Interoperable wireless communications: Easier said than done

A successful plan for wireless interoperable communications for a specific metropolitan region or state takes years to develop, and typically requires a special committee to help agencies work through the associated issues and problems, according to public safety and wireless experts.

Although there have been some isolated successes, most states and large metropolitan areas lack even rudimentary wireless interoperability, they said. Experts cited Washington and Salt Lake City as examples of effective regional interoperable communications systems, and Michigan as the best example of an effective statewide interoperable communications system that includes service to local governments.

Joe Riggione, director of the North America justice and public safety solutions for Unisys Corp., said state and local governments must find ways to get over the political hurdles that routinely hamper collaborative efforts among government agencies.

"No one wants to give up turf or control," he said. "Until Congress says, 'You will do this,' I don't think it will happen quickly."

Interoperable wireless communications refers to the ability of public safety personnel from one agency to communicate instantly by radio, cellular phone or wireless device with personnel from other agencies.

Interoperability road map: The Public Safety Wireless Network program has assessed the interoperability status of each of the 50 states. The ratings were determined by assessing progress in six areas shared systems development, coordination and partnerships, funding, spectrum, standards and technology, and security. - Source: Public Safety Wireless Network program

The Public Safety Wireless Network Program (PSWN), a joint initiative of the departments of Justice and Treasury, has identified three basic levels of interoperability: day-to-day interoperability for routine public safety operations; mutual aid interoperability for response to catastrophic events; and task-force interoperability for long-term collaboration among federal, state and local agencies.

The program advocates a statewide approach, rather than a regional or local one, to wireless interoperable communications, said Robert Lee, a PSWN spokesman. The program calls upon states to establish an interoperability executive committee that will oversee implementation of the network and include a broad representation of users.

An executive committee would resolve conflicts over priority access and other issues that might arise by control of frequency allocation, he said.

As for regional participation, "We hope that it would grow out of that group," Lee said.

Only a few states have such a committee, he said. For now, most states are inventorying existing systems, assessing needs and determining whether they can achieve interoperability with some adjustments or enhancements, he said.

Many in government and industry believe there is going to be a struggle among agencies for priority access, but that hasn't really occurred with most of the wireless interoperable systems installed to date, because they aren't yet at full capacity, Lee said.

"The conflicts that they thought were going to exist don't reveal themselves because the system is well-designed," he said.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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