TrendCongress may require communication interoperability standard

Published 16 February 2006

Perhaps the notion of letting a thousand flowers bloom is suitable when applied to the market at large, and the market of ideas, but it is not such a good idea when applied to producing communication gear for first responders and emergency crews. Congress agrees, and legislators contemplate imposing some baseline interoperability standards on such emergency communications equipment. The industry is not happy about this move. The legislators gave expression to their preferences during a Wednesday hearing on interoperability by the Emergency Preparedness, Science and Technology Homeland Security subcommittee, the first in four such sessions.

First responders think it is a very good idea. “If vendors of equipment and software receive tax-supported dollars they must be held accountable so that their products will create optimal technologies compatible with other vendors’ systems,” says Casey Perry, chairman of the National Troopers Coalition.

Communication interoperability emerged as a major problem during 9/11, in which rescue teams from different emergency agencies — and from different levels of government — could not communicate with each other. The administration emphasized interoperability as part of its post-9/11 policy, and more than $1.5 billion in DHS funds was directed toward that goal. As the inability of rescue teams from different emergency agencies — and from different levels of government — to communicate with each other during Katrina demonstrated, not much was achieved. Even today, in the post-Katrina world, communication systems of emergency teams around the nation still operate on as many as ten different radio bands, with some of these organizations relying on thirty-year-old equipment.

Not surprisingly, the industry objects to any Congressional imposition of interoperability standards, arguing that moving ahead with standards right now would be “premature” (our advice to the communication gear industry: More than four years after 9/11, and more than four months after Katrina, you may want to choose an adjective other than “premature” to describe any move toward interoperability). Andrew Howell, vice president of homeland security policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, explains that before Congress sets interoperability standards, municipalities have to “get on the same page in terms of what they’re looking for vendors to provide,” and that after these needs have been established, the states and localities need adequate funding to purchase the requisite equipment.

The administration’s proposed fiscal 2007 budget includes an additional $3.5 million over last year for the Office of Interoperability and Compatibility at DHS for a total of $29.7 million. This figure is a drop in the bucket relative to what it would take to push a nation-wide effort of interoperability. For example, there is a private industry-developed, voluntary interoperability effort called Project 25. It was developed by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), working with the American National Standards Institute, and is supported by DHS, the Department of Defense, and first-responder groups. Conservative estimates, however, say it would cost about $15 billion to build the communications architecture required to support Project 25.

-read more in Benton Ives-Halperin’s CQ report (sub. req.); see details of Project 25 at TIA Web site