Upgrading to digital two way radio: What you need to know

Businesses in the manufacturing and processing industries have been using two way radio for decades. When it comes to providing simple, reliable wireless voice communication on the shop floor, two way radio is still trusted by the majority of companies, even with the advent of mobile phones.

Over the past few years, two way radio has undergone a significant upheaval. With the arrival of digital technology, handsets have become more powerful and feature rich than ever before. Instead of just offering straightforward voice communication like traditional analogue models, the modern digital two way radio can be used for text messaging, for GPS tracking, for connecting to data systems, Wi-Fi and external telephone systems.

Some models come with colour screens and contain searchable directories with the ability to create call groups or else make private calls to individual users. They offer work ticket and dispatch management features, plus a wide range of alert systems which help monitor and manage safety in the workplace. And getting back to the core of what two way radio was designed for, they offer better audio quality and bigger signal ranges than ever before, taking professional mobile communications to the next level.

As with the emergence of all new technologies, businesses using legacy analogue two way radios feel a pressure to move with the times and upgrade. But against the benefits of improved technical performance, there are often concerns over cost, getting full value for existing equipment and having to get staff on board with new systems.

Unlike many technology upgrades, the switch from analogue to digital two way radio need not represent major upheaval for your business. Let’s take a look at the key facts it is helpful to know.

What are the costs?

Industrial class digital handsets start at around £125 to £150 a piece, which is comparable to licensed analogue radios aimed at business users. From that base, the cost of digital two way radios rises to several hundred pounds per unit for the most advanced and feature-rich models, as well as for ATEX handsets certified for use in hazardous environments.

The thing that concerns many companies about upgrading entire two way radio fleets to digital is the bulk cost of buying 10, 20 or 30 handsets at once. Particularly for smaller businesses, this represents a major capital outlay. Plus, existing analogue radios may still be in good working order, so there is a desire to get the most out of them for the duration of their working life.

One popular solution to this is to opt for a so-called ‘hybrid’ model like the Hytera PD505 which can operate on both analogue and digital signals. Many two way radios can work on either analogue or digital, but have to be programmed for one or the other prior to deployment. The PD505 can communicate using both signal types simultaneously, making it an ideal bridge between other analogue and digital handsets. This means a company can replace legacy handsets a few at a time, the PD505 will communicate with the remaining analogue radios just fine and the migration to digital can be managed gradually.

What are the benefits?

Comparing digital to analogue two way radio is like comparing smartphones to first gen mobiles, or broadband to dial-up internet. It represents a significant leap forward in two way radio functionality and capabilities, and one that delivers numerous performance benefits to the end user.

For example, digital two way radios are able to use something called Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) technology when transmitting – it sounds complex, but the upshot is, by making more efficient use of power and resources, a digital handset can deliver up to 40% longer battery life than an analogue equivalent.

On audio quality, most two way radio manufacturers now make use of digital software to include some form of noise cancellation or intelligent volume control in their handsets. The ability to ‘clean’ signals of background noise means digital radios are ideal for working around heavy machinery, as only the signal from the user’s voice is transmitted.

In terms of additional features, digital technology has expanded the range of safety features that are now included as standard in many handsets, helping manufacturers to improve safety monitoring and ensure compliance with HSE regulations. As well as emergency override functions and one-touch emergency button alarms which are familiar from analogue models, the majority of digital two way radios can now be programmed with the likes of Man Down automatic fall alarms or Lone Worker remote monitoring tools.

Finally, arguably the most exciting area of development in digital two way radio is the ability to turn handsets into advanced data interfaces and connect them into much larger digital systems. With its MOTOTRBO digital range, for example, Motorola is pioneering the use of software to integrate two way radio with broadband so multiple sites can be connected and different devices can all communicate together.

Following the lead of the smartphone revolution, Motorola is also developing apps for digital two way radio specifically designed to expand the range of features and solutions available to industry. One example is a range of apps for data transmission and telemetry, turning radio handsets into interfaces for monitoring M2M systems.

Overall, there is little doubt that digital is the future of two way radio. While analogue remains perfectly functional for many use cases, over the course of the next decade, as digital capabilities expand even further and costs come down, we can expect to see analogue radios gradually phased out. It is a question of planning when migration best fits your business.

James Miller is managing director of Brentwood Communications. For more information about two way radio for industry and about Brentwood Communications, visit the website.