Despite the struggles that Tyco Electronics M/A-COM has had with the state of New York, the vendor’s OpenSky system is working well in Pennsylvania, even though the statewide system is still not complete, according to a state official.

Last year, the Pennsylvania system boasted 17,500 radios on the network and supported 39 million push-to-talk communications, said Charles Brennan, deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s office of public-safety radio services.

“People used it 39 million times last year, so I assume it works,” Brennan said during an interview with Urgent Communications, noting that the network also provides low-speed data and network-based interoperability.

However, the system is not finished yet, even though the money for the project was allocated in 1996 and construction began in 2001. While all 235 high-profile towers in the system have been completed, original estimates that an additional 500 cell sites would provide the needed coverage have proved inadequate, Brennan said. Instead, it likely will take 700-800 cell sites to finish the project.

Brennan said the disparity was caused by language in the original contract, which stated that the radio network would provide coverage to 95% of the land mass of the 45,000-square-mile state, with no roadway-coverage requirement. This proved to be problematic in the northern part of the state, which is very rugged and mountainous, he said.

“What we decided to do here is to go back and make sure we hit 95% roadway coverage—that is not in the contract, but we had no other choice,” Brennan said. “If we just built to the specifications in the contract, no one would use our radio system in the northern part of the state; it would be virtually unusable.

“Everybody today that puts out an RFP includes a land-mass coverage figure and roadway-coverage figure. Pennsylvania never had that in its original requirements. I can’t blame M/A-COM for that; they were just responding to the RFP.”

Brennan credited M/A-COM for being willing to change the scope of the project “for the good of Pennsylvania.”

But building out the cell sites in the mountainous northern regions of the state has proved to be very difficult and costly, because many landowners refuse to let the state build radio infrastructure on their property, Brennan said. Meanwhile, even when the state can get access to a site location, it frequently lacks the electrical or telecom infrastructure needed to support its operation.

“The reason Pennsylvania isn’t built out has nothing to do with the technology; it always has to do with site acquisition, electricity and telephone—those are the three big issues,” he said.

Brennan said the two key technological issues—quicker portable connections to vehicular tactical repeaters and functionality with a microphone used by state police—are in the process of being addressed with new software from M/A-COM.

When completed, Brennan said the Pennsylvania state system likely will cost about $500 million—a figure well beyond the original $179 million contract. This has been a sore spot for critics of the project, but Brennan said the scope of the project was changed dramatically and that that the initial $179 million price tag was based less on engineering studies than elected officials’ intent to have the cost be in line with the $180 million Michigan was prepared to spend for the statewide network it was building at the time.

Although the New York system also was supposed to be an OpenSky system, Brennan said Pennsylvania’s configuration is “much different,” lacking some features New York wanted that created “this big overhead in an RF pipe that was just killing them.”

Upon learning of the problems M/A-COM was having in New York, Brennan acknowledged that he became “a little nervous” about the well being of a vendor that was so crucial to Pennsylvania’s statewide network, but he now believes M/A-COM will be fine. Besides, at this point, Pennsylvania is virtually obligated to continue moving forward with M/A-COM, he said.

“New York put their toe in the pool and, when they didn’t like what they saw, they drew it out,” Brennan said. “In Pennsylvania, we’ve gone off the diving board, and we have nowhere to go but into the pool.

“By the time we’re done with this project, we’ll probably be in for a half a billion dollars. We have over 700 sites—235 high-profile sites and 508 cell sites right now—all with M/A-COM hardware and M/A-COM proprietary software. I have 20,000 radios with M/A-COM proprietary software on them. Really, what choice do we have? I can’t pull my toe out of the pool.”