where the technical communications team that runs the public-safety radio system and its microwave infrastructure resides in the IT division. Dave Rowe, who leads the technical communications team, has an extensive background in both radio and IT.
“My immediate supervisor has some radio background,” Rowe said. “The guys up above are pretty much IT guys, and they really don’t understand the radio side very well.”
But upper management gives the radio group the resources it needs, he said. Rowe added that the radio group works well with the desktop computer support team and the systems administrators in charge of the computer network infrastructure in areas of common interest, such as the use of the microwave backbone to carry data circuits for the county infrastructure, he said.
Such cooperation is likely to grow as Larimer County considers plans to merge radio, data and telecommunications on an IP backbone, Rowe said. “We’d be doing voice-over-IP kinds of links out to remote sites, and it would carry radio channels, it would carry the telephone systems, some special data circuits and just the generic data for the countywide LAN.”
IT professionals in charge of radio systems also must figure out how to communicate with radio systems vendors, which may not speak a language they understand.
“Radio salespeople — those who have been in the industry for quite some time — have a real issue dealing with and understanding IT terminology and also, a lot of times, what we’re after,” said Mike Bedwell, manager of public-safety communications for the city of Aurora, Colo.
A proponent of IP-based radio systems, Bedwell recently managed the implementation of an 800 MHz radio network that rides over M/A-COM’s Enhanced Digital Access Communications System (EDACS) technology.
IT professionals in charge of radio systems want to translate radio issues into terms they understand, according to Rhett Grotzinger, vice president of sales and marketing at Trident Micro Systems, a radio infrastructure vendor. Specifically, he said, they want to know, “How do we turn this into IP packets? How do we get it onto our existing LAN? How do we best utilize our existing IT resources to facilitate wireless communications?”
That desire — and a related push for IP-based radio systems — means that radio technology vendors must “learn how to communicate with IT people in a language they are comfortable with and understand,” Grotzinger said. They also must make sure their hardware includes the connectivity options that computer networks require.
“Converting everything to a common IP platform isn’t necessarily the best, most efficient way to do things,” Grotzinger said. But “if you stand before that IT professional and say, ‘I don’t understand what you do, but let me tell you why I’ve got the best solution,’ you look like an idiot. If you can say, ‘We understand IP, we understand your network, we understand grade-of-service issues and to roll all of these packets and stick them on your network may or may not be the best thing, and here’s why,’” that will produce a useful conversation.
As one might expect, education is one of the keys to improving the working relationships between IT professionals and radio vendors.
“IT people that are going to take over radio systems need to get a good baseline understanding of how radio systems work,” Bedwell said. “There’s always been this sales approach by multiple vendors: ‘Oh, this is so technical, it’s more like magic. Unless you’re a highly trained engineer, you just can’t understand it.’ Well, that’s not the case.”
Lance Martin, a firefighter and communications director for South Sioux City, Neb., has embraced that approach. Martin is in charge of the city government’s computers and fiber-optic network. He also participates in the Siouxland Tri-State Area Radio Communications (Starcomm) project, a federally supported program that has built an interoperable public-safety radio network covering the border region of Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa. When Martin first got involved in Starcomm, he knew little about mobile radio.
“I had to do a lot of homework to bring my understanding up to speed so I could be of value to the project,” Martin said. His best sources of information were the consultant managing the project, the Internet, colleagues with a radio background, publications on radio interoperability published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and an e-mail information exchange maintained by the not-for-profit Public Technology Institute.
Starcomm has implemented a Motorola ASTRO P25 800 MHz trunked radio network, and the system makes use of the IP protocol. “We put in an OC-3 microwave ring throughout our tower system,” Martin said. “We’re doing public-safety radio, telephone and data all over the same backbone,” with channel banks to convert signals from analog phones to digital and back again.
With this convergence of technologies, not only did Martin need to bone up on RF, but his colleagues from the RF world had to gain an education of their own.
“There are a lot of guys on the project who don’t have an IT background or don’t have an IP background — not much knowledge of networking — that really worked me over hard with a lot of questions to get them informed on why I was wanting to do things certain ways,” he said. “You really do have to develop a whole other skill set to stay with the latest technology.”
Rowe’s radio team in Larimer County has considered bringing in a vendor to conduct an RF boot camp for colleagues on the IT side. IT professionals who take such a course “understand the concepts better and the challenges that go with RF,” he said.
The county’s RF specialists also need to learn new concepts. “We’re used to T-1 — that’s not a big deal. But frame relay and ATM and all the IP and voice-over-IP that’s coming, that’s a big change for us,” Rowe said. The county has sent RF technicians to network training provided by Motorola, he added.
The gulf between RF and IT professionals probably will shrink as older employees retire and a new generation takes over management roles, Grotzinger said. “A lot of the conflicts we see come from the ‘we’ve always done it this way’” attitude, he said.
In Aurora, Colo., the gap already has shrunk as the public-safety communications department recruits radio personnel with a strong IT background, Bedwell said. New hires who gained their radio training in the military already are IT-savvy, he said, adding that although personnel who come from the IT world may have to learn about RF on the job, “what we’ve found is that when someone has a strong skill set in information technology, learning the theory of radio and radio wave propagation is an easily trained skill set.”