Why the march to interoperable radios is so slow

Standards process, cost of new radios hold back unified public safety communications

The inability of federal, state and local agencies to communicate with one another has been recognized for years as a critical weakness in the nation’s emergency response capability. There are several plans for establishing interoperability for emergency responders, but the challenge of getting everyone on the same page — or at least on the same network — has proven to be a knotty one partially because of heavy investments in unintegrated communications systems.

For now, bridging existing systems has been the most practical way to facilitate intercommunications, but that creates patchwork local and regional networks that extend only as far as the connecting systems. True nationwide interoperability remains in the future.

One plan calls for a nationwide public safety network for emergency responders to use. The federal government has supported the concept by setting aside a swath of the 700 MHz radio frequency band that was freed by the recent switch to digital TV broadcasting. However, the band failed to receive a serious bidder in spectrum auctions held last year by the Federal Communications Commission.

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The future of the public safety network is in limbo because of a high reserve bid for a nationwide license coupled with the uncertainties of how such a network would be built and how it could be used. If such a network is established, another hurdle is equipping the nation’s emergency responders with equipment that would allow them to use it.

Another plan that would allow intercommunication but also would require the purchase of new equipment by many agencies is Project 25. P25 is the evolving standard for interoperable digital two-way radios. The limited suite of published standards, which the Telecommunications Industry Association administers, has gained wide acceptance, but after 21 years of effort, the standards remain incomplete, and adoption has been limited.

Since the inception of the program in 1989, standards have been completed for only one of eight open interfaces for components of a land radio system, Dereck Orr, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s program manager for public safety communications systems, told a subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee earlier this year.

The need to achieve a broad industry consensus has slowed the pace of the standards-making process, but it is the most technically sound way to develop the system, said Ernest Hofmeister, senior scientist at Harris' Public Safety and Professional Communications unit.

“The standards are developed by top engineers from industry who have the knowledge and perspective to assure successful product implementation to the standard,” Hofmeister said. “Getting to consensus and developing the requisite detail of the standard take time, but the resultant standard product is technically solid and long-lasting.”

The lack of completed standards has not prevented early deployment of P25 networks. Since FCC adopted the standard in 2001, 36 states have deployed statewide P25 networks and 165 cities and counties are using the standard. But even compliance with the existing standards does not ensure interoperability.

For interoperability, the Homeland Security Department and NIST have established the DHS P25 Compliance Assessment Program. By April 2009, DHS had recognized the first eight CAP assessment laboratories, and emergency communications equipment from four manufacturers has completed the P25 CAP process.

However, the program is voluntary, and testing is available for only two standards so far. Companies can market products as P25-compliant without the certification.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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