Multiband radios' impact on interoperability
By putting multiband radios in the hands of all public safety disciplines — Law Enforcement, Fire, EMS — you can solve many interoperability problems
At the recently concluded APCO conference in Houston, J. Kevin McGeary, Senior Consultant for L.R.Kimball (a CDI Company), presented his thoughts about the impact that the emergence of multiband radios is having — or soon will have — on communications interoperability. During his hour-long talk, McGeary spoke about some of the current product offerings, the potential impact of multiband radio technology on first responders, as well as grant programs through which agencies across disciplines can obtain the funds necessary to purchase this equipment.
Before we go too deep into the meat and potatoes of McGeary’s talk, it’s important to note that the most fundamental piece of true communications interoperability remains the human element.
As McGeary put it toward the end of his presentation, “Technology is just one puzzle piece in the interoperability picture. You have to have defined and shared communications plans in advance for operability. You have to have defined and shared communications plans for all major incidents. You have to have frequency-sharing agreements in place.”
Current Product Offerings
McGeary opened his session by pointing to some of the newest multiband radios now on the market, saying that more models are sure to come. The four he specifically focused on were:
• Thales Liberty Multiband Radio, 136-174, 380-520, 700/800 MHz, software upgradable to P25 Phase 2
• Harris Unity XG100P and XG100M Multiband Radios, 136-174, 380-520, 700/800 MHz, software upgradable to P25 Phase 2
• Motorola APX Series Portable and APX 7500 Mobile, any two bands among 136-174, 700/800 MHz, 380-470 MHz
• Datron Guardian II Triband 136-174, 380-520, 700/800 MHz, Analog FM
“This is just a quick overview,” said McGeary, “but with four different manufacturers offering products right now, the good news about that obviously is not only more choices for you in looking at purchasing. Like many new offerings, products, and technologies — as we’re all aware — those first years of offerings tend to be at a somewhat higher price. Hopefully with four different vendors now in the marketplace, the price points of these units may be driven down somewhat.”
McGeary said then that the United States Department of Homeland Security is sponsoring some pilot tests across the country, some of which have already been completed (Blaine Wash. and Vancouver, BC, Canada, as well as Murray State University in southwest Kentucky). With pending pilots in places like Phoenix (Phoenix PD), DHS is working on gathering input from each discipline (Law Enforcement, Fire, EMS) on the impact of MBR technologies relative to their unique communications requirements, both from an interoperability standpoint and a day-to-day communications standpoint.
“It is still premature,” McGeary said, “to report on all the findings [of the completed pilots].”
But he did offer one observation from his view of the data — that preliminary pilot results highlight the negative effect that proprietary trunking systems have in solving interoperability without the use of “work-arounds,” alternative connectivity audio switches, and the like.
McGreary also said that even though the aforementioned multiband radios have come to market over the past two years, “most activity on interoperability investments remain focused on infrastructure-based solutions. System and network patching, mutual aid overlay stations, supporting connectivity, standards-based systems, that don’t automatically ensure interoperability.”
Connectivity, McGeary succinctly said, does not necessarily equate to interoperability.
“If all of our users had access to multiband radios, that would have a big impact on interoperability, simply by putting [these radios] into the hands of first responders instead of the practice of swapping radios, which is not a practical approach for day-to-day incidents and response. That practice can work, if you have cashes of radios, in a preplanned event scenario, but in the instance of immediate response, this is not a practical approach. In a swap-radio scenario, you have a limited number of radios, and those tend to go to a select handful of individuals who can then coordinate each discipline.”
Investing in Infrastructure
As McGeary said, the investment focus has not yet been placed on handheld radios — the money still is going into gateway-based approaches to interoperability. There are two different types.
1. Network-based gateways connect infrastructures require that you ‘bring your coverage with you’ so if you don’t have coverage in a given location, you may as well not have a device
2. Deployable (or Transportable) type gateways deliver on-scene connectivity, which for day-to-day operational needs is not practical because of the time it takes to get set up on scene — a similar problem to the one you’re likely to encounter with a swap-radio policy
Take a moment now to look at the image above and to the right, which approximates the one McGeary used during this point in his talk. The triangular shape at the very center represents what McGeary called coverage overlay.
“You have to have coverage overlay. Imagine if Agency A is on 800 MHz, Agency B is on UHF, Agency C is on VHF. They each have their particular infrastructures connected so they can patch them together, but even though they have connectivity, the only area where all three have interoperability is comparatively small, where you have coverage overlay for each of the three agencies — overlapping Circles A, B, and C. If you have just two agencies, with just two different frequencies, you can see that those overlays may increase in size, but you sill will not have complete coverage overlay, and therefore not real, true, operational interoperability.
“How does that scenario completely change with multiband radios?” McGeary asked.
In essence, by putting multiband radio technology in the hands of the individual responders, you don’t have those issues.
“You have effectively created coverage overlay across the entire area. When you have multiband radios in the hands of the responders, the infrastructure-based solutions become redundant, they become effectively moot. With multiband radios, you can have the ability to access multiple frequency bands. The holy grail of interoperability is a standards-based system. In reality, you still are left with different frequency bands. The multimode radios break down that barrier.”
Funding: The Final Frontier
As the hour wound down, McGeary spoke briefly about two programs for chasing, pursuing, and securing funding for multiband radios.
“Bear in mind,” he said, “that with neither one will you secure millions of dollars to cover the entire cost of such purchases, but these programs can be incredibly helpful. It’s important to note that with both programs, the application process is not terribly complicated or difficult.”
The first is the Assistance to Firefighters Program, which provides funding directly to departments to help them fulfill firefighting and emergency response needs. In FY 2010 the Assistance to Firefighters Program consisted of $390 million. The application window typically opens in the March timeframe. Applicants can be individual departments or a regional group (county or geographic regions, where one department is the sponsor for multiple departments in the group). Award amounts are based on population, and regional approach tends to get higher dollar awards.
The other one is DOJ/COPS Technology Program. This allows police agencies to purchase technologies to advance communications interoperability, information sharing, crime analysis, intelligence gathering, and crime prevention in communities. In FY 2010, this was about $169 million. The COPS Technology Program is considered “sponsored” funding. The way it works is that you need to get on the list of eligible entities that then compete and submit an application. You can approach your congressional representatives or senators to get your name on that list.
Multiband radios address key goals of these two grant programs, including:
• Improves and supports Incident Command
• Improves responder efficiency and effectiveness
• Improves user safety
• Improves tactical operations and speed of response
• Supports multi-agency coordination and information sharing capabilities
• Supports operations and interoperability for targeted Task Force operations
• Simplifies communications for planned major events
• And of course, this technology enhances communications interoperability
McGeary closed by reiterating that multiband radios enable a shift away from infrastructure-based solutions, which have inherent drawbacks to achieving true communications interoperability. He also emphasized the need to continue to address the human element of the problem, even as you shop around for the technical piece of the puzzle.
“No single product solves every need,” McGeary said, “but multiband radios are an effective and flexible tool.”