Time for IP to kill radio star in public safety market, Filipowski says

Maverick behind Platinum Technology sees a communications round-up play in the first responder market

Andrew “Flip” Filipowski founded Platinum Technology and built it into a billion dollar-plus a year company by making 60 acquisitions in 12 years. He sold Platinum in 1999 to Computer Associates for $3.5 billion.

The idea behind the company was to get disparate databases to work together. His new venture, InterAct, seeks to do the same thing in the first responder world – get the communications technologies used by police, firefighters and others to seamlessly talk to each other.

He recently acquired part of BIO-Key International  in the first of what will likely be a series of acquisitions.

Washington Technology contributing editor Sami Lais interviewed Filipowski about his strategy in this new market.

WT: Why get into this business?

FILIPOWSKI: Whether we got into it or not, the industry was poised to step three decades at a time into the future just to catch up. Archaic [1975-era] technologies like radio are still being utilized; radio towers are still being built for no useful purpose except to satisfy the political ambitions of certain political units.

There are those who would like to perpetuate radio technology, regardless of how obsolete it is in the communications spectrum of public safety. It behooves [providers with a vested interest in selling old technology] to continue using that technology and protecting it.

It doesn't make it right; it doesn't make it wrong; it just makes it the way it is.

WT: But you say that is changing?

FILIPOWSKI: Mid-tier users — the non-New York, non-Chicago, non-Detroit size municipality — are more apt to use packaged software solutions. Those systems can be very elegant, given an opportunity to be elegant.

They can include all of the inter-relationships with information that help keep people safe. Now certainly there’s the potential [with such data] to have an impact on people’s privacy, so there is a certain elegance that needs to be applied to find the right level and balance.

But you can maintain that balance and still integrate everything from reporting or diagnosing an incident all the way to tracking the perpetrator in a jail cell. The solution can include everything from biometrics, court systems and safety systems to integrating efforts with the Centers for Disease Control in heat scanning at airports to try to diagnose flu in folks entering the jurisdiction.

And that’s just a very simple example.

You see that opportunity and then you contrast it with how backward things are and how much distance needs to be covered. If you can insert yourself with a business opportunity into that space and help it along and get it done, you will create some value for stakeholders, whether they’re your customers, your employees or your shareholders. It's not more complicated than that.

WT: So you’re talking about a standards-based solutions that lets a big customer such as the Chicago Fire Department buy the many functionalities and services it needs, but also lets a smaller customer like the nearby Evanston Fire Department select only those features it needs. Then when an incident occurs between or overlapping the two municipalities, their systems are de facto pre-integrated, interoperable?

FILIPOWSKI: You are certainly stomping in the right territory there. That is in fact a big big chunk of the issue. Sometimes, for whatever political reasons in the Evanstons and Chicagos, they abdicate their responsibility to make their systems work together, in the hope that they can keep separate enough that they can maintain control of their piece instead of sharing some of the glory, some of the revenue, some of the budget or whatever it is that they perceive as being so precious that they elect to stay in isolation at the expense of the public good.

WT: How much influence will the generation of digital natives now becoming the police, firefighters and the first responders have on public safety IT integration?

FILIPOWSKI: The expectations of those entering the workforce in those areas are exponentially greater than they were a decade or two ago. They know better; they know there are better ways to connect and communicate than these big bulky blocks of radio. They know it’s possible to do the same things better with a smartphone.

And that belief is confirmed by President Obama, who’s noticed that he can use his BlackBerry far more effectively than any other tool he’s been given to communicate with his own staff and family.

Everybody knows this. Whether it's a BlackBerry or an iPhone or whatever; it's not a secret, and it can't be denied anymore.

That I think is all adding to the momentum that will make this happen. In our lifetime, we’ve experienced similar changes.

For example, I remember in the 1970s traveling in Italy. If I needed to make a phone call, I’d go to the hotel lobby and ask if I could possibly please make a phone call. They’d sign me up for 2:30 that afternoon for a booth that I could sit in and hopefully then make a long distance connection to the United States.

Not too many years later — after we introduced cellular technology in the United States — the Italians said, ‘You know what? We’re tired of living in the Stone Age; we can't fix our land lines; they're broken forever. Why don't we take a couple of leapfroggy steps and just go to GSM?’

Shortly after, I could make phone calls from Italy, from the middle of the African bush and do better than I could in New York City.

I think that's exactly the analogy I would like to use in saying that when you find a technology mired that far back, it takes some leaps to catch up. But if you're prepared to take those leaps, there is value to be created for everybody.

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

Reader Comments

Fri, Sep 25, 2009

Andrew, exactly how do you think wireless devices communicate with each other? Any portable comms are RF at some point. Cell, mesh networks, etc, are all great additions to the toolkit for anyone currently using old-style radio, to pass text data or pictures, or to link repeaters and such. But when a storm takes down the cell towers and power lines, and the backup batteries die, what are you left with? Plain old self-contained, self-powered portable radios. And if limited-area voice is all you need (still true for many applications), why go to the added expense and bother?

Mon, Sep 21, 2009 Andrew Wash DC

No offense, but you all sound like those that he refers to that are defending an old outdated infranstructure because it is what you know or what puts bread on your table. He does seem to be talking futures but there seems to be a clear need for a new patform for the exchange of communication and other data types.

Mon, Sep 21, 2009 Jim Midwest

Wow, that guy made 3+ Billion dollars. Ain't America Great! Are we to take this to mean that he wants everything to be cellular based? or is he talking about "Sub space radio" e.g. StarTrek. Great Show, great concept, but it is fiction at the moment. Quantum entanglement has shown some promise for digital communications, as does "M" theory, however, the current level of technology and capabilities of energy storage are such that these are fairly unfeasible for public use. If he is talking about using the National Electrical Grid Infrastructure, that is being tied up by DHS right now for National emergency use. Funny thing is that the Electrical Grid, Cell Phones, Satellite, etc. all use electromagnetic energy to transmit data (Modulated EM Radiation, all forms of "Radio Waves"). Only exception is Fiber Optic, but the requirement of pulling a cable around (particularly in a car or plane) is really not feasible. Amazing that this guy is a Billionaire. I guess there is hope for all of us. Jim

Fri, Sep 18, 2009 Tom Cox Tennessee

Mr. Filipowski reminds me of a great many IT people without a clue about any other technology. How does he think WIRELESS IP-based devices communicate? Pheromones? Mr. Filipowski, get an amateur radio license, and volunteer for communications service in a few local and regional emergencies, and you won't be nearly as clueless about radio or emergency communications systems and their requirements. The fact that you have made millions in IT does not make you an expert in radio, or anything else, for that matter.

Thu, Sep 17, 2009 Nick Ruark

Mr. Filipowski must be what some would call a "futurist". Who knows - perhaps many of his predictions will come to pass in the distant future but, after reading (and re-reading) this article several times to convince myself that he actually said what he said, I'd suggest that his BER needs some immediate attention in the interim. He is way off-frequency when it comes to his belief that 1) radio is obsolete; 2) IP technology will replace radio; and 3) that cellular/public networks are public safety's salvation. It might do him some good to get out of his lab and into the real world sometime soon - before making himself look any more foolish than he already has.

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