Project 25 update
It always seems to take a major disaster to highlight the radio incompatibility issues that plight the public-safety community. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were no different, but they triggered a heavier emphasis on rolling out Project 25-compliant systems city-wide, county-wide, state-wide and nationwide under the guise of homeland security. Despite this heavy interest and the ability of P25 vendors to move with the technology, lack of funding, spectrum shortages and old-fashioned government politicking stand in the way of bridging the communications gap between police, fire and other emergency personnel on the local and state level.
The P25 concept has been around for more than a decade as an effort to make interoperable gear for police, fire and other emergency responders on all levels of government. Since 1989, public safety officials and the mobile radio industry have worked on P25, the standards-setting process that would facilitate interoperability and allow public-safety agencies to communicate on wireless devices regardless of the equipment they use.
The intensity of interoperability planning efforts grew after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing spurred industry debate about public-safety communications needs. City, state and federal agencies using different radio systems on varying frequencies couldn’t communicate during the disaster. While the industry and public-safety community were heavily focused on P25, infighting over the Phase I standard slowed down the standards-setting process in the 1990s as Ericsson and Motorola squabbled over which technology should become the adopted P25 standard.
Today, the industry infighting has faded away, but new issues have bubbled to the surface. While about 16 states are actively implementing P25 systems, other states and local governments are facing a multitude of hurdles.
Finding the money
“The debate five years ago is really over,” said Chuck Jackson, vice president and director of systems operations with Motorola. “The questions have been answered about technology and systems have been deployed. Now it’s about how we do it and where does the money come from?”
Movement toward interoperability appears to be moving smoothly on the federal level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s chief information officer has advised that the government’s wireless efforts be consolidated into Project SafeCom to ensure that all emergency workers have access to interoperable equipment based on the P25 standard. The Defense Department has adopted a P25 compliance policy for land mobile radio systems as have a number of federal agencies, most recently the National Fire Association.
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge announced in March that nearly $600 million has been made available to states and U.S. territories to better assist state and local public safety and law enforcement personnel to help them prevent and respond to terrorism. Interoperable radio communications equipment is eligible for the funding as long as they are P25 Phase I compliant. But funding has moved slowly, and local and state governments are struggling to find money for many essential government programs let alone purchase interoperable radio equipment.
“We are competing for money at a time when schools don’t even have enough money,” said Dan Bart, senior vice president of standards and special projects with the Telecommunications Industry Association. “There are critical decisions being made at the state and local level as to where the next dollar goes.”
Dennis Blaine, executive vice president of sales and marketing with E.F. Johnson, said several state contracts for P25-complaint radios E.F. Johnson was expecting in 2003 have been frozen because of budget constraints.
“It affects virtually every state, and it trickles down to every county,” he said. “But we’ll see more from the U.S. government trying to help state and local governments move forward with new or additional equipment to promote interoperability.”
Even when local and state governments scrape up the funds to purchase P25-compliant, they are often stymied by lack of frequencies to upgrade. The 800 MHz, VHF and UHF bands are crowded in many major metropolitan areas.
Waiting for spectrum
Public-safety entities are still waiting for additional spectrum previously assigned by the FCC in the 700 MHz band. But that spectrum is occupied primarily by television broadcasters that aren’t required to return the spectrum until 2006 or when 85 percent of American households can receive digital television signals. The move isn’t likely to happen by 2006 due to problems transitioning to digital TV.
“Here we are years later and spectrum is still not available,” Jackson said. “Chicago, L.A. and N.Y. are where congestion is the worst. That has slowed the development and availability of P25. People are holding off on purchases because there are no frequencies to deploy equipment on.”
During his recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Sub-committee on Telecommunications and the Internet, Vincent Stile, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), urged Congress to establish Dec. 31, 2006, as the firm and final deadline for television stations to vacate the specific channels that block public safety use of the 700 MHz band.
“That will give state and local governments the ability to proceed with new interoperable, state-of-the-art public safety radio systems to provide new capabilities and/or allow for expansion of overburdened systems operating in the adjacent 800 MHz band,” said Stile.
Across the bands
To ease the spectrum constraints and spur faster interoperability, Motorola and E.F. Johnson, which has publicly announced its intention to enter into the P25 infrastructure game next year, are working on equipment that will communicate across 800 MHz, VHF and UHF bands, creating an interoperable network. Motorola is planning demonstrations of the capability with the federal government.
“We will have an open architecture so we will be able to have different radio types communicating with each other,” said E.F. Johnson’s Blaine. “Let’s be honest. Not every little county can afford to throw all analog radio systems out and buy digital. It’s not going to happen. For them to communicate with P25, they need to have a system level interface. For years and years, these entities won’t have the capacity or the money to upgrade to P25.”
Giving up control
State and local governments themselves can also share the blame for the lack of interoperable systems. In February, the National Task Force on Interoperability (NTFI) released a 104-page report that detailed why public-safety agencies are facing interoperability problems. One of the top five reasons cited was lack of coordination and cooperation in state and local governments.
“State and locals have the attitude that ‘what’s mine is mine.’ They want their own systems,” said Bart. “There’s not just one thing holding back P25. It’s the will to cooperate, the politics, available spectrum and money.”
NTFI highlighted the fact that agencies are naturally reluctant to give up management and control of their communications systems. It suggests that public officials can consider sharing costs and benefits with other jurisdictions or look at sharing infrastructure such as radio towers.
For instance, the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN) is a multi-state, multi-jurisdictional wireless public safety system. Communities serving Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland are working together to develop an Integrated Mobile Wireless Public Safety and Transportation Network that will allow public-safety and transportation officials from more than 40 local, state and federal agencies to communicate among each other in real time.
The bottom line, said NTFI, is that public-safety agencies must change they way they do business, which means sometimes giving up control of their communications systems.
Meanwhile, those pushing for more rapid rollouts of P25 networks hope it doesn’t take another major disaster to highlight these deployment hurdles.