If vendors offered radios that met the Association of Public-Safety Communication's Officials' Project 25 interoperability standard, but without the proprietary bells and whistles, agencies could buy more radios with available funds. Unfortunately, the basic commodity — the stripped-down P25 radio — doesn't exist, said Robert Pletcher, program director in the radio frequency unit of the Texas State Department of Public Safety.

“We need people to be able to talk to each other, and that's all we need,” he said.

Helping public-safety agencies talk to one another is a central goal of the P25 standard. As with any technology standard, another goal is to create a marketplace where many vendors compete, thus reducing prices.

Some say that, if the industry meets this second goal, P25 radios eventually will become commodities. Like residential wireline telephones, they all will perform the same essential functions, their prices will drop over time, and public-safety agencies will have greater leverage. But are P25 radios really heading toward commodity status? And, if so, is that a good thing?

“In theory, any time you have true standardization, that will drive a market to commoditization to some degree,” said Brenda Jackson, senior vice president of sales and marketing for EFJohnson. Land mobile radio implementations are so complex that the P25 market hasn't yet reached that point, but “eventually, it will happen, if the industry really does stick to P25 or whatever the next standards effort might be,” she said.

Jackson agreed that such an evolution would give buyers more leverage and drive down prices, but for some vendors, it will prove a mixed blessing.

“For the little guy, you hope for open standards, and you hope for the ability to level the playing field,” she said. “If you already have a large market share, that might not be to your best advantage.”

EFJohnson is preparing for the future by placing greater emphasis on selling complete P25 radio systems rather than just subscriber units.

“You form the tightest bonds with your customers at the network level,” Jackson said. “When you're dealing with subscribers, your relationship is different. It doesn't need to be nearly as deep.”

P25 radios are still too expensive to call them commodities, said David Storey, president and CEO of RELM Wireless. “We've made some great inroads to deliver more value than the competitors out there,” he said, referring to the pricing of RELM's BK Radio-brand P25 product line. “But I would say, until digital radios are at the level of analog radios pricing-wise, they will not attain commodity status.”

In addition to cost, there are other factors that are keeping P25 products from commoditization.

“There's certainly a drive toward interoperability. But full commoditization, from an electronics point of view, requires interchangeability, and I'm not sure we're there,” said Paul May, business development manager for M/A-COM Wireless Systems

A truly interchangeable product would resemble the modem cards people bought before laptop computers came with internal modems, he said. “They all had the same size, weight, power requirements. They were essentially identical.”

Today's P25 radios are more like cell phones, which are interoperable — they all talk to one another — but still offer a broad variety of proprietary value-added features and functions, he said.

Although buyers like Texas' Pletcher would gladly swap proprietary features for lower pricing, not everyone agrees. Critics say a radio includes many features that aren't described in the P25 standard but help define the quality and value of the product.

“When I think of a commodity, I think of the minimum quality level necessary to get in the market,” said Mary Pittman, Motorola's representative to the Project 25 Technology Interest Group. Motorola invests heavily in design and test procedures to improve its products in ways that aren't part of the P25 standard, she said.

“We build our products so that people can trust them for long periods of time in extremely hazardous situations, and that forces you to think differently about the product,” she said.

Some of the features that distinguish Motorola's P25 products are background noise reduction, protection against radio cloning and USB or RS-232 ports for connecting the radios to computers, Pittman said.

“Also, some of the ways you set up your radio can be extremely important to operating the system and operating it efficiently,” she said. “Programming it over IP is an example of a feature that does that.”

P25 radios from different manufacturers vary in size, weight and power, and they have different electrical attributes, May said.

“For example, a company that's very clever in how they design their circuits may be much more effective in using battery power, so they can get significantly longer battery life than others without having to pay a penalty in the size and weight of the terminal,” he said.

In addition, one radio may offer a feature-rich user interface, while another aims for simplicity and ease of use.

Along with battery life and ease of use, P25 radios also vary in audio quality, RELM's Storey said.

“In a high-pressure public-safety event, you have to be able to hear what's going on through the radios,” he said.

Buyers also consider intangible criteria, said Tom Mahon, project manager for Wyolink, Wyoming's statewide P25 network operated by the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WyDOT). “I think, for example, the reason someone would choose a Motorola product is that Motorola has a very high reputation for producing a quality product,” Mahon said.

They also offer many support services, he said. Intangibles such as reputation are impossible to write into bid specifications, he noted.

WyDOT chose Motorola technology for its radio infrastructure. Federal, state and local public-safety agencies that use the network will buy their own radios. The Wyolink project has negotiated pricing with EFJohnson, M/A-COM, Motorola and RELM.

Intangibles will grow even more important as evolving standards make radios more alike, EFJohnson's Jackson said. “In the new world, competition will not be on specsmanship,” she said. Instead, vendors will compete in “softer areas, like customer service and satisfaction.”

Whatever one thinks of commoditization, one thing is clear: Although P25 radios have crept down a bit in price since they first appeared on the market, they're not cheap — especially when compared with the analog radios many agencies are used to buying.

P25 technology is “so much more expensive than non-P25 solutions that it has not gained acceptance or traction among all the public-safety users in the United States. And that's just due to price, pure and simple,” said Texas's Pletcher, who stressed that his criticism concerns the pricing, not the standard itself.

“More and more police and fire departments are going to cell phones because they're cheaper,” he said. Moreover, smaller agencies keep their old equipment and hope that nearby metropolitan areas will invest in P25, relying on the backward-compatibility of those new systems to give them interoperability, he said.

When agencies in Wyoming look at the pricing of P25 radios, Mahon said, “they're very glad they have Homeland Security grant dollars to buy them.”

Prices for P25 radios available to agencies in Wyoming under the Wyolink program

Manufacturer No. of models listed in brochure Lowest price listed Highest price listed
Portable Radios EFJohnson 2 $1456.65 $1569.75
M/A-COM 2 $2010.00 $2160.00
Motorola 5 $1287.25 $2802.92
RELM 1 $1265.72
Mobile Radios EFJohnson 4 $569.00 $2263.95
M/A-COM 1 $2516.25
Motorola 6 $2980.00 $3704.16
RELM 4 2 $2260.50 $2260.50
Source: Vendor brochures published on Wyolink Web site - http://wyolink.state.wy.us/equipment.asp

Is it Really P25?

Besides sorting the features that distinguish different Project 25 radios, agencies evaluating such products face another challenge: There is no organization that currently certifies the P25 standard.

“Tests performed by [the Institute for Telecommunications Services of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration] for federal users, as well as case-by-case stories from the field, have shown that not all radios labeled P25 contain all of the features called out in the P25 standard, nor do all mobile and portable P25 radios available on the market interoperate with all other P25 mobile and portable radios, as is required by the standard,” said Dereck Orr, program manager in the Office of Law Enforcement Standards at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Paul May, business development manager for M/A-COM agreed. “Especially as you go forward into a multi-vendor environment, individual customers are forced, to some degree, to do their own validation or at least to get an education on the differences between Project 25 radios,” May said. Organizations that have done their own testing have shared the results, “but there is a lot of confusion,” he said.

With luck, that confusion should clear soon. At the request of federal agencies that buy P25 equipment and those that give grants to support P25 implementations, NIST is developing a “conformity assessment process” to determine how well different radios meet the standard. NIST will create a set of test procedures and then develop a process for accrediting third-party labs to perform those tests. “At this point there is no formal certification program being planned,” but NIST hopes to have the test procedures and accreditation process in place by the end of this year, Orr said.
— Merrill Douglas