In conversation with… David Savage

David Savage, founder and Chief Executive of Excelerate Technology Group – a leading command communications and mobile satellite broadband provider – reflects on a very good 2012 for his company and its customers. Emergency Services Times spoke to David between trips to Australia and the Middle East.

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Emergency Services Times (EST): What were the key events for Excelerate during 2012?
David Savage (DS): 2012 was a year in which we delivered everything we were contracted to deliver, with flying colours, and with lots of endorsements from government, particularly leading up to the Olympics. Because we have such a high market share in our sector, 2012 was also a year when, in anticipation of the Olympics, we made some significant investments, in designing and implementing, in time for the Olympics, our new Enhanced Resilience Satellite Network.

Throughout 2012 there was lots of testing going on, and lots of exercises being run, preparing for the Olympics, and of course we gave full technical support to those exercises. In fact, for an exercise in London last year – Operation Amber – not only did we support technically at various sites with full conference capability and full failover, we also bolstered the network and provided the users with additional technology so that they could also push the system to the limits.

EST: Can you explain the need for the Enhanced Resilience Satellite Network?
DS: Certainly. For the Olympics we had to ensure that sufficient ‘Plan Bs’ were in place. Eighteen months ago the question was raised by the Cabinet Office concerning resilience of satellites, particularly in light of enhanced solar flare activity, and that started to make us think: ‘What is the Plan B if the satellite does actually fall out of the sky?’ We decided not to take the chance, not just by expanding capacity but also by acquiring the capacity of a second satellite network using an identical satellite platform.

This was the genesis of the Enhanced Resilience Satellite Network. The benefit of this is that if one satellite fails our customers can be rapidly switched across to a second satellite network without having to reinvest in any additional technology, ie using exactly the same technology platform that they have already purchased from us. That is very important, and it does actually give us a significant edge; for emergency services, resilience is a critical consideration.

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Excelerate has begun offering Ka satellite services to its clients, in addition to Ku services delivering its Enhanced Resilience Satellite Network.

EST: The state of Victoria Country Fire Authority in Australia has integrated communications solutions from Excelerate into its advanced new command vehicles, which it is using to manage bush fires. How did this opportunity arise?

DS: As with much of our business, including our growth in the UK, it is almost always spawned on the back of horrendous disasters, such as 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in London. The latter, for example, was probably responsible for the HART contract, with greater emphasis by the emergency services on more resilient communications, where they might fail and where they might need bolstering. And really it was no different with Australia, though in Australia the catalyst wasn’t terrorism but the cataclysmic events on what is called Black Saturday, where 173 people lost their lives when as many as 400 individual bushfires were burning across the Australian state of Victoria on and around 7 February 2009. As you would expect when there is so much loss of life, that triggered a royal commission of enquiry, and the royal commission identified a number of critical command communications issues, both in terms of how they managed emergencies but also in terms of modernisation, where improvements were required in every area, including communications.

They found that the emergency services, just like in London after the London bombings, in that peak period of activity were experiencing communications problems. They didn’t have enough technology and they relied on their public network far too heavily. This is a watchword with all emergency services the world over; if they are overly reliant on a public network then they are courting disaster. Probability wise, they will one day get caught out and be found wanting. All of that investigation triggered a requirement by the Victoria Country Fire Authority (CFA), in particular, to look at what the state of Victoria was doing to fix the problem. The Victoria CFA sent senior officers to the Interschutz fire show, in Germany, in 2010. We had taken a HART vehicle to Interschutz and we also took our own demonstration vehicle. The Australian visitors were absolutely bowled over by their capabilities. Consequently, we were invited over to Australia to talk to them about how we could export our expertise and our capability into Australia. That’s how it all began, and we are now being seen as part of the solution to their major challenges.

EST: How do you plan to manage Excelerate’s business in Australia?
DS: From our perspective the business model for Australia will be very similar to the business model that works well for us here in the UK. We will have a wholly-owned subsidiary with our own people there, and the reason for that is that we can then enjoy exactly the same sort of close relationships with clients in Australia as we enjoy here in the UK. The satellite we are using is giving us full coverage of the continent of Australia, including Tasmania, and New Zealand. The bushfire season in any year generally starts in October in the north of the country and then as the summer kicks in those bush fires move south east as the summer dries out the vegetation.

“This is a watchword with all emergency services the world over; if they are overly reliant on a public network then they are courting disaster.”

EST: Will the Australian market present you with any particular challenges?
DS: The big difference between the situation in the UK and Australia is that in the UK we were pioneers of the concept of satellite broadbandenabled vehicles. In the beginning the vehicles didn’t have all the applications we eventually ended up with on vehicles such as the HART UK vehicles, which have a comprehensive suite of data, voice and video applications, which make satellite bandwidth truly compelling and very useful. In the UK mobile satellite broadband has moved from being a nice-to-have to being a must-have, and anybody who is considering a new command vehicle in the UK these days absolutely has to have satellite broadband. We no longer have to sell the concept of satellite broadband. It is now very much a case of ‘what can you do with that network’ once you have it.

That is why it is important that we control the network. The Australians started by saying, ‘we are building new command vehicles and we want everything you have in the UK on those command vehicles’. So, in addition to mobile satellite broadband they have a full suite of cameras, body-worn cameras and perimeter cameras, resilient communications, things like private GSM. We are not simply bolting a satellite dish onto a vehicle. And they have also ‘got’ our DDMI (Digital Dashboard Management Interface) solution. They understood that it was going to solve the problem of putting a very sophisticated and diverse range of technologies and applications on board these vehicles for the first time, but also the need for demystifying it all and making it easy to use for fire officers.

We are finding the same thing in the Middle East, where DDMI is being seen and accepted as one of the best means of overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to introducing new and very comprehensive technologies to people who actually aren’t IT literate. We have never lost sight of who our customers are – they are fire officers, paramedics and police officers; they are not meant to be retrained to become IT specialists. For Australia we are also developing things specifically for the client. That is another one of the things we do, physically investing in and developing new technologies on the back of requirements from our emergency services clients.

“Regarding our Ku-based Enhanced Resilience Satellite Network, nobody else can provide that level of resilience without the client having to go through significant extra expense and delays.”

This is only the beginning for DDMI, for example. If it were a software product you would be calling it Version 1.0. We don’t see an end to this. The more ideas clients have, the more things they want to integrate, then the more features will be integrated into DDMI. There will be many more good things for DDMI, and it won’t just integrate things that we develop. It will also bring in things – not supplied by us – which clients have introduced.

EST: I understand the vehicles were operational sooner than was planned – why so?
DS: The two vehicles were handed over to CFA in November/December last year and weren’t strictly scheduled to be on the run – ie operational – until about July this year. But before we even get to the recent bush fires, there was a telephone exchange that was burnt out in late 2012. That was significant, because it then affected terrestrial communications for about 250km. It got to the point where people couldn’t draw cash out of cash points because there were no comms, people couldn’t buy petrol at a petrol station because there were no comms. The Victoria CFA chief requested that we supplied one of our resident engineers to help support the deployment of one of their new command vehicles ahead of schedule.

That vehicle was actually parked front-ways in to their fire station in the affected town, with its rear end hanging out with its satellite dish deployed. That vehicle actually became the only means of communication for anybody in that region. That got the message over very clearly about the importance of resilience and business continuity. The second time the CFA vehicle was used in anger was because of the extraordinary level of bush fire activity throughout the state in January this year, and they decided they needed to use one of the CFA command vehicles to support operations. These are the first vehicles of their type in Australia; they really are pioneering. Even in New Zealand, where there are vehicles that have a satellite dish on them, no one was using the levels and types of capability the way our customers in the UK do or the Victoria CFA. We will be headquartering our Australasian business in Melbourne and supporting New Zealand clients from there. The trip by plane to NZ is almost a domestic trip.

EST: You are now offering both Ka and Ku band satellite solutions. What are the differences between the two?
DS: With Ku satellites one satellite can cover a very large geographical area, whereas Ka uses narrower spot beams and a number of those spot beams to cover the same area. It is quite possible that an emergency services client needs to transit the area of a spot beam in order to cover their territory. An antenna might not actually be able to find the satellite. These are all issues that we have to advise on. We offer technology that offers automatic beam hopping, so we ensure that our customers can access proper professional roaming type networks with Ka.

David Savage, Founder and Chief Executive, Excelerate Technology Group
David Savage, Founder and Chief Executive, Excelerate Technology Group

EST: You weren’t the first company to offer these solutions. Could you explain why?
DS: We are agnostic about both alternatives. We have no axe to grind concerning either of the two systems. Unusually for us, we were not the first supplier to provide Ka solutions for emergency services, and the reason we didn’t do that, the reason we waited, was because at the time none of the hardware platforms were actually accredited by the satellite networks. What we can’t do, given that we have a brand and a reputation to consider, is to introduce and offer a Ka solution where there was any risk whatsoever, where the client might buy a product that could theoretically be turned off if there wasn’t accredited equipment.

So we waited until various platforms started to get their accreditations. That has happened, so we are now in the Ka satellite market. We also wanted to be able to offer things that nobody else could. Regarding our Ku-based Enhanced Resilience Satellite Network, nobody else can provide that level of resilience without the client having to go through significant extra expense and delays getting reconnected should there be a terminal failure of a satellite. With Ka we had to wait until the satellite antennae received their approvals and accreditations. We needed to choose our network carefully, because the only competing services being offered in the UK were effectively offering consumer products and consumer tariffs, network dynamics that were for the masses but those providers have no control over the quality of that broadband.

Having gone through the pain barrier many years ago, we know it doesn’t work if you can’t control quality; if you can’t provide a more professional grade of service. For emergency services customers and business customers we have had to do quite a lot of work in coming up with a range of solutions to overcome that problem. However, if a client insists on being supplied with a consumer-type solution, purely based on cost, we will be as competitive as we need to be to secure that business, and we can do that because of our size and our market penetration – our market power if you like. I believe we can provide Ka satellite antennas far more competitively than anyone else in the market place.