Networking giant Cisco System today announced its Internet Protocol Interoperability and Collaborations Systems (IPICS) solution that will let disparate private radio systems interoperate with one another, as well as with various voice, video and data devices.

Expected to be commercially available early next year, Cisco’s interoperability platform does not impact the RF interfaces of any communications system. Instead, it takes the signal from the radio—be it analog or digital, regardless of frequency—and converts it to IP within routers located that can be located at the edge of the network, said Dean Zanone, customer solutions manager in Cisco’s new safety and security systems business unit.

“At the end of the day, in a push-to-talk environment, I don’t need to know what kind of device you’re on, and you shouldn’t need to know what kind of device or channel I’m on,” Zanone said in an interview with MRT. “All that’s important is that we’re normalized to a standards-based platform … and that we can communicate, regardless of the particular network that we’re on.”

IPICS is being implemented in a field trial being conducted by the city of Honolulu, Hawaii, where local police and fire personnel frequently need to communicate with state, federal and military officials, said Gordon Bruce, Honolulu’s chief information officer.

“I see it solving a 65-year-old problem,” Bruce said of interoperability during a press conference this morning.

Interoperability among first responders has been a hot topic since the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, when an inability to communicate between different radio systems may have caused hundreds to die in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. The notion has been re-emphasize in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“With 9/11 and Katrina, one of the lessons was ‘communications, communications, communications,” said Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann. “This is an investment we have to make.”

But the cost of interoperability has been a subject of much debate. Replacing all radios so that they would be able to interoperate would cost an estimated $15 billion—a steep price under any circumstance, but one public-safety officials would like to avoid, especially when their current radios work. Charlie Giancarlo, Cisco’s chief development officer, said one of the benefits of the IPICS system is that legacy radio systems can remain intact, because the Cisco solution will make the interoperable translation in the network.

This approach does not disturb normal operations and lets public-safety entities upgrade their radio systems based on normal operational and fiscal factors, not simply to meet an interoperability goal, Giancarlo said. And building an IP platform is much more cost-effective than trying to forklift a radio system, he said. “[IPICS] will come in at about 10 cents on the dollar compared to replacing all the radios,” Giancarlo said. “It’s very compelling compared to the alternative.”

Although the public-safety uses of IPICS likely will garner more attention, applying the platform in the enterprise probably represents a greater revenue stream for Cisco, Giancarlo said. Maher Terminals, a large operator of container terminals used in the shipping industry, is using IPICS to connect its various communications networks.