In the public-safety arena, communications decisions traditionally require tough choices: analog or digital; VHF or 800 MHz; voice or data; and Vendor A or Vendor B, to name a few. The best decisions often are reached after a healthy dose of compromise. Meanwhile, poor decisions have resulted in networks that quickly became obsolete and required replacement, costing millions of dollars.

M/A-COM hopes to change this anxiety-filled exercise with VIDA, the company's latest offering that is designed to replace the “or” portion of these choices with “and.” Unveiled during last month's IWCE show in Las Vegas, VIDA — voice, interoperability, data and access — features an IP backbone that allows communications between disparate legacy networks while providing a clean migration path to the voice and data offerings of the future, according to John Vaughan, M/A-COM's vice president and general manager.

“[With] the VIDA system … you can talk to anyone on any network, regardless of type, network or manufacturer,” Vaughan said. “And, because it's based on IP, we're comfortable that VIDA is ready for the next big thing, even though we don't know what that is.”

Many would argue that the next big thing is voice over IP. But it's nothing new for M/A-COM, the only vendor in the marketplace with a public safety-grade VoIP solution, which it has offered since 1997 while attempting to dispel industry myths about the technology.

“One of the great misconceptions is that, if it's voice over IP, there has to be latency,” said Don Appleby, radio project manager for the Pennsylvania governor's office of administration. “That's absolutely not true.”

Appleby should know, having spearheaded Pennsylvania's statewide radio system based on M/A-COM's OpenSky technology. But Appleby understands the skepticism, which is what caused him to send employees to M/A-COM in the late 1990s to see if the company's bid for the Pennsylvania project was just “smoke and mirrors” that looked better on paper than it would in practice. M/A-COM got the contract after proving its system “was real,” Appleby said.

Unlike many commercial flavors of VoIP, M/A-COM's offering is provided over a private Intranet with dedicated routes for voice packets, which also receive the highest priority on the network. In addition, M/A-COM uses compression techniques that reduce the size of voice packets by 80%, minimizing the risk of a bottleneck on the system, he said.

“The latency for any of the systems we're talking about is equivalent to the digitization in cell phones,” Vaughan said.

M/A-COM's compression of voice packets also leaves more capacity for data access, something most mobile-radio vendors don't even attempt on their voice networks. The OpenSky solution always has included the ability to access data at 19.2 kb/s, which compares favorably to the CDPD [cellular digital packet data] industry standard, Appleby said.

More importantly, the data access is provided on a dedicated network that ensures greater availability than CDPD and upgraded GPRS offerings from commercial carriers. It also means there is no need to pay a third-party carrier for data access — which will save Oakland County, Mich., $250,000 to $500,000 annually after it completes its OpenSky deployment in spring 2005, according to Bob Daddow, Oakland County's assistant deputy executive for special projects.

“That's not just chump change,” Daddow said.

In conjunction with the rollout of VIDA offerings, M/A-COM customers will experience enhanced data speeds, Vaughan said. Standard data rates will be 32 kb/s using existing cell sites with the same coverage area as the voice network.

Further upgrades are available for high-speed (up to 100 kb/s), wideband (between 100 kb/s and 400 kb/s) and broadband (greater than 1 Mb/s) service offerings, Vaughan said. However, the ability to realize these speeds is based on proximity to a cell site. Because data rates decrease as users travel further away from a tower, additional nodes are needed to achieve consistent data speeds throughout the network, Vaughan said.

Nevertheless, Bob Welch, RCC Consultants' vice president of business development said the ability to provide high-speed data and public-safety voice — ”No on else can come close” to M/A-COM's VoIP product, he said — over the same network is a quantum leap forward.

“The VIDA approach is significant, because it is moving in the direction of providing serious data speeds in a reasonable amount of time,” Welch said. “It's a whole new ballgame.”

M/A-COM customers are not limited to accessing high-speed data via the voice network. They also can access data via solutions such as Wi-Fi, 4.9 GHz or mesh networks, thanks to the heart of the M/A-COM system: an IP backbone that includes internetworking and application server layers (see diagram) designed specifically for public safety.

This infrastructure — available separately via an offering known as NetworkFirst — lets M/A-COM offer customers unprecedented voice interoperability. Because even analog signals are transformed to digital packets, they can be routed anywhere.

As a result of the common IP backbone, an analog user in the VHF band can talk with someone on a Project 25-compliant digital radio operating at 800 MHz, without the need for temporary repeater patches that tend to introduce latency and sound degradation.

Not only does the IP backbone provide a foundation for interoperability, it changes the “one size fits all” philosophy that long has prevailed in public-safety communications, Vaughan said.

“Right now, you can only have one frequency and one radio,” he said. “If you have a VIDA network, you can mix and match. … If you have a network, we can use it.”

This is a welcome notion to communications directors that currently have to weigh the financial impact of abandoning a functioning network in favor of a technology upgrade. For instance, a public-safety entity may want to upgrade to a digital 800 MHz system in urban areas for its advanced features and in-building coverage, but this solution is extremely expensive if also used in sparsely populated areas. With NetworkFirst, a VHF system can remain in place in outlying areas, while resources can be concentrated to ensure the best possible urban coverage using the 800 MHz system, Appleby said.

This scenario is being played out in Oakland County, Daddow said. One city in the county declined the OpenSky upgrade largely because it had made considerable investments in repeaters that provide excellent radio coverage via its 420 MHz system, he said. With the IP backbone in place, all the entities still can talk to one another on the network and the option to upgrade to OpenSky remains in place for the future.

“The NetworkFirst concept gives you the opportunity to tie legacy network systems together, and it's transparent to the user,” Welch said. “It allows you to make the transition to new technology in a way that's cost-effective, as opposed to buying a whole new system in one fell swoop.”

Indeed, the economics of the VIDA system — which incorporates NetworkFirst — are compelling. In addition to utilizing existing infrastructure and enabling high-speed data access on the voice network, the solution is fueled by “the power of IP,” Vaughan said.

All the hardware in the network is commercially available, such as Cisco System routers and Sun Microsystems servers, enabling customers to leverage advances in technology. And the value of this goes beyond the savings inherent in Moore's Law; Appleby said he has been able to find remarkable bargains for equipment in Web auctions.

“Sometimes, we're able to get relatively new equipment for pennies on the dollar,” Appleby said. “It's making a big difference. We're actually under budget for the project, which is unheard of.”

Even without such dramatic savings, just having the ability to get parts from multiple vendors is a blessing — a lesson Daddow learned the hard way after a bad lightning strike in July 2000 damaged much of his proprietary system.

“I was totally dependent on every single piece of equipment coming from [Motorola],” Daddow said. “I was sweating for 30 days. … Even though the system was only eight years old at the time, there were several parts that were out of production.”

The advantages of being IP-based are not limited just to hardware. Personnel always is an issue, and it's “absolutely” easier to find an IP network professional than an RF engineer, Daddow said. And the fact that M/A-COM's IP-based solutions are “as future-proof as you're going to get” makes the business and technology case even more compelling, according to Appleby.

“This package is worth more than the sum of its parts,” he said. “What this architecture does is free us from all the artificial constraints that we've all dealt with for years.”