LAS VEGAS--Software-defined radio (SDR) holds both potential benefits for first responders and requires issues to be resolved, said Fred Frantz, director of law enforcement programs for L-3 Government Systems. Speaking at a Wednesday afternoon session on interoperability at the 2005 IWCE conference, Franz said “the killer app” for SDR is interoperability. “SDR has the potential for first responders to load in waveforms at incidents,” allowing them to easily communicate with each other and other agencies.

Other benefits SDR may bring are cost reductions and equipment flexibility. Frantz said “over the air” software upgrades could have a “tremendous cost-reduction advantage” by allowing agencies to simply push upgrades out via radio broadcast, rather than having to laboriously bring equipment back to a central facility for modifications. SDR would also enable the use of single radios rather than multiple types for a wide variety of situations. “You start to think of single radios that could access multiple services, including land mobile radio and cellular system.”

However, the same configuration flexibility of SDRs also creates many issues to be resolved. “If the concept of ‘over-the-air’ upgrades doesn’t scare you, it should,” Frantz stated. SDR software upgrades need to make changes to operational systems that shouldn’t unintentionally or maliciously result in disruption of services. He also cited problems with FCC regulatory rules, standards for SDR programming, and being able to build a “practical” multi-band antenna as factors that will have to be resolved before first responders move more aggressively into the technology.

A working group on SDR issues is currently in the process of creating a report examining promise and problems surrounding the use of SDR technology by first responders. Frantz said the working group was looking for ways to leverage the experience of the Department of Defense in implementing SDR for its multibillion-dollar Joint Tactical Radio System program, but there were limits between the DoD’s experiences and the amount of technology local communities could afford, making tradeoffs between cost and key features necessary. The report is scheduled to be released by the fall of 2005.

Frantz also expressed concern over the push to develop cognitive radio applications using dynamic frequency techniques to find unused spectrum and utilize it. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Frantz stated, “When public safety needs spectrum [during an incident], so does everyone else.” He and others are worried that a broad implementation of such techniques would occupy normally unused first-responder spectrum and result in it being unavailable in a crisis. To compound matters, little research has been done on the surge in spectrum usage by first responders during a major event.

“Nobody has quantified the problem,” Frantz said. “If it is an unplanned event, nobody is ready to capture the data.”

The 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City may shed light on spectrum surge usage during a crisis event; SDI Forum member Stevens Institute of Technology was able to monitor and collect spectrum usage data during the event and is comparing it to a baseline of normal spectrum usage.