5 Questions For Selecting the Right Radio Manufacturer

September 1, 2015

Selecting the right microwave radio manufacturer is difficult, even for a seasoned microwave professional.Best Choice image
30% of respondents in a recent survey indicated that they were not satisfied with, or at least uncertain of their current microwave vendor.  20% of those explicitly asked us for assistance on the matter.
The landscape of equipment vendors continues to grow and differentiating between them is becoming more difficult.
I’ll cut to the chase.  If you don’t have a person or source you trust to help you identify the best solution, you need one!  This isn’t a selfish plug for Castle Rock Microwave, it is absolutely the truth.
That said, it is our responsibility to understand the landscape well and help our customers make wise decisions, but there are others like us.  Perhaps we can help you get connected.
To a certain degree,  you need to rely on people you trust to help make this decision.  However, there are some questions you should be asking to establish a comfort level with prospective radio vendors.

How is the product sold and will I be able to get it when I need it?

In order to answer this question, you need to ask a couple more. Do your best to understand how the product is distributed.
Is it through a sales channel or direct from the manufacturer? If through a channel, would you buy from a reseller or distributor?
Besides distribution of the product, you need to understand availability of it. Is product generally available “off the shelf”? This can be hard to prove unless you have a really good relationship with the manufacturer representative or channel representative.
Realize that most vendors are operating with “just in time” manufacturing. Hence the reason most sales reps are so persistent in calling you to track their forecast on a regular basis.
Availability of product obviously effects you and the decisions you make about maintaining spare stock versus buying advanced support contracts, or both. If you or your customer don’t have the budget to maintain spare equipment, then working through a channel that can provide immediate turn around is important. Many manufacturers have support contracts to accommodate next-day delivery of replacement equipment.
The bottom line is that you need to understand how product availability could impact your day to day business, and that the manufacturer you select will be able to get you equipment when you need it. Don’t make assumptions here.

Who will provide support and how much will it cost?

Take the time to understand availability of technical support.
From vendor to vendor, this service seems to span the spectrum of free to only available under contract, normal business hours to 24/7/365. In some cases support is non-existent. There are vendors that rely almost completely on their user community to provide support, which is honestly pretty clever, but not likely preferred for certain types of users.
Similarly, consider how much you want to rely on your distributor or reseller for support. In a perfect world, the sales channel would be responsible for the majority of the stock and support with only the most critical and difficult issues being escalated to the manufacturer.  Few of the manufacturers have stuck to their guns in this regard.
I used to challenge prospective customers of mine to pick up the phone and attempt a phone call to the manufacturer support line, perhaps stage a support call or issue and see for themselves how things went. The same can be done by email.  You don’t need to go through all of the motions, but even an indication of responsiveness is helpful, right?
Again, your manufacturer, distributor or reseller should be able to explain the options available and costs associated.
Perhaps ask for current customer references, or better yet do a little leg work and find an existing customer or two who will give you their honest feedback.
There are other intelligent questions one could ask about mean time between failure (MTBF) and mean time to repair (MTTR), but we tend to find that, when provided, these numbers always look and sound good.  It’s still perhaps worthwhile to ask for them.

Is the feature set adequate and can I live with the limitations?

There often seems to be more similarities between different manufacturers’ products than differences, unless your requirements include very specific IP networking or TDM capabilities.
In other words, the playing field is fairly level for IP-only (bridging) radios. The exception here is a very narrow segment of the industry that optimizes radios for low latency. These products are primarily used by high frequency trading firms.
There are folks out there that are differentiating themselves with features that enable scalability to impressive capacities, simplicity in sparing equipment, smaller form factors and less power consumption. There seems to be increasing requirements for IT-related features and security, which vary slightly by industry, but seem to be converging. These are requirements that enable different degrees of access and control of the management interface and flexibility in handling Layer 2 functionality.  There are many vendors today that tout impressive Layer 3, or routing capabilities.  If your need includes Layer 3 functionality it’s really important to fully understand the capabilities and limitations.  Our experience is that although more radios are supporting advanced networking capabilities many folks continue to perform their routing and complex network functions outside of the radio device.
Beyond those types of specific needs it’s important to understand common data sheet specifications like transmit power, receiver sensitivity, capacity, latency and jitter, availability of adaptive coded modulation (ACM) and its impact, power consumption and power supply options.  Question the vendors’ specmanship.  Are you being fed values and quantities that are driven by the marketing department or the engineering group?  Are the capacity values Layer 1 or Layer 2?  What error rate is the stated receiver sensitivity?  Is ACM hitless and errorless?
Finally, how is the system managed and monitored?  Is there a web GUI to configure and manage the device?  What about Telnet or command line?  Is SNMP standard?  Are there any additional costs to implement the radios into the existing monitoring system?
The key here is understanding precisely what you need, where you’re willing to compromise and how to work around any deficiencies.
One absolute truth in selecting a manufacturer’s product is to know them well enough to anticipate and work around the weaknesses.

Will the manufacturer outlive my needs?

The broadband wireless space is highly competitive with a lot of churn and turnover of employees.
In the last decade the industry has been hit hard by eroding margins partially due to competitive pressure. Perhaps a general lack of discipline in the sales channel is to blame. This tends to have rippling effects in terms of the manufacturers’ ability to afford large inventory positions, adequately resourced support organizations and worst of all, huge leaps in innovation. The flip side of it is that the end users enjoy lower prices, at least for a little while.
So, how does one determine the feasibility of a prospective radio manufacturer?
Only a few of the manufacturers are publicly traded. It’s possible to determine their financial stability using online tools to review their performance over time, earnings reports, market capitalization, margins and so on.
The privately held companies are more difficult to track and understand. One under-utilized tool is the FCC filings for licensed microwave radio spectrum. There are organizations out there that compile this information and sell it. This information provides a picture of which vendors are coordinating the most licensed microwave radios compared to other vendors. Not all of the coordinated systems are purchased and deployed, so that creates some disparity in determining how much equipment is sold, but it says something about popularity.
The only real way to understand a privately held company’s financial position is to enter into a non-disclosure agreement, which would require an opportunity large enough for them to be willing to lift the veil. In this relatively narrow market you might not be able to count on a stellar financials like you can in other industry segments. In most cases you’re confirming that they are stable enough to outlive the expected life of your system, deliver the equipment you need when you need it, support you when you need help and provide repair when necessary.
We believe some of the smallest, privately held companies in the market are the healthiest from the standpoint of financial viability.

Which vendor offers the most total value?

Price should not be your main consideration, ever. Price is simply a factor in overall value and value is really the combination of all of the considerations proposed here. Aldo Gucci said it best, “The bitterness of poor quality is remembered long after the sweetness of low price has faded from memory.” Most purchasers are operating within a fixed budget, which is a given. However, there are huge implications of simply buying the cheapest. There are few cases where the least expensive product offers the best value. The total cost should likely stretch your budget.
Start by testing these considerations against your vendors of choice and then break it down further to specific products. Don’t assume that any given product within a manufacturer’s portfolio deserves the same score as another product family in their portfolio.
If you’re an end user of this type of product you should rely heavily on good people to guide you through this. It isn’t worth your time to investigate and totally comprehend all of the nuances of this industry, unless you’re running or creating a business that completely relies on it.

Have you been through this process yourself? What is one thing would you have done differently? Please take just a second and tell me below. Don’t forget to sign up for notification of new posts.

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