“Will broadband voice replace narrowband voice?” It’s a question that has been a hot topic among those in the LMR arena, particularly during the past few years, when the notion of a nationwide broadband network for public safety has been a focal point.

Given this, it’s hard to believe that the matter was not on anyone’s radar screen just five-and-a-half years ago. That’s when Morgan O’Brien used the IWCE stage in Las Vegas to unveil a vision that called for public safety to use 700 MHz airwaves as the spectral foundation for a nationwide, dedicated broadband network, instead of a patchwork of wideband networks that the FCC spectrum planned called for at the time.

Although initially dismissed by many, the broadband idea soon was embraced in the public-safety community and by national policymakers. While the proposals have changed considerably through the years, the notion of putting the power of broadband in the hands of first responders has continued to gain momentum at all levels, and many Beltway sources believe this Congress will take action to ensure that the needed spectrum and funding exist to make the vision become a reality.

But the potential launching of public-safety LTE networks has generated endless questions. Initially proposed as simply a data-only network, the first-responder broadband network now is expected to support mission-critical voice and data to public safety sometime in the future.

When will mission-critical voice be added to the mix, and how might a migration from narrowband voice to broadband voice be implemented? That’s the question everyone wants answered, because it has huge ramifications on several levels.

For federal lawmakers and policymakers, such a convergence promised to have significant impacts on interoperability and long-term spectrum policies. For states and municipalities, it could mean the end of having to fund the operations of LMR networks. For LMR communications directors, it could determine when they will need to retire, learn about LTE or pursue a different career path.

But no one seems to know the correct answer. Technologically, some claim mission-critical voice could be provided as an application on a mission-critical LTE network within a few years, while others believe it will take at least a decade before broadband voice is proven enough for public safety to rely on it. Beyond the technical issues, there also are funding, governance and political hurdles that will need to be cleared.

Finally, there is the reality that the migration to mission-critical broadband voice will be delayed by the fact that public-safety entities will be required to get a full life cycle out of their existing LMR systems, particularly those that just recently spent millions of taxpayer dollars to deploy new radio networks or upgrade them to meet the narrowbanding mandate.

On Tuesday, Dec. 6, the issue of broadband voice will be discussed as one of four webinars presented during UC/IWCE’s first Virtual Trade Show. A stellar panel will discuss the possibilities and challenges associated with broadband voice, as well as providing some insight regarding how LMR and LTE might co-exist — a situation that will last for several years, if not decades.

It’s doubtful that the panel will be able to answer the elusive “When will it happen?” question definitively, because there are just too many variables and unknowns to consider. However, the panelists should be able to offer up-to-date information on the key signs to monitor as this very interesting episode in communications history plays out, so you can make the best decisions possible in the future. Please consider joining us for a lively discussion.

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