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Radio Maintenance Considerations


Owners of complex trunked radio networks face a set of conflicting requirements: the need to maintain efficient and reliable radio communications networks, and supportive infrastructure subsystems, while juggling ever-shrinking budget revenue streams. So, in Today’s economy there is evermore pressure to squeeze the maximum value out of every dollar spent.

Radio systems are often maintained via one of the following three methods: A. In-House Services where the Owner funds and staffs an internal maintenance operation; B. Out-Sourced Services where the system’s manufacturer or integrator provides all radio maintenance services; or C. Hybrid Services where the Owner and the system’s manufacturer or integrator share in the overall maintenance of the subject radio system. Due to the large geographic area served by statewide radio configurations, maintenance there is often undertaken using either outsourced or hybrid methods.

Large municipal or county radio systems often opt for in-house maintenance as those entities may have the physical and financial resources to staff, train, and equip in-house capabilities. Smaller cities and counties – particularly those in rural areas – typically opt for a full outsourced maintenance solution.

No matter what maintenance configuration is utilized, Owners share one common concern: The delivery of high-quality, reliable repair and preventative maintenance services at an affordable price. When outside vendors are leveraged for maintenance, it is imperative that the scope and breadth of required services are embodied by an enforceable and monitored contract.

Contract Negotiation Focus Points

Standard radio contracts offered by vendors - while a good starting point during contract negotiations - are not well structured to meet an Owner’s most likely service needs. Don’t be surprised if a draft contract or even an existing service contract excludes cost-covered repairs to important items, such as: antennas, transmission lines, tower top amplifiers, receiver multicouplers, transmitter combiners, battery plants or generators … all of the items that typically are most prone to failure. So, how deeply protected is your radio system investment via a ‘standard’ agreement? In most instances not too deep!

And, while the expedited physical repair of defective hardware is obviously essential, keep in mind that Today’s radio systems are largely software driven. The Owner’s final, negotiated maintenance contract must always include the installation and support of vendor-developed software releases. Doing so ensures the Owner’s financial investment in expensive, complex radio technology remains viable throughout the anticipated service life of the radio configuration. The anticipated life cycle for a new Project-25 digital radio solution is 20+ years, so an effective maintenance program is imperative.

Once a maintenance contract is in place, how effective is the provided maintenance service? Are the maintenance providers merely affixing patchwork solutions or working to cure true problems? More to the point, is the Owner receiving the full range and value of services for dollars spent? Vendors and system integrators typically offer network operation center monitoring of tower-site equipment, standby power systems, backhaul site connectivity, remotely located trunked/network controllers, and interoperable radio/broadband gateways. These are important repair and monitoring services that should be encompassed in one’s maintenance program….assuming remote monitoring services are properly managed and no one is ‘asleep at the switch’.

Don’t forget to include user radios in the overall maintenance scheme. Ideally, all user radios should receive an annual round of preventative maintenance to include: examination of antenna/antenna efficiency, verification of reference oscillator calibration, receiver sensitivity, power output/modulation verification, software revision status, battery status, and, the functionality of accessories such as speaker microphones.

Maintaining Maintenance Quality

As President Reagan once eloquently stated: Trust but verify. Whenever an outside maintenance service is being considered - before signing anything – check the firm’s references.

Once under contract, maintenance quality and response targets can be verified through vendor service reporting requirements coupled with oversight by an independent third-party consulting or audit service. If one is experiencing repetitive problems to a specific piece or group of equipment, something is clearly wrong – but it might be with your provider! One sure-fire way to ensure prompt delivery of services is an assessed financial penalty should the delivered services lack timeliness or quality.

Whatever maintenance model is engaged, maintenance personnel must have the appropriate training and tools to accomplish their mission. Verify that assigned technicians have received certified training on the equipment under their umbrella.

Confirm that your service facility (in-house or vendor-provided) has the software tools and test equipment needed to ensure equipment and coverage performance remains reliable. As an example, merely because an antenna is visibly present on a site’s tower doesn’t mean it’s working to spec. Antenna components wear out over time. Vibration, exposure to the elements, lightning strikes, and metal fatigue are the key culprits. Just because an antenna shows low reflected power is no indication that antenna gain has not been diminished. Such performance assessments are best done through coverage testing and direct comparison between calculated versus actual, measured performance.

Closing Thoughts

Radio system reliability does not happen by accident. Important elements involving equipment redundancy, standby power systems, hardened equipment sites and secure backhaul interconnected solutions all share a foundation of proper, detailed engineering.

Yet, these solutions are not static -- where performance degrades slowly with time. In rare (thankfully) instances, degradation can be immediate and is typically caused by some component failure or external incident. Those failures require immediate, expedited attention. In either case, someone must takes steps to resolve the issue and that’s where an Owner’s effective, reliable maintenance program takes center stage.

Sadly, the photo added to this blog posting is an actual radio site I once had the misfortune to stumble upon. Clearly, whatever radio base station is lurking inside that dump is on its own!

No doubt some wonder if this exacting degree of maintenance effort and scrutiny is necessary. Unfortunately, experience says it is and this blog's photo should reinforce the point. No knowledgeable Owner would chance the risk of radio system failures due to poor maintenance, mistakes made by unqualified parties, or ignored software updates. While negotiating effective and enforceable maintenance contracts is a time-consuming task, a rock-solid maintenance program provides peace of mind to all involved parties and is money well spent.



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