The transition from traditional land mobile radios, or LMRs, into next-generation IP-based devices will resemble the Mississippi River's convergence with the Gulf of Mexico — it will be muddy, sometimes turbulent, but in the end, inevitable. And although some believe the entrance of large, well-funded IP-focused entities — which traditionally have not been a factor in public-safety communications — will ease the transition, others aren't convinced.

IP offers flexibility and applications — including voice, which, in a packet-based world, is just another data application — along with much lower equipment costs that makes it difficult for even the most steadfast LMR users to resist. The major turmoil is not because a move to IP is a bad idea; it's because it's a big idea, and public safety, for all the obvious reasons, is not amenable to big changes.

“I'll make the analogy to the sea. It's very difficult to change the temperature of the sea. You really have to put a lot of energy into it,” said Ken Rehbehn, a first responder who is research director for Current Analysis.

It helps that non-traditional companies such as Cisco Systems are adding heat to the public-safety market, but the reception is still frosty.

“A lot of dollars have been invested into developing these land-mobile radio systems. It's hard to invest all the money and then begin to fathom abandoning the systems,” said Lt. David Mulholland, commander of information and technology for the U.S. Park Police.

A lot of dollars invested outside the public-safety sector have produced IP-based products that are more fully featured than the equipment first responders use. Companies like Cisco believe this technology enhances traditional systems.

“We believe you can converge a lot of these things together,” said Morgan Wright, global industry solutions manager for Cisco's public-safety and homeland security business unit. “There's always going to be a need for the traditional LMR, but the role of the hand-held radio is now at an inflection point to where it's evolving. It's becoming a communications device, not the communications device.”

Cisco, he said, won't produce LMRs just as it doesn't manufacture laptops or cell phones; it will use its IP background to bring together all the network pieces, no matter who builds the parts.

“Cisco's value proposition is to unify that entire chain of command — headquarters down to field personnel and vehicles — and connect them to actual information,” Wright said. “We do it through the use of voice, video, data and mobility. We provide a set of technologies and capabilities that unify the chain of command.”

Although he admitted Cisco's competitors are laced throughout the chain, “We don't have a single competitor across all layers. That's what I call public-safety networking — the unification of that chain of command.”

Rehbehn is among those who believe that companies not generally associated with the public-safety space — such as Cisco — will accelerate the process.

“They have scale, research and development resources to apply to the problem [and] credibility,” he said. “When a solution is brought forth to municipalities, they'll look at them seriously because they know it's not somebody in a basement trying to come up with the next great idea that is tapping into the largesse of Department of Homeland Security funds.”

But Cisco also has serious doubters.

“Cisco isn't really in this particular space big time,” said Michael Doble, CEO of the Public Safety Broadband Consortium.

Doble said he's more impressed with the transitional solution Raytheon JPS is developing, where “they'll put this piece of equipment in a command vehicle and when they drive up to an emergency scene that has multiple access points all over the place, they'll be able to communicate to VHF, 800 MHz, all kinds of different communications systems.”

Bill Iannacci, Raytheon's director of strategic initiatives, doesn't see his company as a Cisco competitor, even though the goals of each appear similar.

“We look at this system integrator role that we have; we look at the best technology, best hardware that's out there. We're agnostic,” he said. “We're not looking to just build everything at Raytheon.”

He's also not threatened by Cisco.

“We enter different types of partnerships all the time. I've done things with Cisco; we're doing things with Nortel,” he said.

Conventional wisdom says that IP already is migrating into the first responder space in a major way, with laptops in emergency vehicles, the influx of centralized voice-over-IP systems and the increasing use of Wi-Fi and mesh wireless networks. But the base responsibility to provide reliable voice communications is a different beast.

“A lot of police chiefs say their existing land mobile radio systems are doing a pretty good job for voice,” said John Melcher, executive vice president of external affairs for Cyren Call Communications, which is proposing that Congress set aside a portion of the 700 MHz band that would be used to build a nationwide public-safety wireless broadband network (see story on page 6). Cyren Call has conceded that the network, should it ever be built, will be a data-only play, at least at first.

But LMR systems have one big drawback, according to Mulholland. “One of the advantages of land mobile radio systems is the ability to reach out and grab so many people within the agency,” he said. “The downside is you're only reaching people within the agency.” The use of IP-based systems is seen as a pathway for agencies wishing to communicate over a broader public-safety community.

Incorporating such a capability with the ability to transmit crucial data to laptop screens, then moving that down to hand-held devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and cell phones is what's really going to sell IP to the public-safety community — especially when the price is right.

“If I were to walk into my chief's office today and say, ‘Chief, we have an option between choosing a $150 or $200 or $500 PDA smartphone device, or a $4000 or $5000 hand-held mobile radio,’ I think it's an easy sell,” Mulholland said. “The financial impact that it could have is going to be one of the driving forces.”

Getting someone to put the pieces together also will help.

“Whether it's Cisco or anybody else who's working on it, those of us who are taking the time out of very, very busy schedules to look five years down the road are looking for answers to these questions we have today. The first thing is to be able to prove that the capability exists,” Mulholland said.

It does, according to Cisco's Wright.

“We have our own LMR gateway. We've incorporated LMR capabilities into a router, and now we can deploy a router to each radio tower, take all the analog and digital signals, convert everything to IP and spread that over the network … with the IP Interoperability and Collaboration System [IPICS],” he said. “The centricity of IP is going to drive these changes, and it's going to force the integration … of LMR into an IP environment.”

All of this leads to the biggest integration issue of all: convincing the end user the vision is real. It's easier to convince a teenager to try some new computer-based technology than it is to take the fail-safe radio from a first responder. If the kid's new equipment fails, it's an inconvenience; failure in the field can produce a catastrophe for first responders — and those they are sworn to serve and protect.

That's why a baby step is needed in the voice communications migration, according to Raytheon's Iannacci. “Do non-mission-critical voice-over-IP — we're not advocating mission-critical,” he said.

Everyone — even the most ardent proponents — figure it will take as long as 15 years to do it right. During that time, existing LMRs will wear out, and IP naturally will become a part of everyday communications.

“We are well into upgrading our public-safety communications systems for voice to an extent we have never seen before,” Current Analysis' Rehbehn said. “[But] you don't turn around and say, ‘Give up those handsets now, they're obsolete; we have IP, and IP tops everything.’ Those handsets will be with us for 15 years.”

Rather than force the issue, he also suggested easing into the transition.

“You're going to see interesting new applications that are surgically placed into the hands of people who can use them,” he said. “We will start with interesting data capabilities placed into the hands of commanders. We will expand from there and see some sort of supplementary data terminal, which goes into the vehicle of your regular on-the-street police officer and possibly in the cab of the fire apparatus. The last thing you will see is a small device that can be carried on the belt.”