LAS VEGAS--Most people don't like to engage in controversy, but it can be fun to witness at times. One of those times occurred at IWCE 2007 yesterday, when public-safety officials and vendor representatives squared off in a session that focused on public safety's "wish list" and the ability of vendors to deliver on those wishes.

The number-one wish list item -- not surprisingly -- is lower-cost radios. The debate got edgy pretty quickly, as the vendor reps tried to explain the difficulties of producing more economical radios given first-responder requirements -- ruggedness, encryption, intrinsically safe batteries, the ability to withstand temperatures of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, to name a few -- and the public-safety reps held their ground.

To give you a sense of the tone of the discussion, a public-safety official in the audience opined that $5000 for a public-safety radio seemed more than a bit excessive. He was told that if he's spending $5000 for a radio, it's because he's supporting a legacy, proprietary network and that he should be looking at other manufacturers, which could supply him at half the cost.

The session got me thinking about Project 25, the standard backed by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, which was supposed to create the pathway to lower-cost radios by creating an open architecture that would eliminate proprietary systems once and for all. The idea was that public safety would have a plethora of vendors from which to choose, and the resulting competition would drive costs down.

Judging from yesterday's debate, that clearly hasn't happened, and I'm wondering why. Part of the reason, I suppose, is that the standard isn't completed, even though work began nearly two decades ago. Another factor is the amortization cycles that constrict the ability of most public-safety agencies to execute quick and/or forklift migrations to next-generation technologies.

Nevertheless, the common air interface was completed years ago, and it is reasonable to think that P25 would have had at least some impact on radio costs by now. Perhaps the tide will turn, given the finalization of the Inter-RF Subsystem Interface, or ISSI, portion of the standard. The ISSI, finalized last year, lets P25 radios communicate regardless of frequency or vendor and is a major step forward -- at least in theory. While the ISSI creates a measure of interoperability, it affects only P25 radios -- it can't be used to mix and match non-P25 legacy radios with the newer, compliant models.

The audience member who bemoaned having to pay $5000 for a radio suggested that public safety form a committee to standardize its requirements, which tend to be "all over the map." He further suggested that vendors do the same in order to agree on how to meet those needs most economically.

Both suggestions are interesting, but isn't that what the P25 standard was supposed to accomplish? I think the time would be better spent if the vendor and public-safety communities put their heads together to figure out why P25 hasn't been more effective.

E-mail me at gbischoff@mrtmag.com.