A couple of days ago, I had the distinct pleasure of moderating a webinar that explored the Project 25 standard from the perspective of whether it finally is beginning to deliver on its promise, particularly regarding the ability of end-users to leverage the standard to build best-in-class systems and to drive down their cost of ownership.

The panel consisted of: Craig Jorgensen, director of APCO’s Project 25 steering committee; Pam Montanari, vice chairman of NPSTC’s interoperability committee, and the radio and data systems manager for Pinellas County (Fla.) Emergency Communications; Steve Devine, interoperability program manager of the Missouri Department of Homeland Security; and Mark Toman, superintendent of system operations support for Toronto EMS Communications, and the EMS Chiefs of Canada representative to the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group. They all did a great job, and the discussion was wide-ranging and frank. If you weren’t able to participate during the live event, I urge you to go to our website, where the webinar is archived.

Part of the discussion focused on deployments that are starting to pop up where end users are beginning to mix and match subscriber units from multiple vendors, something they’ve been waiting to do for more than two decades. The ability to do so will allow end-users to finally break free from the shackles of proprietary systems and allow them to shop around for better pricing. That by itself is reason enough to consider migrating to a P25 system, in the eyes of many.

During the webinar, which was sponsored by Cassidian Communications, the former Plant CML, Devine opined that there is another very good reason.

“We didn’t go to digital just because we wanted to be different — there’s a lot of things inherent in digital radio that FM didn’t provide us. … In the VHF band, a P25 radio does a much better job than an analog radio in doing adjacent channel rejection — and in VHF there’s a lot of overlap and a lot of channels laying on top of each other out there. It’s just a better radio.”

In the next breath, Devine conceded that P25 radios also are more expensive than analog radios. But the thinking is that the ability to mix and match subscriber units will force vendors to sharpen their pencils and be more competitive in their pricing. And, let’s face it — generally in life, one gets what one pays for. You can watch a baseball game from the upper deck or from lower-deck box seats. Most fans would tell you that the latter provides the richer experience — but they pay dearly for the privilege. The analogy seems to hold true in the world of land-mobile radio.

Of course, the whole lower-prices dynamic still has to clear a major speed bump in the sense that the P25 standard allows vendors to add proprietary features to their systems and equipment while still being in compliance. So, if you want every end-user on the system to be able to leverage those features, mix-and-match goes out the window. It’s a challenge that likely never will go away, Jorgensen said.

“The standards are functioning the way they’re supposed to function, but the fact of the matter is that each company builds their products a little bit differently,” he said. “It’s not a new problem, but it is one that at least the Project 25 steering committee and the manufacturers are aware of. But it’s not a standard issue, it’s an issue of how do we get the manufacturers to a point where everybody does it the same way — and we’ll never get that.

“Number two, each consumer wants a little different way of seeing and hearing the information they get, whether it’s the audio sound or the tones. So, you’re really dealing with a gray area. I don’t think we’ll ever have [the] fully standardized ability to have every radio look, sound and be exactly the same.”

That said, Montanari and Toman spoke of major P25 deployments that are underway, or about to be underway, in Tampa Bay and Toronto. It is noteworthy, I think, that these two major metropolitan areas have hitched their communications futures to P25 systems.

So, while P25 remains a work in progress, and likely will continue to be so for quite some time, progress clearly is being made. This is all the more reason to stay on top of developments through events such as this week’s webinar. I hope you’ll consider viewing it — I got a lot out of it and I think you will, too. Also, I hope you’ll consider attending the P25 workshops and conference sessions that will be held next week during IWCE 2011 in Las Vegas. They are part of a terrific educational program that the conference development team — which is ably led by my colleague Stacey Orlick — has put together. Hope to see you there.

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

For more information on P25, attend these sessions at IWCE in Las Vegas, March 7-11, 2011.