UN rolls out digital radio – Do NGOs need to throw away existing radios?

Short range VHF radio communications is changing for the better. For many years many UN agencies and NGOs have used analogue radio systems. Many leading manufactures like Motorola are ditching the analogue almost completely in favour of digital technologies. Towards the end of 2014,  Motorola stopped producing its popular GP and GM series radios.

Recently the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster  (ETC) in South Sudan sent out an email to agencies and NGOs to inform everyone what the new DP and DM MotoTRBO radios would become the new standard. They also provided a list of local resellers where NGOs could buy the new radios. Some NGOs started to worry that all radios would need to be replaced. In this article, I want to set minds at rest and explain why NGOs do not need to ditch the analogue radios quite yet.ETC

Before I get into the details about the new radio technology, here is a little background information about the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster.

The ETC was formed as part of the wider cluster system by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. The original mandate was to provide telecommunications, connectivity and basic IT support when the cluster system is activated during an emergency response. This original mandate will be expanded to other areas under the new ETC2020 strategy.

Currently the ETC is providing services inclusive of VHF radio networks in South Sudan, Iraq, West Africa, Central African Republic, Yemen, Syria and Nepal. To date, the ETC have provided relay stations with supports analogue radios such as the GM360 and GP380. The ETC will begin to roll out digital networks over the next few years which will work alongside existing analogue networks. The ETC will continue to keep these analogue networks running until 2020. Please visit
http://www.etcluster.org
for more information.

Radios
Digital VHF  – How this affects NGOs
In 2014, many UN agencies agreed to use the MotoTRBO DMR technology as the standard system. Many NGOs including Save the Children have already adopted the same standard.  This means that from now on, network providers such as WFP,ETC and UNDSS will be setting up digital networks for NGOs to use.

The adoption of the new digital standard does not mean we have to throw away all of the radios we currently use. The new MotoTRBO DM and DP models also work in analogue mode which means that the new radios will be compatible with the older GM and GP radios which are currently in use. VHF repeater stations are also digital but can also be set up so that analogue radios can be supported.

In locations where the ETC is providing VHF Relay coverage, analogue will continue to be supported alongside any new digital services until 2020. As the new radios can be set up to work with both technologies,  the new radios will be able to communicate with older models on the analogue channels. Organisations will need to develop a strategy to switch to digital completely after 2020 or set up their own repeaters.

In places where the ETC or other UN agencies do not provide a network, organisations will have complete control and should develop a switchover strategy which suits each organisation. The best approach is for organisations to work up a strategy for each country rather than to impose a global deadline. In places where NGOs plan to set up completely new networks, digital should be used from the get-go. For places where already networks are well established, over time new digital radios will be added as older analogue radios are taken out of service due to age, wear and tear. In some countries, organisations are using DR3000 repeaters in analogue mode. These repeaters are digital ready and it’s a fairly simple task to move from analogue to digital mode.  It is clear that different countries will move to digital at a different pace to others, but with the correct planning, its possible to  design hybrid networks which will utilise analogue and digital channels thus making the transition easier.

What benefits will digital deliver?
With the analogue networks, the quality of the audio will diminish the further away the  mobile station is from the base. With a digital network, the call quality remains the same out to the edge. As the signal weakens, the audio becomes poor very quickly.

range

Digital networks allows for many more functions. Repeaters can be joined up via the internet so that calls can be made between cities. The practical use of radios will also change on a digital system. It’s possible to make private calls between radios without disturbing all other radios on the network. Of course the useful ability to call all stations with a broadcast is still available.

Digital radio is more efficient. For each frequency an organisation is licensed to use, two voice channels can be used (Only one channel per frequency is analogue). This is achieved by using Time Division Multiple Access (or TDMA), a method which is also used in mobiles phones and satellite technologies.  Voice calls are split up into separate time slots on the frequency, which does result in a very slight voice delay.

tdma

In digital modes, as the radio is only transmitting for ½
the time of analogue, battery life is extended by up to 40 %.

There are many other benefits to the digital system soch as
remote management tools, the ability to give each radio an ID, emergency calls,
and the ability to send text messages between radios

Conclusion
Digital VHF radio is definitely the future. The ETC has
taken a sensible approach by continuing to provide analogue support right out to
2020. NGOs should note the changes and start to develop plans to move to digital
over the next 5 years.

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