Critical Comms digs into The Orion Network, which delivers digital communications across most of Australia … and with similar networks coming online in other countries.
The Orion Network covers the most densely populated areas of Australia, providing a robust digital solution for government agencies and commercial enterprises. With an equivalent network coming online in New Zealand and similar networks in some Asian countries, it clearly is providing a solution to a need.
In this companion piece to our story on Newcastle City Council, we dig deeper into the Orion Network and the capabilities and coverage it provides. We spoke with Bevan Clarke, Motorola Solutions’ General Manager of Radio Channels for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.
Are you finding there’s growing interest amongst customers for a ready-made network, rather than having to put in a bespoke system and then have the hassles of maintaining it?
Yes, that’s something that we’re seeing in the marketplace. A lot of big customers, such as airports and transport operators, at the end of the day just want to do their business, which is to take a box from X to Y or fly planes from Adelaide to Sydney. They don’t really want to be caught up in the technology, so they leverage partners like Gencom and the Orion network to get their outcome and an operations-based model. That’s what this is all about now, accessing the latest and greatest technology with integration of voice and data communication across a single platform.
At the end of last year, there was a big push towards narrow-banding in the Australian radio market that got a lot of operators thinking about what they were going to do with their existing hardware, and how they could future-proof themselves in a 5- to 10-year period post that cutover. Digital two-way radio enables this. It protects investment and encourages development of applications to come onto it, which analog networks don’t – analog networks are restricted by the hardware, and can only do so much.
So Orion is scalable in both its capabilities and its spread?
Because it’s IP, it allows linking of sites. As a city council, say, needs to expand – they might pick up a contract for waste delivery into another region – so the likes of Orion/Gencom could put in another site at another location and link that into the Orion backbone. So you’ve got the ability to grow the network via IP, via DSL, via fibre, via microwave link, a lot more effectively, and that gives the network scalability.
Another factor of digital radio is the noise-cancelling features and audio quality. What that means for an end user such as a council is fewer repeat messages. In an operational sense, the message gets through first time, even in the noisiest environments, which allows people to make their decisions and do their jobs a lot quicker.
What’s the status on interoperability? How can, for instance, adjacent city councils communicate with each other on the Orion network?
There are two ways to do that. They could each be on the Orion network. But now also in this digital age, there are applications at a software level that can bridge a different network to the Orion network. So you’ve effectively got a product in the middle that can take, say, an analog call and put it onto a digital network.
A lack of interoperability has been a major issue in several recent incidents overseas, such as the Naval Yard shootings in the USA.
Yes, communication on the ground can be the difference between life and death sometimes. Digital systems allow all the different networks, and more importantly, user groups, to speak with each other when they need to. You can set up the programming of the radios into a ‘fleet map’. So, for example, you might be maintenance and I might road services, and we operate on our separate talk groups quite merrily day to day. But in the event of an incident, we can switch our radios to a common talk group – effectively an emergency operations talk group – and then both you and I are able to talk to each other.
Orion spreads further than Australia, doesn’t it?
The vision of the Orion network is to also connect up the New Zealand key regions – Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch. There’s a similar platform over there right now, a MotoTRBO network, set up by four key partners. In probably within three to six months, we’ll have the ability to be making calls from Australia to a key region in New Zealand, bridging the Tasman Sea for organisations that might have an operation in the two countries. And because it’s all over a radio network the calls are no charge; it’s just free piggybacking on an IP link. So this network scale is not just within the boundaries of Australia, it could go anywhere. We’ve got partners setting up in Malaysia and Indonesia with the same MotoTRBO technology.
So that would be most applicable to a commercial operation, such as an airline or a freight operator?
That’s right. A suitable customer would be one with multiple locations or fleets of vehicles that they need to communicate with or track or manage. We can now provide the platform they need.
The no-cost call is one of the key things. We’ve managed to win back some customers who had gone from radio to cellular. The cost blowout that happens to some of these large fleets and workforces with cellular is definitely an issue for some of our customers – and they look at radio and say “Radio is fixed cost, I can make as many calls as I want amongst my staff, and it enables me to talk to all of them with a push of a button and they’re all hearing what I’m saying.” That’s a huge operational benefit and a huge cost benefit of the radio platform versus cellular.
And with cellular you can’t get extra services like reporting of GPS locations?
That’s right. We call it ‘GPS to the hip’ of the user. In terms of how GPS works, the perfect city council operator is a parking warden. Parking wardens get in harm’s way effectively every single day of the week as they do their job. Via digital two-way radio with GPS, they’ve got voice communication back to the operations team, and if they get in that situation where they’re about to get clobbered, they simply hit the emergency button on the top of the radio which straight away sends a GPS call up the network. So if you’re my operations manager, you can straight away see an alert and an alarm, and a GPS location on the mapping system on your screen. You can then muster and send support services to help.
The great thing about two-way radio is that these systems are built specifically for business users and that’s why we always talk about mission critical and business critical – you don’t have the overloading and resource restriction that you get with cellular.
I guess New Zealand is a prime location for this kind of service?
Oh, agreed. Canterbury, for example, is looking closely at two-way radio at the moment, because of what happened after the 22 September quake. The cell phone networks were heavily impaired and voice calls were not able to be made. The health boards of Canterbury couldn’t talk to each other and get first line responses to how they were going to treat all the people who had been injured. It was a frightening scenario and showed the limitations of cellular networks in providing tier-one responses to a natural disaster.
I suppose its easy to use hindsight and say, how did they get to this point in the first place? But surely the agencies would have known of the vulnerabilities in these systems. Were they just looking at dollars? Or were they thinking that it couldn’t happen to them?
I think it’s probably a combination. We often assume it won’t happen to us. We get comfortable with how day-to-day life operates.
Motorola is trying to deliver solutions that actually help in those moments that matter. When its life or death, or a business outcome that has to happen, the devices we make are manufactured in such a way that they will work. That’s a mantra that Motorola has, and that’s why we’ve been so successful in emergency services and the business market – our networks and solutions work amongst all the variant factors of what this world can throw at us every day.