How to pick the right radio

September 1, 2015
CastleRockMicrowave
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Selecting the right microwave radio manufacturer is difficult, even for a seasoned microwave professional. In this post I’ll share some questions you can ask radio manufacturers. Hopefully, you will have the confidence to navigate the competitive landscape and identify a solution that exceeds your expectations.

We recently conducted a customer survey where 30% were unsatisfied with or uncertain about their current microwave manufacturer. Another 20% asked us for assistance on the matter.

The equipment vendor landscape is growing. In addition, differentiating between them has become increasingly difficult. If you don’t have a trusted source to help you identify the best solution, you need one. At Castle Rock Microwave, our clients trust us to guide them through this process by performing a needs assessment. Once we understand today’s needs and future goals, we make it easy to navigate the many options. It’s easy for them to trust us because we are not a manufacturer. Because we represent multiple manufacturers, we offer guidance based on their needs and not solely on our own interests. If you don’t have a trusted expert to help guide you through this process, here are some questions you can ask your potential radio vendors.

How is the product sold and what is the availability?

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 verify unless you trust the manufacturer representative or channel representative.

It’s important to realize most vendors are operating with “just in time” manufacturing. This is why most sales reps call you incessantly. They need to track their forecast on a regular basis. Product availability should also factor into your decision to stock spare equipment or buy advanced support contracts. 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.

Ultimately, you need to understand how product availability could impact your day-to-day business. Don’t make assumptions here. You need to know if the manufacturer you select can get you equipment when you need it.

Who supports the product AND HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?

Take the time to understand availability of technical support. This service differs from free to only available under contract, depending on the vendor. Some support contracts only entitle you to support during normal business hours. Others offer 24/7/365 assistance.

In some cases support is non-existent. Some vendors rely entirely on their user community to provide support. This approach is clever and incredibly cost-effective for the manufacturer and customer. However, it’s only suitable for certain types of customers.

Similarly, consider how much you want to rely on your distributor or reseller for support. Ideally, the sales channel would be responsible for the majority of the stock and support would only be escalated to the manufacturer for the most critical issues. 

Few 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. Better yet, stage a support issue and see for themselves what the experience is like. The same can be done by email. Even if you don’t go through the motions, any indication of responsiveness is helpful.

Your manufacturer, distributor, or reseller should explain the options available and costs associated. You should always ask for current customer references. It’s even better to do a little leg work and find an existing customer or two who will give you their honest feedback.

There are other intelligent questions you should ask about mean time between failure (MTBF) and mean time to repair (MTTR). However, we tend to find that even when provided, these numbers always look better on paper than in reality. 

IS THE FEATURE SET ADEQUATE AND CAN I LIVE WITH THE LIMITATIONS?

It often seems there are more similarities between manufacturers than differences. This happens less if your requirements include specific IP networking or TDM capabilities.

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 some 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 (routing) capabilities. If you need to include Layer 3 functionality, it’s really important to fully understand the capabilities and limitations. 

In our experience, more radios are supporting advanced networking capabilities. However, many folks continue to perform their routing and complex network functions outside of the radio device. Beyond these specific needs, it’s important to understand 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 they providing 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 employee churn. Over the last decade, the industry has been hit hard by eroding margins due to competitive pressure. Perhaps a general lack of discipline in the sales channel is to blame. This tends to negatively affect the manufacturers’ ability to afford large inventory positions. In addition, it can lead to inadequate resources for their support staff. Worst of all, it affects their ability to innovate.

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. This fact creates some disparity in determining how much equipment is sold. However, it says something about popularity.

The only way to understand a privately held company’s financial position is to enter into a non-disclosure agreement. This requires 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 the following: 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 repairs 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 never be your main or only consideration. Price should be a factor in overall value. Value should be determined by a combination of all 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.” Of course, most purchasers are operating within a fixed budget. However, there are huge implications of simply buying the cheapest. There are few, if any, 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. Next, break it down further to specific products. Don’t assume 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.

Conclusion

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 click here for notification of new posts.

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