One of the challenges that some government entities are currently facing is the manufacturer of their radio system ending support of the system. Many trunked radio systems still in use today were installed in the 1980s or 1990s and were based on analog technology. The trunking feature allowed the systems to pool resources. Rather than having frequency channels dedicated to specific uses, these systems allowed many users to share available frequencies, allowing more flexibility. These systems were very proprietary in nature, so there were limited options for radios, and interoperability between public entities was very difficult if not impossible unless the other entity had the same equipment.
Public entities are now looking at replacing these systems and struggling to determine what is the best solution for them. Just as in television broadcasting, there is a migration from analog to digital. P25 digital radio systems for public safety users are based on the APCO Project 25 standards. These standards allow for some vendor compatibility, although vendors still tend to include proprietary features in their systems to encourage customers to keep purchasing from a single manufacturer.
There are many advantages to P25 radio systems, and these systems work very well in many environments. Just as digital TVs provide a clearer picture, P25 digital radio systems have clearer audio. One of the main differences between a digital P25 system and analog radio, however, is the way they handle coverage. On a digital system, when you lose part of the signal, you are left with nothing. These systems therefore work well in populated areas where towers are available to handle the number of users. In rural areas, analog may still be a better choice, because when analog radios lose a signal, you may hear some static but still be able to pick up enough of the voice for the message to be relayed.
Many government entities end up transitioning to digital radio systems without really considering the advantages and disadvantages of each. Once a system is installed, it remains in place for a long time. It is important to understand all the benefits of analog vs. digital before any long-term decision is made. A study of what each option provides is warranted early in the process. If there are issues with one system over the other, it is good to know those in advance so that these issues can be mitigated. There are no “good surprises” in the industry, only bad ones. It is important to seek a reliable outside consultant’s help in the decision-making process. Some vendors will assist in this debate, but vendors have an incentive to argue on behalf of what they sell. An independent consultant with no allegiance to any vendor can be an objective advocate for the government entity and can ensure that taxpayer money is spent wisely on an effective system that has a maximum life span.