Narrowband competition debate underscores public safety’s need to consider broadband approach carefully
During the past year, the dominance of Motorola in the public-safety communications market has been a source of concern for members of the House Energy and Commerce committee, who have twice asked about vendor competition in the arena during the past 12 months.
In both cases, lawmakers asked FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski about the competitive landscape for key technologies — last year inquiring about the P25 LMR and, in April, targeting LTE mobile broadband. Motorola has responded with a letter stating that the company “does not manufacture or sell any proprietary public-safety networks” and that “the public-safety market is highly competitive.”
Indeed, in the P25 space, there are a number of vendors that provide equipment that meets the public-safety-driven standards, but there is little question that Motorola remains the 800-pound gorilla in the public-safety communications industry. And it is this reality that has irked many in the industry, including RELM Wireless CEO Dave Storey.
“I submit that any market having an estimated 80% share held by one company cannot legitimately be called ‘highly competitive,’” Storey stated in a letter to the House committee last month.
In the letter, Storey detailed claims that have long been part of the public-safety industry — Motorola builds equipment and systems that that comply with an open standard (in this case, P25), but then adds special proprietary features that effectively leave customers with no choice but to buy Motorola gear in the future. Often, that is executed through sole-source contracts or through a bidding process that only Motorola is qualified to win.
Mind you, this is not a new revelation — companies outside of Motorola have been accused of similar practices, although they have not achieved similar public-safety market-share success. Nor is this a public-safety-specific issue; it is fairly common for vendors that are not selected to grumble privately about the strategy or practices of the winning bidder.
It is an age-old dilemma. All consumers want standardized equipment and plenty of vendors selling it, so they can get the best price. But they also look to buy from companies that are able to develop valued feature sets and functionality that meets their needs; in fact, they may be willing to pay a premium for it.
If a company identifies such a demand and develops a solution to meet the demand, should it forego an opportunity to differentiate itself from the competition by withholding the innovation from the marketplace until it is part of a standard? If all such innovations were required to be licensed, would any company have an incentive to make the research-and-development investment needed to ensure that technological breakthroughs occur at all?
Regardless what the House committee members conclude about P25 competition, it’s hard to imagine that it would take any action that would significantly alter the competitive landscape in the LMR sector, although the inquiries may pressure some federal agencies to reassess their LMR procurement practices.
However, scrutiny about competition in the public-safety LTE arena could have a significant impact on 700 MHz deployments. At the moment, there is only one public-safety LTE contract signed, so no one is dominating the market. And, by adhering to LTE standards, public safety can ensure greater vendor choice, better economies of scale and — presumably — better prices.
As Morgan Wright — a former public-safety official who now serves as vice president of Alcatel-Lucent’s global public-safety segment — repeatedly has told public-safety officials, “LTE is your Declaration of Independence” from the Motorola-dominated communications world.
Of course, public safety does have unique needs that commercial vendors will not have much financial incentive to address. That’s why legislation that provides funding for public-safety-specific research and development — one bill allocates $500 million for this purpose — is so critical.
With such financial help from the government and leaders making wise procurement decisions, public safety has an opportunity to foster a more competitive vendor landscape with LTE than it has in the LMR arena during the past several decades.
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