Tait Podcasts: #2 – Ensure True P25 Interoperability

Russell Watson, Tait Communications

Dr. Russell Watson, Tait Solutions Marketing Manager for Public Safety

The second Tait podcast has arrived. Today we talk with Dr. Russell Watson, the Solutions Marketing Manager for Public Safety at Tait. Russell has spent years studying the P25 standard and is an expert in open standards.

When the P25 standards were outlined, one of the primary goals was to ensure open standards and interoperability. But still, many public safety agencies find themselves with P25 equipment that has proprietary features and forces them to stay with the same vendor. In this podcast, we explain the following:

•    How Project 25 began and why it became the standard for Public Safety agencies
•    The pros and cons of avoiding proprietary radio features
•    Things to beware of when specifying your P25 system
•    How open-standards can save your organization as much as 33% of your costs

For your convenience, links mentioned in the podcast are listed here
Cap-testing results:
P25 Best Practice Specifying Guide:

Podcast transcript:
Evan Forester: Hello everyone and welcome to the Tait podcast, my name is Evan Forester and I’m here with Russell Watson, he is the Solutions Marketing Manager for public safety here at Tait. Russell today we’re going to be talking about P25 and open standards and how that works. So just to start us off, I was wondering if you could explain to us what is P25?

Russell Watson: Okay, Evan. P25 is a digital land mobile radio standard. That standard was basically developed by public safety users for public safety so it describes how functionally the P25 or the radio works and defines that so a number of manufacturers can design radios to that standard so that public safety users get the benefits out of the radio system that they went.

Evan Forester: So it’s interesting that the users help develop it and I guess my question would be why did P25 come about, what was the process in that?

Russell Watson: Yep. So P25 was actually the 2nd version of a standard designed by public safety for public safety, originally it was a project or a standard called Project 16, which described how functionally radios worked for public safety, so that was trying to solve the problem with different manufacturers that developed radios that had different user interfaces. However that didn’t solve all the problems because you had radios that couldn’t talk to one another because they didn’t transmit the signals in the same way and didn’t have the same functionality so Project 25 was looking to take that next step, where different vendors could develop radios that not only had a same user interface that was common, or functionally common, but also could communicate with each other to allow different public safety agencies to communicate.

Evan Forester: All through the 90’s P25 was being developed and being identified, when 9/11 happened the demand for inter-operable radio equipment seemed to really increase a lot, could you maybe talk about that a little more?

Russell Watson: Well what happened there was you had multiple agencies; fire, police, all using land-mobile radios and they couldn’t talk to each other. They don’t need to talk to each other, fireman to police-man, but they do need to be able to talk back to their command structure, and for the command and the commanders on the scene to be able to direct their teams and that was showing as a fault during 9/11 and that really pushed, because of the number of lives that were lost, for public safety professionals it really drove this whole standard and the US government in particular put a lot of money in seeing standards based systems put in place for public safety agencies.

Evan Forester: Yeah, okay. So it’s been over 10 years now, 10 and a few, how successful would you say Project 25 has been?

Russell Watson: I would say it’s had mixed success. I would say, if you look at just the sheer numbers… Well, let’s look at the US market as a start, the US Market probably somewhere between a quarter and a third of agencies went to project 25 based communications in some way, whether that is a conventional system or a trunk system, so we haven’t seen a 100% update of it and it still doesn’t allow complete operational ability and it still isn’t delivering all the benefits that public safety wanted from the system when it was put into place. It certainly isn’t as ubiquitous as say IP and the networking or internet type industry; it’s not as ubiquitous as that.

So you still see systems and it’s quite common place to see systems where you have your Project 25 trunk system in place and you put a conventional analog overlay, sorry, a conventional simulcast overlay over the top to still enable some inoperability and mutual aid. Even though you’ve got a standards based system as a coms-system doesn’t mean the people next door to you have that, and so analog still is used as glue particularly in the US.

Around the world it’s had uptake so it is a global standard, which is one of the original goals for the standard, and that standard is seen in countries like; Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East, Russia and places like that, tends to be used where you have large geographic areas that are less densely populated. That was actually one of the other things it was designed for was to actually be a replacement for analog so it has the same type of coverage program.

Evan Forester: So some people can’t inter-operate with others, is that because they’re on P25 and the other people are on analog?

Russell Watson: So it’s a mix of reasons, inter-operability if you look at it…there’s a multitude of reasons that people can’t inter-operate and technically…the technical layer was just one of them. You’ve got your political and you’ve got your operational and you’ve got a whole lot of layers on top of that, you can solve the technical one to a degree. So you can either using p25 and getting neighbors on the same standard, a layout degree of operability, but in the end it still requires the radios to be on the same frequency those sorts of things, and this is why you start to see multi-band radios and all these sorts of other issues start to appear. Then what you find is depending on the feature set that the manufacturer or vendors put in the system may not be completely standards based there could be proprietary elements to it which would mean certain features don’t work or certain capabilities don’t work.

The other thing to remember is actually a standard is a little bit by the law, the law isn’t even black & white, and neither are standards – so people will interpret the standard in a certain way but implement the standard in a way they believe is intended and when the two devices that are being developed in the standard work together it’s still something that needs to be tested. That is tested by a process called cap-testing. So standards aren’t the complete answer, you do need this inter-operability testing. And you do see the same thing in the IP industry we see plug-fest where different vendors come together, plug their equipment together to make sure it does work, even though they have standards in that industry as well.

Evan Forester: Okay. So you mentioned some of these could have proprietary features is there an example you can give to that?

Russell Watson: A common one that comes up is encryption, some vendors will give away encryption, which is quite a key feature for public safety and many vendors charge for that since it’s a value-add feature. Some give it away that vendor effectively locks out other vendors, but one of the key drivers for P25 that was designed by the users when they put the standards together, was to allow multi-vendor sourcing, and to allow a competitive environment to exist. We haven’t got to the point where that competitive environment really, really exists the same way that it exists in the IP world.

Evan Forester: So the ideal would be one agency, public safety agency, could have radios from three or four different vendors and they could all work together.

Russell Watson: Yup. They could have radios for free. However many vendors they need and they could choose radios from vendor A for the dog-squad, or they could use radios from radio vendor B for parking meter wardens, that sort of thing depending on the functionality and capabilities of the radio. But they could also talk back to the other com-center.

Evan Forester: That has not really been achieved yet so…
Russell Watson: Not to its full potential, so there are systems around the world for example, we have systems running on other vendors’ infrastructure as do our competitors have our ideas running on their infrastructure. So it has been achieved to a point but not to the level that I think the Department of Homeland Security in the US would have wanted and not to the degree where the original people that started the standard would have wanted it to be achieved.

Evan Forester: So there’s obvious advantages for a public safety agency to have this open environment where they could have their network infrastructure with a certain vendor and a few years later when their portables need upgrading they could go to a different vendor who might have a better product at the time; what can public agencies do today to ensure that they’re building an open environment?
Russell Watson: So what they can do is actually a number of things; one of them is to ensure that when they specify their system they only specify items that are known to be standardized, so they restrict the amount of proprietary capability that’s in the system. It’s a tradeoff, you have to ask yourself is the benefit you get from the feature worth more than the benefit you would get from having a multi-vendor system, so you have to make that trade-off.

Evan Forester: Right.
Russell Watson: Okay, so you have to really restrict the amount of non-standard stuff, okay? That’s the key thing you need to do and then you need to have the willingness I suppose, to bring another vendors systems or radios into your network; to have the willingness to try them and test them and make sure they do actually provide that functionality that you would expect. It’s a commitment on your part but there’s a financial benefit you would get from it.

Evan Forester: Sure. Yeah and even a time-benefit whereas a particular vendor five years from now not be the best option but if your forced to use that vendor, you aren’t future-proofed.
Russell Watson: Well yeah, that’s the beauty of the standards based system as the standards evolve over time and if multiple vendors design into that standard you can jump horses…
Evan Forester: Right.

Russell Watson: …down the track to perk up the capabilities or the other benefits that the other vendors are providing.

Evan Forester: You mentioned cap-testing earlier, in case people don’t know could you explain what that is?
Russell Watson: So cap-testing is I said is a bit like the plug-fist or the testing that they do in the IP world or internet industry. And that’s where different vendors and different manufacturers of radio equipment they come together and go through a common series of tests, a predefined series of tests that are test cases centered around the standard to make sure those radios work together. That information is then put on the DHU’s safe-com website, so you can see for example the type TP9400 portable has been tested to meet the P25 standard under the cap-testing program and it’s been tested against the body of our vendors. And you can see where the interpretation of the standard has been different or the implementation of the standard has been different so you can see where that is. Then the vendors get the or the manufacturers get the chance to go back and correct those differences and make sure you get the coming together of the two radios.

Evan Forester: Okay. So if someone was about to buy or bring in a new P25 system, would there be any warnings who would give them?

Russell Watson: There are many warnings, yeah, it’s a big undertaking, it’s something that people tend to only do… if you manage a radio system, you intend to only do it once in your life, maybe twice if you’re lucky. So it’s not something you do regularly so a key thing is get good advice from people who do it day-to-day, we do it day-to-day, there are consultants out there that do it day-to-day, there are people that do this thing as part of their day job, so get good advice from them and get good advice from a multitude of people.

Then I would say look for standards, because standards are the thing that you said will future-proof you and give you options in terms of things like inter-operability, multi-vendor, multi-vendor competitive environment and all the benefits that P25 is going to give you. Then really ask yourself when you start getting offered add-ons, does the benefit you’re going to get from creating a competitive environment and also having a choice of vendor.

As you said before Evan, different vendors are going to implement future things in different ways and the very best vendor today may not be the very best vendor or manufacturer tomorrow. We’re at a point of infliction on the market actually where [Inaudible 00:13:41] is evolving and we have broadband LTE and mission critical LTE on the horizon, and what you also need to be looking for is a company that can help you manage that transition and take you through that transition. Again LTE is a standards based system and how can somebody mesh, what’s the vendor that can best mesh…

Evan Forester: Right.
Russell Watson: …or manufacture the best mesh your P25 mission critical system with your LTE, mission critical system? Manage that change and manage that transition.

Evan Forester: Yeah, as we move forward newer and more communications come about these open standards will be even more important.

Russell Watson: Even more important yeah. To be honest I think public safety is starting to look at some of these other standards because back to your first question earlier on, has P25 lived up to its promise or the intent that the people originally had for it? Some would say no. Some are seeing these more of these IT or IP based standards, albeit developed to mission critical capability as being the answer to really get that competitive environment going and to really deliver the benefits that P25 was intended to deliver, plus more.

Evan Forester: Yeah.
Russell Watson: Yup.

Evan Forester: Okay, well thank you Russell. Do you have anything else to add on p25?

Russell Watson: No, it is an evolving standard and you know it’s been in the making for 20 years, that’s pretty mature as I said. But that isn’t to say that everything in the standard has been implemented so it’s still evolving, we’re seeing phase 2, we’re seeing [Inaudible 00:15:30] starting to flow through, so it was intended to be an evolving standard and it has evolved. It’s going to be interesting to see as I said what happens in the next 5 to 10 years as we see the evolution to other mission critical standards.

Evan Forester: It does sound like, even though it’s maybe not perfectly successful, that if agencies are smart and ask the right questions and do the right research they can have an open standards system and really have a good choice in the future.

Russell Watson: They can even more Evan; they can get the benefits of having an open-based standards system. So for example we do know that some of our largest customers, who we supply equipment to, have gone for this multi-vendor environment have saved themselves a third of the budget…
Evan Forester: Wow.

Russell Watson: These systems are so large we’re talking somewhere in the order of a billion dollars. This is a very large system but you can imagine if you can save a third on the cost of your system by going to a multi-vendor standard based system, you have to ask yourself are the benefits of a proprietary system really worth it? That’s a lot of money.

Evan Forester: Yeah, okay. Well there you go. That’s quite promising and I think it’s definitely worth investigating more, if you guys would like to learn more about ensuring you have P25 open standards I recommend you check out p25bestpractice.com. There’s a specifying your P25 system guide there which can be really helpful, as Russell said earlier talk to people who have been there before. The guide was made with advice from different consultants and people who have actually gone through the process themselves, so some really helpful information there. Thanks once again for listening to the Tait podcast, we hope it was really helpful. Russell, thank you for joining us.

Russell Watson: Thanks Evan.

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