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Money Won’t Solve Communications Problems Seen on 9/11

With anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, The New York Times checked in on a pressing homeland security issue identified in the tragic crisis: the problems first responders have communicating with each other. DHS has spent more grant money on this issue than on any other, according to department officials, but $7 billion has done virtually nothing to fix the underlying cause.

Like much coverage of the issue, the Times story spends a lot of time discussing the need for additional spectrum (which is, essentially, radiomagnetic real estate). But while public safety officials certainly want more spectrum, they’ll admit that a lack of spectrum isn’t the cause of their problems.

In reality, one of the main roadblocks to interoperability is planning. Public safety communications is a state and local issue, and interoperability requires incredible agreement and coordination among officials used to running their own shops. In recent years, DHS has been able to dedicate more money towards planning projects and to use its leverage as the source of funding to push officials to get on the same page.

The lack of planning, though, continues to be an issue for improving traditional radio systems, and it looks like it’ll be a problem as public safety builds data networks — the systems that connect gadgets like smartphones — as well:

But those initial broadband systems are being built before the various parties have settled on the appropriate standards for equipment and networks — meaning that there is no guarantee that other jurisdictions that build their systems at some point in the future will be working on the same wavelength.

The Times breezes by this point, but the main reason that public safety’s traditional radios don’t work together already is that the public safety radio community has taken decades to develop standards that would allow every manufacturer’s radios to work with every others’. Part of the issue has been that the radio vendors have enormous power in the process and that one company — Motorola — dominates the industry and has little incentive to push for technical requirements that would engender competition.

Deputy Chief Charles F. Dowd, the New York Police Department’s communications chief, references these tensions:

“The history of public safety is one where the vendors have driven the requirements….We don’t want that situation anymore. We want public safety to do the decision making. And since we’re starting with a clean slate, we can develop rules that everybody has to play by.”

More than money or spectrum, that’s the key to creating interoperability — agreeing on the rules of how both people and technology will work together.

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