While topics such as 800 MHZ interference, interoperability and Homeland Security created most of the buzz at the recent IWCE 2004 in Las Vegas, another topic that comparatively flew under the radar this year — Internet protocol — likely will be generating the buzz at future events.

Several vendors showcased new IP-based solutions, led by M/A-COM, which introduced its VIDA (voice, interoperability, data and access) solution that achieves interoperability between disparate radio networks by converting voice to packets and transmitting them over an IP backbone. In addition, Raytheon JPS Communications upgraded its interoperability solution — the ACU-1000 — by adding voice-over-IP and radio-over-IP components, while EFJohnson added VoIP to its Project 25-compliant Netelligent Infrastructure System.

They're somewhat ahead of the curve, according to Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's Communications & Technology Committee. While acknowledging that IP will “be a player in the future — no one would disagree with that,” McEwen said the platform has yet to develop to the point where it could be considered by public safety for mission-critical voice communications.

“Where it falls short is that you have a variety of choke points. When you're dealing with [IP transmissions] going through several different servers and communications points, all of those are possible failure points,” McEwen said. “What we're looking at now is, how are people going to build and engineer systems of the future to prevent that.”

Vendors already are rapidly improving on that shortcoming, according to Amalesh Sanku, vice president of marketing at EFJohnson.

“IP is still being developed; right now it's not perfect or the technology it's expected to be,” Sanku said. “But the maturity curve is so high up that I think we can start deploying these systems.”

Sanku said the problem with past IP networks is that they weren't configured properly. “IP [today] is a distributed model. That means the control is not centralized; it's distributed across a variety of different functions and points of contact. In a centralized model, which is what I think Chief McEwen is referring to, when a message comes in and the central server is down, you have a problem. In a distributed network, there is no single point of failure. That's one of the advantages of IP.”

Sanku added that current IP networks also give voice packets “the highest priority” to address problems with latency and blockages that plagued earlier generations of the platform.

While agreeing that IP has moved very quickly along the evolutionary curve, it's going to be some time before IP-based technologies achieve widespread acceptance in the public-safety community, according to Roman Kaluta, manager of public-safety, interoperability for Raytheon JPS Communications.

“A lot of the fear of IP-based technologies is that the LMR people aren't familiar with IP, and the IP people aren't familiar with LMR,” said Kaluta, who is a retired lieutenant with the Alexandria, Va., police department. “It's just going to take time for the two to converge. Now that you have people who are actually utilizing it, [others] are beginning to see the benefit.”

While IP adoption would benefit from more public-safety agencies getting past their fears to take a leap of faith on the technology, Kaluta believes industry vendors ultimately will have to lead first responders to the Promised Land.

“A lot of what public-safety is going to do is going to be dictated by what industry does,” he said. “If the big vendors start touting IP and start building IP-based radios, if they make a big investment, well, they are the biggest LMR dealers. Then that's the way [this] will go.”

But Kaluta also said that LMR wouldn't disappear overnight. “With the lifecycle of radio systems and where we are with radio today, I don't see LMR disappearing, especially overnight. Usually the life expectancy of a radio system is 15 years, and it's not unusual for budgetary reasons to push that to 20 to 25 years. So, given the costs that are involved, a wholesale replacement would be cost prohibitive.”