Digital radio hits the tipping point

Ryan Darrand / IHS Markit
22 Jan 2018

The number of digital licensed mobile radio (LMR) users exceeded the number of analog users for the first time in 2017, with over 24 million digital users. As the world’s LMR users migrate to digital and new entrants penetrate the market, the number of digital LMR users will continue to increase, and by 2021 will near the global LMR total of 2017.

A significant contributor to the growth of digital LMR technology is the growth in the number of active cost-optimized digital users, which will nearly triple between 2017 and 2021. World economies will see growth in business critical sectors, with transport and the industrial sectors combined accounting for over a third of LMR shipments by 2021.

Despite the growing pace of LMR digitization, there are a significant number of analog users still to convert to digital-radio protocols. However, 2017 was pivotal, as the number of digital users exceeded the number of analog users for the first time.

Terrestrial trunked radio (TETRA) continues to grow, in part from the many public safety and security agencies in countries across Europe, to areas of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. However, the highest growth rate is projected to be in the Americas, where the number of active TETRA users is forecast to double between 2017 and 2021.

Apco Project P25 (P25) will also continue to grow, with the world’s largest single P25 market located in North America, where P25 is the de facto mission-critical communications standard for public safety and security agencies.

While North America is forecast to remain the largest global market, holding more than three quarters of the world’s P25 users, P25 has permeated the global market, from parts of the Middle East and Africa to regions in Asia — in particular Australia, where the topography of the region suits the deployment of high-powered P25 equipment used by its public safety and security agencies. Asia will be the largest growth market for P25, nearly doubling the number of active users between 2017 and 2021.

Mission-critical applications continue to make up a major part of the mobile radio market. The installed base of public safety and security applications made up over 40% of the LMR market in 2017. However with globalization, an optimistic global economic outlook and increasing investment in non-public safety and security sectors will experience significant growth as well.

Cost-optimized digital technology, a term coined by IHS Markit to include DMR, NXDN and PDT, has been successful globally. The largest markets are North America and Asia, which together accounted for two-thirds of global cost-optimized digital users in 2017.

In developing regions, where there is no single national adoption of TETRA, TETRAPOL, P25 and other high-end technologies, adoption rates of cost-optimized digital technology by public safety and security organizations will be more prevalent. In more developed regions, where the private sector accounts for a larger proportion of economic growth, transportation and the industrial sector will be the largest adopters of cost-optimized digital technologies. Consequently, cost-optimized digital technologies are the fastest-growing LMR technology in the world, as business-critical users in the developed world, and the growing popularity of trunked systems, appeal to mission-critical users.

Alongside the growth of LMR digital technologies, Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology has developed on the world stage. Private LTE networks have emerged in China, South America, Australia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.

National LTE networks aim to be deployed in South Korea and the United Kingdom, and Angola has opted for a TETRA and LTE convergence solution for its national communications network.

The United States has affirmed its commitment to rolling out its nationwide FirstNet LTE network, as AT&T secured a 25-year contract to build and maintain the network.

Despite the emergence of LTE technology, LMR adoption will continue to grow, as LTE becomes more established and proves its capability to meet the specific critical voice communications requirements of emergency services.

In the short term, LTE will complement critical voice with data, rather than replace LMR altogether. Only in the medium to long term could LTE substitute for TETRA, TETRAPOL or other high-end LMR technologies, as capital investments are considered in nationwide or large-scale deployments.

Ryan Darrand is senior analyst of critical communications at IHS Markit

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