Public-safety agencies will need to continue using land-mobile-radio (LMR) networks for “years to come” until mission-critical voice is available via a reliable broadband network and devices — such as the proposed public-safety LTE network proposed in legislation enacted last week — according to a recent General Accountability Office (GAO) report.

Several vendors at last week’s International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) demonstrated applications that allow voice communications to be transmitted across an LTE network, but none of them offer key features required by public-safety personnel, such as peer-to-peer communications when the network is down or unavailable.

Given this, public safety likely will rely on LMR systems for mission-critical voice for “perhaps even 10 years or more,” according to the GAO report.

“A broadband network could enable emergency responders to access video and data applications that improve incident response,” the report states. “Yet, because the technology standard for the proposed broadband network does not support mission-critical voice capabilities, first responders will continue to rely on their current LMR systems for the foreseeable future. Thus, a broadband network would supplement, rather than replace, current public safety communication systems.”

In recent years, many elected officials and policymakers have expressed opinions that indicate public safety would be able to cease operations on their LMR networks as soon as dedicated LTE networks are available. Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) Chairman Harlin McEwen said he believes the GAO report provides a realistic vision about the timing and challenges associated with making such a transition for mission-critical voice.

“I’ve read the summary, and I thought it was pretty good,” McEwen said. “I thought it recognized that there’s going to be challenges with the new nationwide public-safety broadband network. I thought it was pretty positive.”

The GAO report also noted that the relatively small market and unique requirements for public safety have resulted in high radio costs, such as thousands of dollars per portable unit. In an attempt to lower radio costs, the GAO suggested that public-safety agencies work the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to make joint procurements for a larger number of radios, so a lower price can be negotiated.

“Because public-safety agencies contract for LMR devices independently from one another, they are not in a strong position to negotiate lower prices and forego the quantity discounts that accompany larger orders,” the report states. “For similar situations, GAO has recommended joint procurement as a cost-saving measure, because it allows agencies requiring similar products to combine their purchase power and lower their procurement costs.

“Given that DHS has experience in emergency communications and relationships with public safety agencies, it is well-suited to facilitate joint procurement of handheld LMR devices.”