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Radios: Your Lifeline is Evolving

Officers have come to rely on both their in-car and portable radios for critical intelligenc. Here's a look at some trends in police communications today and some evolving technologies that will radically change them in the near future.

Photo: Mark W. ClarkPhoto: Mark W. Clark

The two-way radio has been an essential law enforcement tool since the 1930s. And in the 80 years since, officers have come to rely on both their in-car and portable radios for not only information from dispatchers but critical intelligence about the people they contact and the dangers they face.

For officers working alone, the radio is a comforting lifeline. They know that all they have to do is push the button and call for backup and their brothers and sisters will come running.

Land-mobile radio systems are essential to the well-being of officers in the field and expensive to maintain, which is why agencies can be resistant to making improvements in their communications infrastructures. But the technology of law enforcement communications systems is now evolving so quickly that such change is inevitable.

Here's a look at some trends in police communications today and some evolving technologies that will radically change them in the near future.

P25 Phase II

The P25 standard is nothing new. It traces its roots back as far as 1989 when the FCC asked public safety radio users for recommendations on how to improve public safety radio systems. Many of the recommendations were then instilled in an Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) standard dubbed Project 25.

One of the key goals of P25 was to make it easier for officers and other public safety personnel to communicate with each other. This goal was to be achieved through a uniform standard for digital public safety radios.

Of course developing a standard is just the first step in the process of adopting new radio technologies. Manufacturers have to make the systems and money has to be allocated by agencies to buy them. Consequently, the implementation of P25 has been slow because of technical and budgetary issues.

Today many agencies have adopted P25 radios. But that's just the beginning. Because now manufacturers are producing state-of-the-art digital portable radios that use P25 Phase II technology.

Phase II is the P25 standard for narrow band communications. Narrow banding means the agency is using a much smaller portion of its allotted bandwidth for voice communication, which allows more agencies to use the available public safety spectrum, facilitates interoperability among different agencies and even different jurisdictions, and enables data transfer (photo, video, text) to radios. All of this makes the P25 Phase II standard very desirable among agencies. Unfortunately, P25 Phase I radios cannot be used on a P25 Phase II system, which means agencies that want to enjoy the benefits of Phase II must buy new radios.

New Portables

And that's why the manufacturers have been rolling out a bunch of bright, shiny new portable radios to meet the need for Phase II equipment.

The Unity XG-100P is a state-of-the-art multiband portable from Harris. It offers end-to-end encrypted digital voice communications and is P25 Phase II ready. Other features include narrow band capability, built-in noise suppression, integrated Bluetooth wireless technology, and a full-color front display.

Kenwood's latest Phase II portable is the TK-5410D. It offers enhanced microprocessing for coverage of the entire 700 MHz and 800 MHz voice bands and MIL-STD 810 toughness. Some of the features include: 100 zones with 1,024 channels, a backlit dot matrix LCD, 16-character alphanumeric aliases, a three-digit sub-display, and several encryption keys.

In March Motorola Solutions announced the newest additions to its lineup of APX mission-critical two-way radios, the APX 1000 and APX 4000XE portable radios.

Designed for interoperability, the APX Dual mobile Radio operates on the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands as well as VHF frequencies. This provides a single platform for police and fire radio interoperability. These new solutions provide users with P25 Phase II Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) capabilities to deliver both voice and data messaging over a single wireless communications infrastructure.

Wireless Mics

Some new portable police radios are now enabled for Bluetooth mics and there are a variety of products available to add Bluetooth to radios that don't have Bluetooth built in. Still, there is no universal acceptance of Bluetooth for mission critical communications.

There is an advantage to having the microphones tethered to the radio. If you've ever tried to answer your cellphone when connected to a Bluetooth device that isn't in your ear, then you'll know the importance of having a wired mic. If the wireless microphones are dropped, then communication is gone.

The advantages to Bluetooth communications in law enforcement are ease of use and weight savings for now. But in the future officers may be using combination Bluetooth mics and on-body video cameras.

Secure Signals

Encryption of law enforcement radios has been in the news a lot lately. When an agency decides to encrypt some or all of its radio traffic, there is often a backlash from the media and government transparency advocates.

But there's a real reason for agencies to encrypt radio traffic. In 2013, the city of Phoenix experienced incidents where the media heard a suspect's location on the police radio and showed up before the police arrived. The suspect, seeing the media vans, fled the scene. There are similar stories throughout the country where police departments find it necessary to encrypt radios.

Encryption of police radios is on the rise because agencies want to avoid open transmissions of some information and because it is now easier to do. Just a few years ago in order to encrypt a police radio you had to have a chip in the handset that allowed it to receive and decrypt the radio transmission. Now this is accomplished via software that is programmed into the radio.

The most common form of encryption is called "end to end" encryption. This means the message is encrypted by the sender's radio then sent in its encrypted form to the receiver's radio, which decrypts the signal. The encrypted conversation can only be heard by the person or persons who have the proper software and cryptographic key.

End-to-end encryption has a high administrative cost. You have to make sure everyone has the right key, and you have to hire a cryptographic officer to manage the keys.

Another kind of encryption is now being rolled out for public safety. Link-layer encryption is the process of encrypting a transmission at each data link level as it is transmitted between two points. It's encrypted and decrypted at each link in the transmission. Because the process protects the message in transit, link-layer encryption is being used where the security of each link is guaranteed.

The advantage to link-layer encryption for public safety agencies is that the administrative cost is much lower. Link-layer systems are designed to have less admin cost than end-to-end systems and provide good protection from the casual intercept by devices like scanners. This standard is being worked on now, and may be complete by the end of this year.

Enter the Hybrids

Hybrid radios are devices that feature smartphone capabilities such as LTE data transfer as well as LMR radio capabilities. The long and the short of this hybrid technology is that some of the newer public safety radios are offering data access and land mobile radio manufacturers are also offering apps that can add radio features to smartphones.

Adding cellular data capabilities to an LMR radio is technologically more difficult than adding radio features to a smartphone, which is one reason why Harris and Motorola have focused much of their hybrid development efforts on producing Push-to-Talk (PTT) smartphone apps.

Harris was first out of the gate with BeOn, a PTT app that runs on any Android phone. "Think of BeOn as a software application that provides voice over broadband for public safety usage," says Paul May, manager of systems marketing for Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications. "The simple analogy to this is that it's like Skype for public safety communications." Once the app is installed, the phone can access the agency's LMR network through any LTE or 4G cell network from anywhere in the world.

Harris also sells a ruggedized Android phone specifically for use with BeOn. The InTouch RPC-200 sports a 23mm thick display. The standard glass on an Android phone like the Samsung Galaxy is about 10mm thick. The InTouch also has a more powerful battery than a commercial cellphone, which gives it longer use time. May says he doesn't regard the RPC-200 as a replacement for a mission critical LMR portable. "I see it as a tool for somebody who is trying to direct an incident command and look at a wide variety of data—video, floor plans, etc.—to help with that incident response," he says.

Motorola calls its cellphone app Unified PTT. The app allows officers who do not carry portable radios such as chiefs, supervisors, and officers with other agencies to communicate with Project 25 users. Unified PTT also allows users on Public Safety LTE to communicate and establish secure, private broadband talk groups.

So far this development of hybrid cellular and radio systems is one-sided and experts say it will be a while before you start seeing combination/LMR cellular handsets. The reason that adding cellular technology to LMR radios is so difficult is that there are restrictions inherent in the radio designs that currently limit broadband functionality. In other words, LMR police radios are built to be LMR radios. So broadband data functionality is secondary to the primary purpose of the radio, voice communication.

That's not to say there aren't some benefits to broadband access on police radios. It's just that the benefits are not readily evident to the average officer.

Broadband capability on police radios is very useful for radio programmers. Broadband is a larger pipeline, which means the radios can be programmed more efficiently. When you have to reprogram 4,000 radios, you can shoot out the reprogramming en masse similar to how the incremental computer operating system updates can be downloaded over broadband.


Despite the challenges that manufacturers face in developing radio/smartphone hybrids, it's certain these tools are coming. The long-debated and long-delayed implementation of the public safety broadband system will make these hybrid systems inevitable.

Public safety broadband is now known as FirstNet, which is also the name of the Federal government panel—First Responder Network Authority—that is directing its construction. The FirstNet panel is an independent body of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

FirstNet systems are now being constructed in Los Angeles County and in New Mexico. Agreements signed by government bodies in these jurisdictions allow working groups to apply for federal grants earmarked for the development of next-generation broadband systems for first responders. Some $7 billion was allocated in 2012 to build a nationwide public safety broadband system and another $135 million in grants is available for state, local, and tribal agencies.

FirstNet systems will operate on Band 14 of the 700 MHz spectrum, which was previously used by VHF television signals. This spectrum has been assigned solely to public safety so that officers, firefighters, and other emergency personnel will have dedicated broadband during crises.



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