Radio interoperability effort is old enough to drink

Lack of standards leave public safety agencies at the mercy of vendors

Delays in finalizing the Project 25 suite of interoperability standards for public safety radios is stifling competition and forcing agencies to use expensive, proprietary systems that do not allow agencies to talk with one another, witnesses told a House panel recently.

Representatives from government and industry testifying before the House Science and Technology Committee's Technology and Innovation Subcommittee urged the government to press for quick completion of the full suite of P25 standards and to implement a testing and compliance program to ensure full interoperability.

It was the second hearing held this year by the subcommittee on Project 25, a 21-year-old effort to develop standards that would let police, firefighters and other first responders communicate across departmental and jurisdictional lines by using equipment from various manufacturers. To date, only the Command Air Interface and portions of the Inter-RF-Subsystem Interface have been completed. The more complex, trunked CAI continues to lack conformance test documents. The remaining six interfaces are in various states of document completion.

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Why the march to interoperable radios is so slow

21 years later, public safety networks still can’t talk to each other

P25-trunked radio systems have been sold for 10 years, but there are no tests available for interoperability, which locks users in to single-vendor solutions, said Tom Sorley, deputy director of radio communication services at the Houston Information Technology Department.

Although attention is being focused on creating a national broadband public safety network that would carry video and data traffic, voice over land mobile radios still is the backbone of public safety communications. The need to make those radios interoperable led to the creation of Project 25 in 1989.

Sorley said the standards-making process is being driven by industry rather than the public safety community because vendors have the resources and manpower to devote to the process. That puts agencies at a disadvantage because they often do not have the ability to evaluate the real-world interoperability of P25-compliant products.

Meanwhile, the lack of completed standards has not stopped deployment of P25 networks. Russ Sveda, manager of the Interior Department’s Radio Technical Service Center, said the department adopted P25 as the standard for its far-flung agencies in 1996 and has had to design and integrate its own systems and develop its own interoperability testing program for components. Conformance and interoperability have improved in recent years, he said.

“Since 2002, we have seen a drastic improvement in products and the number of vendors,” Sveda said. Still, “the slow pace of the P25 standards has created some frustration in the radio user community.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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