For some time, we’ve been writing about the possibility of mission-critical voice over broadband being an option for public-safety agencies. Virtually everyone agrees that the capability will be a reality eventually, but the timetables cited have a wide range — some say it could happen within three years, while others believe it will be at least 20 years.

With so many variables involved, this large discrepancy is completely understandable, and a legitimate case can be made for just about any time estimate one chooses to make. Unfortunately, this high degree of uncertainty has the potential to create havoc for even the most well-informed and well-intentioned policymakers, whether it is on the local, state or federal level.

A glimpse of the problems this can cause was evident during yesterday’s meeting of the San Francisco budget and finance committee, which was asked to approve an agreement with Motorola Solutions to build and operate a 700 MHz LTE network for the region’s first responders. While the committee members eventually opted to postpone the decision for a week, it was some of the city’s big-picture communications dilemmas that caught my attention, because my prediction is that this scenario is going to be repeated many times throughout the country during the next several years.

In presenting the benefits of the proposed 700 MHz LTE network to the committee, city officials noted that the region is getting almost $100 million in funding from outside sources — $50.6 million in a federal grant and about $45 million in upfront funding from Motorola. While the LTE network only will provide broadband data initially, city officials predicted that the system also would be able to provide voice communications for first responders and other city personnel within 10 years.

Meanwhile, the same officials noted that the city’s 800 MHz analog network is reaching the end of its life, and it will cost an estimated $65 million to replace it. In addition, the 800 MHz network used by the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) is in need of an overhaul that is expected to cost at least $50 million.

Committee members quickly seemed to grasp the significance of the matter. Budgets are very tight in this down economy, so the idea of spending $115 million or more on networks is far from ideal — particularly if that functionality could be replaced by voice communication over the proposed LTE network in less than a decade.

Of course, some sort of dedicated voice network is needed for San Francisco’s first responders and transit workers. And, while voice over the LTE system likely will happen, the capability doesn’t exist today and no one knows when it actually will be a viable option for government entities.

To their credit, the San Francisco committee members called on various officials associated with the three proposed network projects to convene and explore the possibility that a more efficient option may exist. Hopefully, city officials will be able to brainstorm and devise a clever approach that minimizes potential waste of taxpayer funds.

No government wants to spend a bunch of money it doesn’t have on an LMR network that could become obsolete in a few years, but the consequences of not updating a mission-critical voice system could be dire. With so much uncertainty surrounding the technical, financial and regulatory factors involved in such projects, it is extremely tough — maybe impossible — for decision-makers to feel comfortable with any choice they make in terms of long-term planning for voice communications.
From my perspective, two things appear certain:

  1. Such a scenario is not unique to San Francisco, as we’ll see other government entities wrestling with similar situations in the coming months and years, and
  2. This journalist is glad that he only has to write about such problems instead of having to make such difficult decisions.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

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