The National Institute of Justice, the research-and-development wing of the Department of Justice, issued a call for papers on emerging technology solutions for public-safety interoperable communications, with its greatest interest in portable, multiband conventional radios.

The NIJ also is seeking information on mobile radios that support both voice and broadband data applications; satellite and ultrawideband technologies; cognitive and software-defined radio; low-power systems; location-based systems, voice-over-IP technologies; and wireless broadband systems.

Portable multiband radios that would operate in the VHF, UHF and 800 MHz bands and use the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Project 25 common air interface would be especially attractive to first responders, said Steve Rauter, deputy chief of the Lisle-Woodridge (Ill.) Fire Protection District.

“Let's say we have the super-duty, handheld portable radios that could tune all of the interoperability channels,” he said. “I could have gone to Louisiana [after Hurricane Katrina] and put in the channels that are supposed to be common interoperability channels for everybody, and I could talk to whomever I needed to talk to.”

The technology already exists to develop such a radio, Rauter said.

“State-of-the-art microprocessors literally can switch in and out … different types of circuitry by way of microprocessor control,” he said. “As an example, they already are doing this in scanners. In a scanner, each channel you land on will switch in and out of various RF circuitry. … The technology is there. It has to be ruggedized, and some things will have to be done regarding [intermodulation] and spurious emissions, but it can be done.”

Rauter said that such radios, such as the Thales MBITR, already are being used by the military, but vendors generally have been reluctant to adapt the technology for the public-safety sector because they don't believe there is enough demand to justify the heavy R&D costs.

While acknowledging that market factors would be considered before making the decision to invest in developing a public-safety version of a multiband radio, Claudia Rodriguez, solutions specialist for Motorola, said technology challenges are the far greater concern.

According to Rodriguez, vendors could take a couple of approaches to developing a multiband radio. In one, a wide-range board that could encompass all frequency ranges the user wants would be designed into the radio. But such an approach would be prone to degraded performance because the front-end filter on the receiver side of the radio would be more susceptible to interference, she said. Also, a multiband radio would require “several more” voltage controls. Increasing the number of components would make it more difficult for a vendor to deliver the form factor sought by public safety.

“Public safety wants small and lightweight, because usually they're carrying the radios on their belts,” Rodriguez said. “That's the technology challenge: How do we find a compromise between size and performance?”

Even if vendors develop a multiband radio that's right for public safety, the procurement cost for such a radio might be more than most agencies could bear, said Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department.

“If you have a Motorola P25 digital portable, you're talking $4000. So, if you have something that's capable of performing at that level, as well as every other level, you could be talking about $5000 to $6000 just starting off,” he said. “They only way you may be able to offset those costs is through volume purchases where you work out a deal.”

Werner added that adoption of long-term migration plans and subsidies from the federal government would lessen the impact of such hefty price tags.