Are we seeing the beginning of the end regarding single-municipality public-safety radio systems? There are some indications that point to a significant migration from such systems to wide-area, single-licensee systems.
Thousands of cities and counties nationwide have had to replace significant parts of their radio systems because of 800 MHz rebanding or VHF/UHF narrowbanding. However, quite a number of these municipalities have used this as an opportunity to not simply reband/narrowband their systems, but rather to move entirely off their systems and onto a regional or statewide system.
There are obvious benefits of this approach. First, making such a move during a period when a large amount of equipment must be replaced represents a significant cost advantage over a two-step process. Second, this obviously accomplishes the treasured interoperability that is a core goal of current public-safety communications.
There are secondary advantages to the larger system, as well. Usually, such systems have greater channel capacity, enabling utilities and other important entities to be included on the system. In addition, there can be cost advantages by avoiding dual infrastructure. For example, because both state and city police need to have coverage in a particular area, having one system eliminates the need for two different infrastructures. In some instances, system features may be affordable on a large system that would be cost prohibitive on the small system.
However, there are downsides to a large, regional system, too. Unless governance is properly established, there can be a loss of control on the part of the single user. Because decisions may be made on a larger scale, issues such as coverage in certain areas, system upgrades or added costs may not be controllable by the local user. In other words, are their priorities my priorities?
While a presumed benefit of a large system is lower costs for all, this is not always the case. Perhaps coverage must be provided in a very rural area for a very small number of users. This cost may be passed onto the bulk of the users, who have no need for this coverage area. Users may wind up locked into additional costs at the end of the contract that were not anticipated when the system began operation. Another area of concern is how system costs are passed onto individual users. These issues also may be tied to who owns the system. Is the system owned and operated by a municipality, a partnership of municipalities, a vendor, or some combination of municipality and vendor?
Some municipalities are not interested in these arrangements, because they do not wish to be locked into a particular vendor. Despite all of the promise of Project 25, the fact of the matter is that we’re not at true vendor interoperability/comparability yet. All of these issues play into the bigger picture as to whether participation in, and not mere interoperability with, a large system is a worthwhile endeavor.
What is clear is that a successful system that serves multiple municipalities has in place governance and cost guidelines that have been discussed and negotiated amongst the participants. No marriage of this sort works without discussing and agreeing up front on the issues raised above (and others).
This issue is beginning to play out as waiver recipients build out their 700 MHz broadband systems. The structure established by some of these early adopters will in many ways forge the identity of the nationwide broadband system, as well as serve as a template for similar, albeit narrowband, systems in other radio bands. Negotiate wisely.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.
Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.