USDA rolls out voice-over-IP radio

The Agriculture Department is rolling out a digital radio system that will connect 225 Washington, D.C.-area agency employees. The digital version replaces a standard two-way radio system.

The deployment will be finished by the end of June, said Ralph Flora, radio contracts and testing manager. It will be used in the agency's office of operations by its security staff and by managers involved in continuity-of-operations efforts.

The system's voice-over-IP infrastructure will allow functions that aren't possible with conventional radio, Flora said. "There are several different things you can do with the digital radios, such as talk groups and unit-to-unit calls, that we're interested in," he said.

Talk groups allow a manager to send a message to the members of a security team without having to broadcast it to all users on the system. Unit-to-unit calls allow one user to talk to another without anyone else hearing. The system includes 11 repeaters, which are spread among eight buildings and route the signals.

Voice over IP in general refers to using the Internet Protocol's discrete data packets rather than streaming data through a conventional telephone circuit. In Internet telephony, the technology avoids the cost of traditional long-distance service. In radio, it and a variety of related digital radio technologies permit greater range, clarity, flexibility and the potential to add data transmission to voice.

The employees who use the radios need little training, Flora added. "It is a conventional system," he said. "The tying together [in the repeaters] is [voice over IP]. We could have done it with some other circuitry."

Voice over IP is an increasingly important technology. Chris Rooney, head of sales at AT&T, said his company is investing significant resources into advancing it, expecting it to be widely adopted within a decade. EFJohnson Inc., a radio systems provider based in Waseca, Minn., developed the radio system that the USDA is using.

However, the technology demands an especially robust infrastructure, and users won't tolerate unreliability, said telecom and information technology consultant Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc.

"There are a lot of people talking about voice over IP, a lot of people looking at voice over IP. There are not a lot of people yet actually doing voice over IP," he said. "It may change, but it's not clear when the market will reach the tipping point. It's had a hard time taking off."

The USDA project is another step in the government's increasing adoption of Project 25, a communications standard developed by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials. Project 25, which specifies technologies to allow interoperability among systems, will soon include voice over IP, Flora said. Meanwhile, the USDA Forest Service and other agencies are phasing out older systems in favor of new ones built on the Project 25 standard.

EFJohnson provided the system under a $580,000 contract using its Netelligent repeaters. Jim Ridgell, EFJohnson's vice president of federal business, said the contract is relatively small in dollar value, but marks the third sale of a voice-over-IP system and indicates that the technology is strongly taking root.

Another strength of the system is that it can channel radio communications into an organization's computer network, which could broaden the potential points of access.

"For the first time, it allows mobile communication to be converted to Internet-like information so it can be integrated into your standard off-the-shelf [network] routers," Ridgell said. "In the past, radio was proprietary and unique."

EFJohnson released its voice-over-IP system in 2002. The company still brings in the bulk of its business through more conventional radio sales, but it is banking on the growth of the Internet technology over time.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "the market has very clearly given the message that interoperability of radio system equipment is mandatory. That's driving our technical road map," Ridgell said. Project 25 and voice over IP are both part of that direction.

The Homeland Security Department has sent almost $4 billion to state and local jurisdictions under the fiscal 2003 budget, according to a DHS report released in late May. Many of the grants are intended to provide first responders with communications equipment.

That financial aid is crucial to EFJohnson's marketing strategy, Ridgell said, because state and local governments will need to purchase interoperable equipment. How long it will take for the market to grow strong depends on events, he added.

"If the money flows, you could be talking about a three- to five-year period. If there's another terrorist attack, it will accelerate," he said. "If it's business as usual and money's siphoned to fund wars, it could be longer."

Once they have the technology, officials will find other uses for voice-over-IP radio, he predicted. They'll discover they can transmit images and data as well as voice and find new ways to use their communications tools.

"We're just about to that point," he said. "They're buying equipment, and now it's just a matter of their imagination."

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Going digital

Recent Homeland Security Department grants are expected to help spur the adoption of digital radio, including:

March 2003: $566 million to states and cities to assist first responders in funding equipment, training, planning and exercises.

March 2003: $750 million for training and equipment for rural fire departments.

April 2003: $100 million to enhance local governments' ability to secure large populations and related infrastructure.

April 2003: $1.5 billion to help state and local governments pay for the equipment, planning and training associated with heightened threat periods.

May 2003: $700 million for 30 cities and their contiguous counties to strengthen the security of areas with dense populations and critical infrastructure.

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