Project 25: Invest in Change for the Future
July 13, 2011
By Kevin McGinnis
With all of the national focus on broadband and achieving a nationwide public-safety wireless broadband network, we need to remind ourselves that the foundation of public-safety communications remains narrowband voice. This will not change as we enhance our data communications capabilities. Optimizing LMR is, therefore, a constant priority. The Project 25 (P25) program, in turn, is public safety’s mechanism for improving LMR interoperability. While sometimes the focus of public criticism, P25 remains an essential feature of the public-safety landscape. It’s vital to address recent issues raised about P25 so that we can procure P25-compliant systems with confidence.
Years ago, public-safety jurisdictions would invest in one of a limited number of proprietary infrastructure and device solutions. As systems multiplied and evolved, jurisdictions found it necessary to communicate with one another. New LMR competitors eventually appeared on the horizon, and as a result with increasing recurrence, first responders were attempting to communicate between systems or devices in different frequency bands, with different proprietary trunking systems provided by different manufacturers. These developments began to create greater barriers to interoperability.
Twenty years ago, public-safety associations recognized that future systems would convert from analog to digital technology and decided to take the lead in developing a new digital standard. Their solution was to create a suite of standards addressing all the ways systems and devices interface. The standards would address performance, conformance and interoperability considerations and would specify testing measures. The process was placed under the aegis of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International in partnership with the National Association of State Telecommunications Directors (NASTD). These leaders entered into an agreement with the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) to use its American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-sanctioned standards development organization (SDO) process, and P25 became a part of the SDO called TIA-TR8.
The P25 process involves users identifying features and functionalities for which they want standards to be developed and then the development of those standards. This involves week-long meetings on a quarterly basis to develop standards for common air, inter subsystem and other LMR interfaces and systems. There are many standards processes impacting public safety internationally. For example, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement (CALEA), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) program all have rigid rules and time-consuming procedures for review of draft standards by the manufacturers and users of the widgets for which standards are being created. These procedures assure the quality and credibility of the resulting standards. Successful SDOs temper these characteristics and provide staff support and guidance to participants so that they can be interested and effective participants. Standards processes also balance user and manufacturer input so that users can procure technology that will function well in the applications users have for them, and manufacturers can successfully produce them in the marketplace.
P25’s Recent Issues
The P25 process has succeeded in becoming a credible "seal of approval" for device interoperability. However, the process has also been repeatedly criticized in recent years by members of Congress, the FCC and the user community for its lack of productivity, for vendors claiming P25 compliance while their equipment doesn’t perform interoperably, and for failing to specify robust testing in the interoperability, performance and conformance areas requested by users. Internally at P25 meetings during the past three years, there has been dissatisfaction expressed by user participants about the vendor control of the process, the lack of meaningful standards produced and the redundancy of conversations.
It has also been difficult to solicit increased user participation. The process lacks adequate orientation for new users, throws users into extremely detailed technology discussions without sufficient knowledge about what committees are for what purpose, what their rules are, or how one qualifies to participate in voting. The process by which users can identify features and functionalities to be included in standards development work involves an unfathomable — at least to the newly initiated — statement of requirements document.
I have asked myself on numerous occasions: “Is it just me?” I’m not a technology expert at the same level as the vendors or as many of my colleagues at these meetings. However, users better versed and longer involved in these discussions than me were dismayed last year when vendors walked out of a P25 meeting, and when TIA officials sought to deter users from discussing user desire for certain features in system standards during the TIA meeting.
To remedy these problems, three activities have taken place or are now occurring. First, the specification of tests for P25 compliance has been moved from the P25/TIA forum to the P25 Compliance Assessment Program (CAP) governing board, another group of users providing input to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Secondly, the P25 steering committee has also begun to take action to improve user representation. The steering committee has expanded its membership to include police, fire, EMS and other national associations beyond the original two associations through which it has operated for the past 20 years. The committee is also experiencing its first change of leadership in that time.
Third, during a recent P25 steering committee meeting, a proposal to move the user input process out of the TIA forum, while maintaining strong communications between the two groups, was made. This would allow users to focus on developing requests for standards and tests through a simpler process not tangled in the actual standards development machinery and for TIA/TR8 to focus on developing those standards. This proposal, among others, is being discussed by a group of national public-safety association leaders under APCO's leadership. In weighing whether to accept the P25 steering committee's invitation to join the committee, these associations are addressing the issue of improving user effectiveness in the process. Other proposals are also under consideration.
P25 has been developed as a successful banner for LMR interoperability. The process has developed useful standards to that end. Its current issues are survivable with some organizational restructuring, but only if the steering committee, TIA and the interested user organizations step up to support and effect these changes. With the three steps described under way, I am optimistic that P25 will have a long and productive future.
Kevin McGinnis, MPS, EMT-P, is the communications technology advisor for the National Association of State EMS Officials (NASEO), the National Association of EMTs, the National Association of EMS Physicians, the National Association of EMS Educators and the National EMS Management Association. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org