Project 25 spins its wheels
During the past decade, numerous disasters and emergencies across the nation have highlighted the widespread radio incompatibility issues hampering public safety's response efforts. When terrorists used commercial airliners as missiles to destroy the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the event was another startling example. But this time it prompted a heavier emphasis on rolling out Project 25-compliant systems in all jurisdictions — local, state and federal — in the name of homeland security.
Despite the good intentions, however, budget constraints and lack of planning and cooperation among interacting jurisdictions are the main factors hampering the deployment of P25 networks to help bridge the communications gap between police, fire and other emergency personnel across all levels of government.
Since 1989, public-safety officials and the mobile radio industry have worked on P25, the standards-setting initiative that would facilitate interoperability and allow public-safety agencies to communicate on wireless devices regardless of the equipment they use. Yet P25 networks are prevalent in only a handful of regions nationwide.
“We like the [P25] process because it involves the community developing its own standards, but the reality is, there is an unreliable funding stream for it. The P25 process has been very slow. What was intended to be a seven-volume suite of standards, P25 only has one complete, and there are some proprietary elements to the standard,” said David Boyd, program director with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM Program, which was created in 2002 to oversee all initiatives and projects pertaining to public-safety communications and interoperability.
No one — except perhaps for P25 manufacturers that hold the information close to their chests for competitive reasons — knows how many P25-compliant systems have been deployed in the U.S. Ask P25 experts, and they can rattle off a few deployments from memory, but all agree P25 launches are few and far between.
The majority of P25 contracts today are coming from federal government agencies — whose funding was earmarked even before Sept. 11, 2001 — for the mandated transition to spectrally efficient technology. The National Telecommunications & Information Administration requires federal agencies to replace older, spectrum-hogging analog equipment with digital infrastructure. All have adopted a P25 compliance policy for land mobile radio systems (LMRs).
But local governments hold the golden key to interoperability via P25. More than 90% of the wireless public-safety infrastructure is operated and maintained at the local level — and these governments are the most difficult to get on the P25 train. Federal Communications Commission rules, as presently interpreted, give public-safety users until Jan. 1, 2018 to convert their systems to meet spectral efficiency guidelines. But it is an unfunded mandate.
Funding a $20 million LMR system for use in case of a major emergency is a difficult sell when local governments, already suffering from budget shortfalls, have to make tough decisions about funding for basic needs such as schools, social programs and critical infrastructure, such as municipal water systems.
“It's not an easy public policy decision,” said Craig Jorgenson, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International project director for Project 25. “This becomes one more priority they have to fund. On a day-to-day basis, it's easy to put this on the back burner, but when a major disaster strikes, everyone asks why it wasn't available. This is a problem we face as a nation.”
In 2004, the money crunch is beginning to ease somewhat as federal funds begin trickling down to the local level. SAFECOM, which previously was not well supported by the public-safety community, now has the endorsement of 10 major public-safety associations and is developing guidance for making federal grants available to public-safety agencies planning for interoperability. To date, grants have been distributed to local governments through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Community Oriented Policing Services and the Office for Domestic Preparedness Equipment Grant Program. While SAFECOM currently is unable to determine the total amount of grant money allocated specifically for the purchase of interoperable communications systems, Boyd is confident more money is on its way.
“A fair amount of additional money has moved down to the states and more will move more quickly,” he said.
Even when a community receives a grant, however, taxpayers still pay anywhere between 20% and 50% of the system's cost, estimates Jorgenson. Another complicating factor: local governments typically underestimate — or worse, fail to recognize — the costs beyond the purchase of hardware, such as those associated with network planning and training, as well as maintaining and upgrading their P25 systems.
“In the old days before P25, you bought a radio system, hung a repeater up and forgot about it. Now it's software-driven, and you need the redundancy to protect your investment and you need the software maintenance contracts,” said Terry Hall, manager of emergency communications with York County, Va., which is building a P25 system that is expected to go live in November. “It's expensive to maintain, but when hurricanes and other disasters hit, one thing you cannot compromise is the integrity of the system.”
Mike McGannon, manager of wireless systems with Engineering Associates, a P25 network-planning firm, counsels local jurisdictions to spread the cost of the system over 10 to 15 years to balance their budgets. “It's tough to swallow that $20 million pill, but these systems are made to last a long time,” he said.
Part of the blame for the relative lack of P25 progress can be found in the standards-development process. Some manufacturers, fearing the current P25 standard may quickly become outdated, are reluctant to enter the market, while others are in no hurry to speed development of the standard's future iterations because there isn't a large demand for P25 equipment right now.
“There are many systems that offer different varieties, and the problem is that there is no standard,” said Amalesh Sanku, vice president of marketing with EFJohnson. “The [Telecommunications Industry Association] is working toward a standard, but it's not even close to being implemented. Everyone is proposing proprietary-based systems, which increases cost and maintenance.”
Sanku is referring to Phase II, which increases the spectral efficiency of P25 networks and defines the backbone infrastructure of the P25 standard. Phase II will emerge as an IP-based network backbone that would allow various public-safety organizations to communicate with each other over disparate radio networks. Most P25 trunking system manufacturers already incorporate an IP-based backbone, but they are proprietary in nature because a universal Inter-Subsystem Interface (ISSI) has not been standardized. A standardized ISSI is important to growing the P25 market and driving down equipment costs in the long run because it would enable public-safety agencies to pick and choose a plethora of P25-compliant consoles and base stations that would operate with infrastructure from any P25 vendor.
EADS Telecom, a large public-safety infrastructure provider in Europe that has yet to enter the U.S. P25 market, and Motorola have offered competing proposals about what the ISSI should look like. Jorgenson said standards makers are involved in conference calls twice a week to resolve the issue. “We are concerned that this has been a slow-moving standard,” he added.
The pace should come as no surprise, given the complexities involved with getting disparate entities to agree, according to Dan Bart, TIA's senior vice president of standards and special projects. “When you approach standards, you eat an elephant one bite at a time,” Bart said.
SAFECOM is attempting to bridge the gap through an initiative designed to test vendor equipment to make sure it is truly interoperable with competitors' equipment.
“Ultimately, we're always going to have a number of different technologies, and we don't want vendors to stop innovating,” said SAFECOM's Boyd. “[But] we have to get away from a vendor-driven planned obsolescence so that when it comes time to upgrade a system, agencies can do incremental upgrades. What happens now is a manufacturer has quit manufacturing a particular system, and there are no hooks back to the old system, causing another bond issue in a community. We have to get away from that.”
Despite the sloth-like pace of standards development, competition did enter the market in late 2003 and already is helping to drive prices down. Motorola is no longer the only P25 turnkey provider in town, as both EFJohnson and M/A-COM now are actively bidding on P25 contracts with the ability to offer both infrastructure and radios.
Both Motorola and M/A-COM recently bid for a contract in York County, Va., which Motorola won. Hall believes the competition resulted in cost savings for the county even though M/A-COM ended up no-bidding the job.
Vendors have become sensitive to the funding plight by offering P25 radios that can operate on both legacy systems and interoperate with communities that have deployed P25 trunking systems.
“Some of the locals have to have bake sales to afford radios,” said Jay Herther, federal market director with M/A-COM. “We're offering a P25 conventional common air interface mode. Users can get lower-cost radios, and when they need interoperability, they turn the button to this mode.”
Everyone in the public-safety community seems to understand that P25 is not the silver bullet for interoperability; public safety also is beginning to realize it will determine, in large measure, the effectiveness of these systems.
Case in point: Last February, the National Task Force on Interoperability 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. Agencies are naturally reluctant to give up management and control of their communications systems, noted the NTFI study.
“We can put all the technology in place, but if we don't change that thought process, we will not have accomplished anything. There are places that have 800 MHz P25 systems and the ability to talk, but they don't,” said Charles Werner, deputy chief of the Charlottesville, Va., fire department and member of various public-safety communications working groups on the local, state and federal levels.
Attitudes are changing, however. Before agencies can receive any grant money for P25 systems, they must demonstrate that they are working with surrounding jurisdictions to achieve interoperability.
Werner was the chief lobbyist for a $6 million FEMA grant that Charlottesville public-safety agencies received this year. He said communications planners created partnerships with neighboring jurisdictions to share the costs of the system and increase the scope of P25 technology.
“The politics scared me to death at first,” said York County's Hall. “But that was minor. We have an outstanding regional partnership where we don't recognize jurisdiction. We just dispatch the closest equipment. We estimate we saved $3 million to $5 million on our system, and we'll have a better coverage and a well-deployed system.”
Public-safety agencies are beginning to buy into the notion that interoperability is best achieved by starting at the local level. By aggressively pushing cities and counties to work together to link their systems, they can eventually achieve statewide interoperability and avoid many of the politics plaguing widespread interoperability initiatives.
The state of Georgia, for instance, has been involved in a long-time struggle over how best to build and pay for a statewide P25 system, said McGannon. “You have politics of control, and it all goes back to a democracy. Who is paying? Who has the most money? Who will be in charge of maintenance? There are a lot of issues here.”
SAFECOM agrees. “You can't start at the top and push,” said Boyd. SAFECOM is currently working with the state of Virginia to create a governance mechanism that will result in a statewide interoperability plan. SAFECOM will then take what it has learned and offer it to other states.
Eventually, SAFECOM hopes statewide interoperability eventually will lead to nationwide interoperability. For as the old adage says: Disasters don't have borders.
P25 At A Glance
What: The standard for interoperable digital two-way wireless communications products and systems.
Goals: Reliable intra-agency and inter-agency communications; competition amongst vendors to drive down equipment costs; user-friendly equipment that can be used under adverse conditions with minimal training; improved radio spectrum efficiency.
Requirements: A P25 radio system must provide interoperability with these two mandatory interface components: the Common Air Interface (CAI), which enables P25 radios to interoperate and communicate digitally across P25 networks, and the Improved Multi-Band Excitation vocoder, which sets a uniform standard for converting speech into the digital bitstream.
Phases: Phase 1 (completed) specifies the CAI and vocoder requirements for 12.5 kHz bandwidth operation; Phase 2 (in development) will specify additional air interface specifications to provide 6.25 kHz equivalent bandwidth operation to allow better spectrum efficiency.