The column I wrote two days ago, in which I opined that mission-critical voice over IP not only is a fait accompli but also will render land mobile radio systems obsolete someday, generated quite a bit of reader response. As usual, some agreed with me, some didn’t. (To read all of the responses, click here.)

The primary reasons expressed by the dissenters are what you would expect: VoIP is too unreliable, too insecure and unable to provide the one-to-many and peer-to-peer communications that first responders need. These are valid concerns, particularly the one concerning peer-to-peer, i.e., talk-around communications. When first responders are in danger, they need to be able to communicate with each other even when the agency’s network is unavailable to them. As challenges go, this isn’t a speed bump, but rather a brick wall.

I received an e-mail from a reader, whom I very much respect, who told me that the peer-to-peer piece likely never will be solved because the commercial operators have no desire to make off-network services available to their customers. As a result, 3GPP, the body that is overseeing the standardization of Long-Term Evolution (LTE) — the fourth-generation wireless technology chosen by the commercial and public-safety sectors –has no incentive to work peer-to-peer communications into the equation. This reader doesn’t believe that public safety has a strong-enough voice to change the dynamic.

It’s a legitimate point. However, I think public safety’s voice is plenty strong. Recall that the 3GPP already is working on a multicast solution for LTE that will address the one-to-many voice aspect. This is being done at the behest of public safety. Also, public safety is on the cusp of getting the D Block, something that many also thought would never happen. The fact that legislation exists that would reallocate the coveted airwaves to first responders speaks to the sector’s obvious lobbying muscle. Is it unreasonable then to think that public safety eventually will get 3GPP to add a peer-to-peer component to the LTE standard?

One concern expressed by several readers is that next-generation networks might not find their way to rural communities. Obviously then, those communities would have no choice but to hang onto their LMR systems. That’s true enough, for the short term. But those legacy systems will have to be replaced someday. When they are, I believe that they will be replaced with IP technology.

But what if I’m wrong? Such a prospect worries me much more than whether mission-critical IP voice ever emerges. Here’s why.

Where I live, there is an expressway dubbed the Elgin-O’Hare, which is a misnomer because the roadway goes to neither Elgin, Ill., nor to O’Hare International Airport. The expressway actually is the middle section of the planned route, which was supposed to connect Chicago’s far-northwest suburbs to the airport and to the labyrinth of expressways that encircle and dissect the city.

As the story goes, the project never was completed because of the argument over O’Hare’s expansion. The suburbs that encircle the airport — entities against the expansion — wanted the Elgin-O’Hare to feed into the airport on one end so as to eat up the land that would be used for the new runways. For obvious reasons, the city wanted the expressway to feed into the other end of the airport. Eventually, the Illinois Department of Transportation tired of waiting and decided to build the middle section, which opened in 1993.

The Elgin-O’Hare is a fine expressway. But it falls far short of its promise. And no one talks anymore about finishing the project as originally envisioned. That’s a shame, as it’s still a complete headache to get to the airport, even with the Elgin-O’Hare.

I fear the same unfortunate fate will befall the proposed 700 MHz broadband network for first responders, which is the genesis of all the debate over mission-critical VoIP. From the beginning, this IP network was conceived as one that would truly be national, i.e., it would include rural sections of the country that so far, for the most part, have yet to realize the advantages of broadband. But I doubt that’s going to happen. The emphasis in the beginning will be on the major cities, which is as it should be. But as time goes on, funding will shrink — it always does — and the footprint for this network will shrink with it. That means many sections of the country will have to do without, and the network will be public safety’s version of the Elgin-O’Hare: good, but not what it could have been.

Maybe LMR will live on after all.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.