A typical public safety-grade radio costs a few thousand dollars, while the typical full-featured cellular phone costs a few hundred. This has been the case for years, despite advances in radio design, engineering and manufacturing. Consequently, many have questioned why cell phone manufacturers are able to cram so much functionality into their products at such comparatively low prices and wondered why radio manufacturers can't do the same.

Predictably, radio vendors believe that comparing public safety-grade radio prices to those of cell phones is an apples-to-oranges proposition. According to Kevin Nolan, a spokesman for EFJohnson, public safety radios that are built to a much higher standard.

“Cell phones as a general rule do not require encryption, and their interoperability capabilities are limited compared to public safety radios,” Nolan said. “The encryption capabilities of public safety radios need to be government-certified [FIPS], which makes them more complex and therefore more expensive.” Nolan added that cell phones also do not need to be as rugged or submersible.

Other radio vendor representatives echoed the sentiment. According to Bob Schassler, vice president of government and commerical markets, Americas, for Motorola, public safety radios are more sophisticated and require the use of custom parts and components that are carefully designed and tested to meet a stringent set of specifications and enable radio operations in harsh environments, with high reliability.

“Cell phones are consumer-grade products that meet a significantly less stringent set of RF, environmental, mechanical, reliability and functional specifications,” Schassler said.

He added that an example of the specification differences between cell phones and public safety radios can be found in the operational temperature range for these devices. “Cell phones are typically designed to operate in the commercial temperature range [14° to 122° F] while two-way radios need to operate in the industrial temperature range [-22° to 140° F],” Schassler said. “This means radio vendors cannot fully leverage the broad availability of lower-cost cell phone parts — microprocessors, memory, oscillators, amplifiers, etc. — and must use either custom or higher-spec parts, which are costlier.”

These explanations make sense to John Powell, chair of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council's Interoperability Committee, who added that the proliferation of less-expensive cell phones over the last decade has significantly skewed perception.

“There is no way to compare these apple-to-apple since the quality of the product — ruggedness, performance, etc. — and the quality of service that is acceptable to public safety versus the general public are at opposite ends of the spectrum,” Powell said. “A question I pose … is, ‘Would you want the paramedic who is being given directions on how to save your life relying completely on your cell phone for his instructions?’”

The good news is that while public safety radio prices haven't decreased over time — as cellular handsets have — they haven't appreciably increased either. Meanwhile, their functionality has increased dramatically, according to John Facella, director and market manager of public safety for M/A-COM.

“A portable radio has always cost a few thousand dollars, but 20 years ago it didn't meet [military-spec] standards — and cell phones still don't — and the radios couldn't do multimodes such as P25, analog and legacy Project 16. The batteries were also not as good as we have now.”

According to Powell, analyzing the cost of public safety radios using a fixed dollar reference helps to put the question into the proper perspective. “For example, public safety agencies routinely paid about $2400 about 20 years ago for a simple, 8-channel, crystal-controlled public safety radio that at most would allow you to scan those channels on receive,” he said, adding that, adjusting for inflation, the same radio would cost about $4250 today. “That isn't far off from real-world prices today for procurements of top-tier products,” he said.

Powell also said that the flexibility of today's public safety radios should be considered when analyzing whether prices are in line. “Today's radios can be reprogrammed to a completely different configuration in a few minutes versus the weeks it took in 1987 to simply order and replace a crystal to change a single frequency,” he said.

Still another reason that could explain why public safety radios cost what they do — compared to cellular handsets — concerns market sizes and replacement cycles, factors that influence how many units a manufacturer can produce and — more important — the economies of scale they can achieve in the process.

“We only have about 3 million total public safety radio users in the United States, including EMS, fire and police,” Facella said. “They typically replace their radios every five to six years for portable radios and eight to nine years for mobiles. In contrast, there are well over 215 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S., and they replace their phones every one to three years.”

Not everyone is convinced. “It depends on whether you believe the manufacturers or the rest of the world,” said Ben Holycross, radio systems manager for Polk County, Fla.

Holycross is among those who believe that the reason public safety radios cost so much is because Motorola and M/A-COM dominate the market, with each company promoting its own proprietary technology while undercutting open standards such as APCO Project 16 and Project 25. In doing so, both companies are able to keep radio prices artificially high, while using their licensing arrangements with other manufacturers to prevent cheaper knock-offs from entering the market.

“In the public safety trunking world, there are primarily two flavors of systems, both using mutually exclusive proprietary technology,” Holycross said. “In as much as other companies manufacture public safety trunking radios, they do so under license to these two manufacturers. Consequently, the cost of licensing is kept high to keep the cost of these knock-off models right up there with the manufacturers' own products. They have us over a barrel, and they're taking advantage of it.”

Meanwhile, efforts to open up public safety radio competition through P16 and P25 have been delayed by self-interested manufacturers, he said. “We have let the APCO 16 and 25 processes be directed, dictated and delayed by vendors,” Holycross said. “If we had put out established standards on our own — just put them together and said to the market, ‘Here it is’ — then we'd likely have more affordable P25 radios available to us today.”

Facella characterized this criticism as “an inaccurate portrayal of the facts. … As I said before, there are basic economic reasons why P25 radios cost much more than cell phones, which are the usual comparative,” Facella said.

Sniping aside, one question persists: Is there any hope that the cost of public safety radios will come down? The vendors say they're trying. According to EFJohnson's Nolan, one answer is to streamline manufacturing to reduce costs. “Public safety radio suppliers are being driven back into the lab to design radios that can be produced more cost-efficiently,” he said.

Facella agreed: “We in the industry are working very hard to deliver a lot more value for a reasonable price.”

Motorola's Schassler noted that the growing complexity of software components within public safety radios accounts for a very large portion of the development, testing and support investment required to bring the products to market. “The ability to produce more capable software with the same mission-critical reliability, but with reduced complexity and testing effort, could potentially result in cost reductions,” he said.

But Holycross expects the relief to come from overseas competition. “I see some offshore manufacturers coming in on the P25 and IP radio sectors, offering product that will probably be based on fair pricing,” he said. “Fair-market competition will reduce the price for the existing M/A-COM and Motorola products by probably 70%.”

Should that happen, Holycross predicted that M/A-COM and Motorola would “reduce their prices while still making a profit and continuing to keep the lights on at their plants.”