Michigan radio system praised, panned
You either love it or hate it. The “it” is Michigan’s statewide public-safety radio system, which 10 years after its conception is experiencing growing pains, paradoxically generating equal amounts of criticism and praise.
On one hand, the $220 million project recently was called “too costly and underpowered” in an April Detroit News story. On the other, the system received the top prize in the American Council for Technology (ACT) 2005 Intergovernmental Solutions Awards last month, beating out 65 nominees from federal, state and local governments.
Critics have blasted the Michigan Public Safety Communication System (MPSCS) for receiving supplemental state funding in 2004 and 2005 to expand and enhance system coverage, though MPSCS Assistant Director Mike Scieszka says the additional money is necessary and proper. “It’s not anything that’s unusual,” Scieszka said. “Any system has to be constantly maintained and improved. The basic system has the expandability to handle upwards of 80,000 first responders. We’re a fourth of the way there. We weren’t going to build that out in the initial construction in the early ’90s. We have to constantly upgrade the system.”
Scieszka said the $13.8 million allocated by Michigan’s legislature this year has two purposes: to upgrade the existing infrastructure to provide statewide integrated voice and data services and to relocate a microwave link that supports southeast Michigan. “The state sold a building that we had been using for our microwave link. We have to move the microwave and upgrade our bandwidth,” he said.
MPSCS currently supports 16,000 radios statewide, but will dramatically expand coverage across Southeast Michigan over the summer, adding the counties of Macomb, St. Clair and Genesee and the city of Detroit. “It’s just a constant and very substantial growth,” Scieszka said. “When the city of Detroit goes live, we’re adding 10,000 radios, a mix of mobiles and many portables.”
However, not all of Southeast Michigan is convinced MPSCS is the right public-safety communications solution for everyone. Oakland County will turn on its own $42 million independent public-safety radio network built around M/A-COM’s Open Sky technology this summer and has no regrets taking a different path. “[Michigan] made the decision in 1994, and MA-COM’s system wasn’t available at the time,” said Robert J. Daddow, deputy county executive for Oakland County and a public critic of MPSCS. “The problem here is that technology moves. The decision they made in ’94 was fine, but that was 10 years ago. When we made our decision in 2000, 2001, technology had significantly improved.”
Oakland County’s public radio network is a digital, voice-over-IP system designed to provide extensive in-building portable coverage and interoperability among all Oakland County agencies, as well as to leverage the county’s investment in a fiber-optic network, rather than microwave. An evaluation of MPSCS by an Oakland County advisory board determined the system wouldn’t meet the county’s needs without an extensive build of additional tower sites and new radio frequencies.
Oakland’s new system provides a variety of benefits, including more capacity through TDMA and a price tag $3 million dollars less than than a proposed Motorola alternative. “The state system has a limitation that data transmission speeds will be no greater than 9.6 kilobits per second. We’ll have a system that will be able to transmit at over 30 [kb/s] at launch.” Daddow said. “Motorola wanted to use a 9-inch whip antenna [on a portable radio] to meet our coverage. M/A-COM was able to do it with a standard 3- to 4-inch antenna.”
Additional features include an automatic “over-the-air” profile configuration for each radio, which lets individual departments reprogram radios from a Web browser to add talk groups rather than having to send radios back into a central facility. Finally, the Oakland system will run redundant radio switches in buildings 10 miles apart, linked by the city’s fiber-optic network.
“Motorola’s idea [of redundancy] is to put the A and B controllers side by side, and you’re absolutely vulnerable [in a major disaster],” he said. “The redundancy [of our system] is 10 times better,” Daddow said.
ACT, a non-profit organization of high-level private industry and government IT officials, has weighed in with a different MPSCS conclusion. The organization’s Intergovernmental Services Award is presented to the entity that demonstrates intergovernmental collaboration with public and private organizations, innovative and effective use of technology and technology leadership that serves as a model for other agencies. The winner is selected by a committee of government and industry IT professionals.
“Reviewers included the [chief information officer] of FEMA,” said Kelly Carson, ACT’s associate director of special events. “[MPSCS] really stood out.”
MODEL SYSTEM OR SINK HOLE?
1994: Construction of the statewide radio system begins.
2002: The initial system is completed at a cost of $220 million.
2003: Operation of the system is assumed by Michigan Department of Information Technology.
2004: State allocates $12 million from Commercial Radio Supplies for infrastructure buildout.
2005: April – $13 million in supplemental funding allocated for upgrading infrastructure to support integrated voice and data, relocate microwave link supporting southeast Michigan. System supports 16,000 radios statewide.
August – Twenty-four new radio towers are scheduled to come on line to serve the city of Detroit, Macomb, St. Clare, Genesee counties. The city of Detroit alone will add 10,000 radios to the network.