In a February 1999 editorial, MRT asked why the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials' Project 25 — the initiative to develop eight open architecture/interoperability standards for land mobile radio — had not achieved its goals after a decade's worth of work.

“Originally, it was supposed to take 24 months to define the project's standards and implement them,” the editorial stated. “Here we are in 1999 with no system that actually works. Why not?”

Congress is beginning to ask similar questions — and seems prepared to bare its teeth to get some answers. Fast forward to September 29. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Dereck Orr, the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) public-safety communications systems program manager, reported that over the last 15 years, only one of the P25 interfaces — the common air interface (CAI) that deals with handset functionality — has been advanced to a level where it would help satisfy one or both of the standard's goals.

“The remainder of the interfaces either remains undefined or lacks enough specificity to allow for a common implementation of the interface,” Orr said. “In other words, each manufacturer's implementation of the interface is different and proprietary, thus resulting in systems that do not meet the interoperability requirements as defined by the steering committee.”

Orr added that during the last two years, NIST — using funds from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice — has tested a number of the P25 hand-helds whose manufacturers claim meet the current CAI standard. “Using the test procedures called for in the standard, NIST found that none of the available radios met all aspects of the standard,” Orr said.

There are several reasons that explain why the P25 suite of standards has been 16 years in the making — and counting. The first is profit: Project 25 isn't just about enabling different vendors' radios to talk to each other; it also is about changing how the land mobile radio (LMR) manufacturing industry does business.

The LMR industry is one where proprietary technology has not only been a fact of life, but a vital selling tool. In choosing between LMR manufacturers A and B, public-safety agencies have had to choose between competing visions of LMR transmission. Having done so, they were committed to that manufacturer's vision, a restriction that helped LMR vendors of all stripes at upgrade time. Put in consumer electronics' terms, buying a Sony TV set meant one could watch only Sony-originated signals. If one then switched over to a Panasonic model, access to Sony's TV stations would be lost for good.

The industry's proprietary nature flies in contrast to the standard's interoperability goal. For instance, a M/A-COM P25 portable should be able to talk to a Motorola P25 mobile, and both should be able to talk to an EF-Johnson base station (and vice versa). In such a world, public-safety agencies have a purchasing edge because the equipment they need is available from more than one supplier. Again in TV terms, it wouldn't matter if you bought a Sony or Panasonic model because both could receive the same signals.

Considering the work that LMR manufacturers have done for the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) TR-8 Engineering Committee on Mobile and Personal Private Radio Standards — the industry/user/government coalition guiding P25 to fruition — it isn't fair to accuse the manufacturers of trying to sabotage the P25 process. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to expect any business to wholeheartedly embrace a process that effectively destroys a valuable marketing tool. After all, “these manufacturers have shareholders that they have to answer to,” said Craig Jorgenson, APCO's P25 project director.

The second reason P25 has taken so long to develop is the ambitious scope of its mission, which goes far beyond creating a common air interface for hand-helds. For Project 25 standards to encompass the full range of LMR functions, they must cover mobile radios and consoles in both voice and data modes, plus interconnections to the public network and inter-jurisdictional network connections (wireless or wired).

This doesn't begin to account for new technologies such as voice over IP, which is why Ron Haraseth, APCO director of automated frequency coordination, views P25 as “an evolving suite of standards that will never be fully complete.”

Changes in radio technology since 1989 also have complicated the P25 process. When the idea of open standards first was proposed, analog radio was the norm. Today, analog is a relic whose time is all but past thanks to digital radio technology. This has created several unanticipated problems for LMR users.

For instance, “when you move from analog to digital transmission, your coverage pattern changes,” Jorgenson said. “Meanwhile, we've moved from 25 kHz wide channels to 12.5 kHz and are on our way to 6.25 kHz. Although this change increases channel capacity, it requires substantial redesigns of radio technology.”

As if these challenges weren't enough, the human factor also has slowed P25's progress. “Over the years, we've had various LMR players coming and going … raising different technical issues that had to be dealt with,” said Paul Cizek, director of systems solutions for Motorola's radio systems division.

Making matters worse, not all manufacturers have bought into P25. “During the first ten years, we had one of the three major manufacturers object to the concept of the P25 standard,” Jorgenson said, adding that the opposition ended only after the manufacturer changed hands a “number of times,” resulting in new leadership that has taken a positive attitude toward P25.

Add the fact that the P25 standards effort — like any such initiative — is based on consensus between the various competing interests, and one can understand why it has been such a slow-moving process.

This is why Paul May, M/A-COM's business development manager, isn't surprised that P25 has taken longer than World War II's Manhattan Project. “When it came to building the atomic bomb, I think they only had one vendor,” he quipped.

Without a newfound catalyst, it is not inconceivable that the P25 process could continue to drag along at a snail's pace, perhaps delivering a final report by mid-century. Consequently, the Commerce Committee is trying to speed things up. After listening to Orr and other witnesses, the members imposed deadlines for P25's completion. Actually, in true Washingtonian fashion, the committee set deadlines for when it will lay down the law should the LMR industry fail to get its act in gear and finish the P25 process on its own.

“We have received direction from Congress that if the P25 committees can't assure us that they are going to advance the P25 interfaces, we're going to have to find an alternate solution,” Orr said.

According to Orr, Congress “made it clear” in its fiscal 2005 appropriations that NIST should direct its funds to alternatives to such P25 components as the inter-RF subsystem interface, the fixed station interface and the console interface should corresponding standards fail to be completed within the next 12 to 24 months.

Congress also devised another sanction guaranteed to hit vendors where it hurts.

“The feds have said that, ‘If you [LMR manufacturers] want to keep selling radios to the Department of Defense, they will have to be P25 compliant,’” said M/A-COM's May.

Given these threats, it is not surprising that “there's a new sense of urgency in the P25 process,” according to Motorola's Cizek. It's an urgency that APCO's Jorgenson welcomes. “If there's one thing business understands, it's money,” he said. “If there's a threat to their revenue streams, they have to be concerned, and they will act.”

And that might be the bottom line: After years of slow progress, Project 25 appears to be on the fast track. Finally.

Reflections on the P25 process

By intervening as it has, Congress seemingly has motivated the LMR industry to make P25 a reality. However, it should be noted that unexpected technical and engineering issues could crop up to further delay the process. While lawmakers may be able to pressure human executives, they have yet to gain sway over the laws of physics — despite what some senators may think.

Of course, should this congressional threat prove to be effective, one might ask why it wasn't made years ago? Back in the 1990s, the answer would have been that radio interoperability wasn't on Washington's radar screen. Now, in a post-9/11 world, interoperable communications are on everyone's front burner, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This not only has led the legislative and executive branches to take a more active role to improve public-safety radio communications, clearly it has made them far less patient.

This said, seven of the eight Project 25 standards are yet to be completed, so perhaps it's too early to celebrate. In fact, given the slow, tortuous history of the P25 process, MRT may once again ask, “What on earth is taking so long?” many years down the road.
James Careless