The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate just announced the 14 lead organizations that will participate in the testing and evaluation phase of the multiband radio project. It's the final step before manufacturers start inundating the marketplace with their own version of the radio. The eventual widespread availability of the radios makes me wonder: If multiband radios hit the market next year and public-safety agencies nationwide adopt them, why do we need to build out a broadband, public-safety network?

I've seen an early version of the multiband radio from Thales Communications, which was demonstrated nearly at the 2008 International Wireless Communications Expo. The Thales radio has been used throughout the pilot because the company landed a hefty $6.275 million DHS contract to develop it. The radio operates in the 136 — 174 MHz, 360 — 400 MHz, 402 — 420 MHz, 450 — 512 MHz, 700 MHz and 800 MHz frequencies — letting command-and-control personnel communicate across bands during a large-scale, cross-jurisdictional incident. The radio also is capable of tapping into to other channels, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's weather channel. As a result, it has the capability to be the crucial technology to solve the nation's communication interoperability issues.

The radios seem to solve the issue of interoperability. They work across frequencies and agencies. It's a technology that can be used now for cross-agency communications without public-safety folks waiting and waiting for D.C. insiders and the FCC to work out the details of a nationwide, broadband public-safety network. But Dr. David Boyd — director of command, control and interoperability for the directorate — disagreed with me, saying he doesn't believe multiband radios will make the buildout of the network obsolete. Instead, it helps with the migration from one type of network to another.

"This becomes the bridge device [to interoperability]. So if you are going to build out a public safety network you would expect commanders and so on to want a multiband radio for the build-out so they can communicate with the new network as they build it out," Boyd said. "And, interesting enough, it would let users work between the new and the old network as it is happening."

Boyd said the final pilot will test how the radio can be used in day-to-day operations. After the pilot program, the DHS expects the data to be used in two ways: Industry will use it to determine areas of improvement on their version of the multiband radio and users will be able to look at the key lessons learned from the pilot program. Results will be documented at the conclusion of the test, and all findings and lessons learned will be published in a report that is expected to be posted on the SAFECOM program Web site in early 2010, Boyd said.

But I still wonder: Once public-safety agencies get their hands on a multiband radio, will they still clamor for a public-safety network or will they let it go as yet another bureaucratic debacle that's years from fruition? Only time will tell.

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