Digital radios: A new calling plan

When the massive blackout hit the northeastern United States and Canada last August, it left an estimated 50 million people in the dark. But one shining example of resiliency stood out in Michigan: Although phone lines and other critical communications systems went down, federal, state and local public safety officials kept talking via their digital and land mobile radios (LMRs).

Backup generators powered the network, but decisions made a decade earlier guaranteed that the handsets used by all the departments and agencies could interoperate, a rare occurrence in emergencies.

"The system ensured that we could coordinate a statewide response to the blackout and keep communications flowing from our state emergency operations center to local and regional emergency management programs," said Lt. Col. Tom Miller, deputy director of the Michigan State Police in East Lansing.

The key to interoperability is a maturing radio communications standard known as Project 25, or P25 for short. Developed by industry and public-sector officials and published by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, P25 brings LMRs into the digital world and seeks to eliminate the incompatibilities that hamper analog first responder systems. When emergency workers cannot get the information they need fast enough, people can die.

Michigan was one of the first states to have statewide P25 implementations, dating back to a request for proposals developed in 1994, even before the standard was finalized. Today, 181 P25 radio towers dot the state and provide almost blanket digital coverage.

"We were early, but we felt a standards-based solution was the only way to go, and that's now come to fruition," Miller said.

Other public officials have learned the dangers of incompatibility the hard way. Emergency crews responding to terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City, New York City and Washington, D.C., used conventional analog radios that weren't interoperable among the various departments at the scene.

Interoperability isn't P25's only advantage, however. Because it's digital radio technology, it efficiently uses a narrow band of the radio spectrum, a mandate by the federal government and a practical necessity for local organizations as signals from wireless phones, televisions and commercial radio crowd the airwaves.

And although voice communication is P25's forte, it may also bring new data applications to handsets.

"It's not a leap of faith to consider that the digital processing features of P25 will make it capable of operating as a computing platform," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of consulting at Federal Sources Inc., a market intelligence firm.

Because P25 uses voice-over-IP protocols, users can send data and voice communications via LMR networks.

For example, Alaska's Transportation Department recently completed a

successful pilot project with Motorola Inc., the dominant but no longer

uncontested P25 market leader. The project involved vehicles equipped with mobile P25 data terminals that could send photos of road conditions to

DOT offices in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.

Eventually, P25 could be used to send pictures of terrorists or guidance on handling hazardous materials to the handsets of first responders in the field.

Another P25 selling point: It's compatible with existing analog radios, which means that cash-strapped public organizations can gradually introduce P25 while they continue using their existing LMRs.

"We see a lot of customers gradually switching to digital mode rather than doing a forklift replacement," said Chuck Jackson, a Motorola vice president.

Sticker shock

Not everyone's jumping on the P25 bandwagon, however. The standard is well known not only for its promise but also its age. Initial specifications arrived a decade ago, and although vendors say sales statistics are hard to come by, they concede that P25 adoption before 2001 moved at a glacial pace.

Heightened concern about having an effective communications infrastructure since 2001 has spurred sales, but tight budgets and the cost of the new digital equipment remain barriers. Handsets typically cost $2,500 to $6,000, depending on features, while equivalent analog models sell for $500 to $800, said Dave Storey, chief executive officer of Relm Wireless Corp., a recent entrant to P25 manufacturing.

Storey said Relm's strategy for wrestling market share from Motorola is to sell handsets for $1,000 or less. Other P25 network components are even more expensive. Repeaters, which carry radio signals across the network, cost $8,000 to $11,000. For budget-embattled public safety organizations, finding P25 funding is difficult.

For many agencies, the answer is to enter the digital world slowly, an approach that's being taken by two ambitious projects, one across Alaska and the other in four western states managed by the Forest Service's Intermountain regional office. Both projects are models of federal, state and local cooperation.

Sharing the pain

Interoperability among radio communications systems isn't a new mandate in Alaska. Even before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, federal, state and local authorities there understood that interoperability was essential to saving lives.

Because of Alaska's size — comparable to about one-fifth of the contiguous 48 states and with a population of about 622,000 — intergovernmental cooperation to build and share a single infrastructure is essential.

"We needed a single system that could handle day-to-day operations for the military, including flight-line operations and communications for the military police," said Timothy Paul Woodall, director of the Joint Frequency Management Office for the Defense Department's Alaska Land Mobile Radio activities in Anchorage. "So did the [federal] Department of Transportation and the state."

So they came together within the Alaska LMR Executive Council, with representatives from the governor's office, high-ranking officers from Alaska-based armed forces commands, the president of the state's municipal league and executives from a variety of federal agencies, including DOD and DOT.

"We signed a memo of agreement in 1995 to partner together and build a single interoperable system," Woodall said.

The program evolved steadily but slowly as council members grappled with several issues, including convincing Federal Communications Commission officials to suspend restrictions that stipulate that the radio spectrum can be shared among government entities only in emergencies, not for routine communications. FCC officials approved the waiver last year.

Today, an $80 million infrastructure is nearly complete and eventually will cover about 14,000 users, including first responders, the military, state police and others. About 34 radio sites will come online this year, with an additional 53 becoming operational by 2006 to provide statewide communications in wilderness areas, towns and cities. Fiber network or microwave links connect radio sites to one another and to one of two central control sites in the state.

The LMR network would have been an impossible challenge if a single entity had to build it alone, but sharing the load "makes it all possible," Woodall said. It's also a model for other areas. Sharing helps drive down the cost burden of inherently expensive public safety systems.

But with sharing comes compromise, he said. "You must let go of some of the control you believe you need," Woodall said. He advises agency officials to fight for the communications requirements they consider essential and be ready to give and take in other areas.

Collaboration challenges

The Forest Service, under the management of the Agriculture Department, and the Bureau of Land Management, within the Interior Department, are closely involved with managing wildfires nationwide. In recent years, cooperation with state and local authorities has become more important, as more fires cover hundreds of thousands of acres and burn closer to urban areas.

For better collaboration, the Forest Service's Intermountain Region, based in Ogden, Utah, is turning to P25, and, like Alaska, it's using a piecemeal approach to implementing the technology. About 20 percent of the P25 changeover is complete — mainly in high-traffic and larger metropolitan

areas — but even the new digital radios in the field are running in analog mode for now.

Caution comes from safety concerns. "All of those teams you order in [from other organizations to help fight fires] are coming with some of their own equipment," said Mike Field, telecommunications manager for the region. "To maintain communications, we can't just jump to P25 digital mode immediately. We can't risk anyone getting hurt because someone doesn't know how to operate a P25 radio."

As the region moves to digital radio, Field said he is thinking not only about greater communications interoperability but also heightened collaboration as well. "I can divide [radio frequency] channels into smaller, time-shared talk groups," he said. "I can manage our tactical operations by having perhaps five talk groups on one RF channel and talk to each of them individually or create a sixth talk group where I can talk with all of them simultaneously."

But Field said he worries that mismanaging collaboration could be disastrous. "We could have talk groups cross-programmed and cause tactical confusions," he said. "We might give

tactical directions to air operations

while ground people are talking back

to us. Air [operations] folks could mistake a request from the ground crew

as a direction from the dispatcher

and drop a tanker load on the ground crew. If you don't structure collaboration correctly, you could end up hurting people."

Reality check

Cost is another consideration for Woodall and Field. Depending on where it's located, a Forest Service base station or repeater site costs $50,000 to $80,000 for construction and P25 radio equipment. Multiply that by 240, the anticipated number of such sites, along with an additional 60 to 70 district offices with similar equipment needs, and it will take a decade or more to come up with the full funding.

Forest Service officials are looking for ways to save money. Instead of incurring the installation and maintenance expense of connecting base

stations or repeaters using microwave links, as in an analog network, the

Forest Service will send data via the IP network. The voice-over-IP segment runs on T1 services the Forest Service subscribes to from commercial telecom providers.

"With microwave, I'd have to build [the towers] and support it with Forest Service personnel," Field said. "Now, with the commercial architecture, I can avoid those costs and just buy service on a monthly basis. So the number of sites on my radio backbone continues to grow, but the complexity of my backbone is decreasing because of my elimination of microwave."

In Alaska, Woodall is eyeing the benefits of increasing competition among P25 vendors. Motorola supplied much of Alaska's initial P25 equipment, but Woodall says the council has begun to purchase cheaper handsets from other suppliers.

"We've already seen Motorola's prices drop because of competition," he said.

Competition may be a good thing, but it's exposing some cracks in P25's veneer: The standard's interoperability promises aren't always ironclad. "We're finding the radios don't always work as well as you think they should," Woodall said.

Fortunately, the company with the problem equipment, which he declined to identify, fixed it. But Woodall is still concerned.

"You're committing millions of dollars for equipment, and you don't know there's a problem until you're using it," he said.

Woodall said he doesn't believe vendors are fudging on the standard, only that it is complicated and vendors may interpret it differently. Rather than assign blame, he wants an independent compatibility test by an organization similar to Underwriters Laboratories Inc. to certify products. In the meantime, the council runs field tests to evaluate interoperability, but Woodall isn't satisfied.

"It puts the onus on us, and we don't want to be in that position," he said. l

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.

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