LAS VEGAS--As the show floor for this year’s International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) prepares to open, it’s hard not to marvel at the changes in the public-safety industry since attending my first IWCE show four years ago.

After covering the commercial telecom sector for years, that IWCE was an eye-opening experience.

In telecom, everyone was trying to develop products to leverage Internet protocol (IP) technology and its relatively inexpensive gear, but most public-safety officials distrusted anything IP. In telecom, wireless broadband data rates were becoming commonplace with the rollout of Wi-Fi and mobile 3G networks, but public-safety users were anxiously anticipating the inclusion of 19.2 kb/s speeds in the next generation of LMR networks.

Spectrum—or the lack of it—certainly was an issue for public safety. At the time, no one knew whether Congress would ever make TV broadcasters vacate the 700 MHz band. Rebanding 800 MHz to rid public safety of interference from Nextel Communications was still a proposal. The FCC was in the process of establishing rules for public-safety spectrum at 4.9 GHz, but there was a heated debate whether those rules should include a mask to harden systems for public safety or leverage commercial infrastructure.

Personally, the alphabet soup of radio bands that public safety used was still something I was trying to grasp fully, not to mention how agencies operating on different bands would interoperate with each other in times of crises. I mentioned the problem to one attendee, who explained the role that frequency-agile radios featuring software-defined radio (SDR) and cognitive technologies eventually could play in resolving it.

“Someday, we’ll have radios that can talk on all of these bands, so it shouldn’t be a technical issue,” he said. “Whether the agencies will want to talk with each other, that’s another story.”

Today, things have changed dramatically.

Public safety generally accepts the notion that IP technology can be useful for mission-critical communications when properly designed and implemented, and it is the foundation of a plethora of network-based interoperability solutions. Broadband data is clearly part of plans throughout the first-responder community, via networks operating on 4.9 GHz, 700 MHz or other licensed or unlicensed spectrum. Rebanding 800 MHz—and eventually providing public safety with additional spectrum—is becoming a reality, even though it is taking much longer than hoped.

Meanwhile, frequency agility is no longer a notion limited to the session rooms and discussion rooms; it’s quickly becoming a reality with products hitting the market.

Earlier this month, Harris announced a multiband radio operating in the UHF and VHF bands. Tomorrow at IWCE, the Department of Homeland Security will demonstrate a new multiband radio technology. Chipmakers like Bitwave and Terocelo are slated to have SDR chips available to be embedded in commercial devices later this year, which promises to reduce the cost of SDR to a price point that public safety can afford.

Finally, Shared Spectrum recently announced that its dynamic spectrum access solution will be integrated into military radios from Harris and Thales Communications as part of the neXt Generation Communications (XG) Program being managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As part of the same initiative, Shared Spectrum is working with M/A-COM to develop a cognitive radio costing less than $500 by the end of this year.

With so much activity on in the frequency-agility front, it looks like the “someday” my acquaintance referenced during my first IWCE is just about here.

E-mail me at djackson@mrtmag.com.