The Software Defined Radio Forum soon will announce the formation of a special interest group targeted at the public-safety sector. The SDR Forum plans to hold SIG-related workshops during this month's IWCE 2004 trade show and conference in Las Vegas (March 22-26) and in April at the Forum's regularly scheduled general meeting to be held in Germany.

The SIG will be charged with involving vendors and public-safety organizations in the forum's initiatives to promote development of software-defined radio technologies, according to Fred Frantz, SDR Forum member and director of law-enforcement communications for L3 Communications Government Services.

“Public safety already is involved in the SDR Forum to a degree, but we want to get … out to the broader community,” Frantz said.

Working closely with the SDR Forum's regulatory committee will be emphasized, said John Powell, a senior consulting engineer and member of the SDR Forum's board of directors. The U.S. lags behind Europe on interoperability, according to Powell.

While many European countries have adopted the TETRA (terrestrial trunked radio) standard, the North American Project 25 standard backed by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International and other major first-responder organizations is optional, Powell said. While P25 was being developed, two large systems — Motorola's Smartnet II and M/A-Com's EDACS — and several smaller systems, all proprietary and none interoperable, became entrenched.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for SDR will be to get these companies to cross-license their waveforms to companies building SDR products, Powell said.

While the U.S. might trail Europe on interoperability, it is well ahead of the continent when it comes to public-safety broadband. Where the FCC has set aside 50 MHz of spectrum at 4.9 GHz for such use, no such spectrum has been allocated in Europe, Frantz said. The SDR Forum supports Project Mesa, which would create a common broadband standard for North America and Europe, and it will be up to the SIG to evangelize across the Atlantic. “It would double the market base, which would attract more vendors,” said Frantz, who predicted movement would occur on this standard in the next 18 months.

Expanding the marketplace is seen as a key to making widespread deployment of software-defined radios — currently too bulky and pricey for public-safety organizations — a reality.

“A software-defined radio for law enforcement, with encryption, would cost between $4000 and $5000. Compare that to a Nextel phone that you could get for $300,” said Tom Sorley, radio services supervisor for Orange County, Fla. “The ideal scenario would be a cell phone [in which] you could insert a memory stick with all of the public-service parameters. You would have the small form factor, plus the intelligence that would make it work like a public-safety radio.”