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This week the US economy sailed off the edge of the map into unknown waters as the Federal government took over AIG and the stalwart investment banking firm Lehman Brothers took bankruptcy and was delisted on the New York stock exchange. A welfare line is forming outside of the Fed as other troubled companies see a potential lifeline offered by the government.

Selling adjustable rate mortgages to “no-doc” deadbeats is something that a reasonable and prudent person might think is economically unsound, but it was a great way for the huge banks to get rid of the market competition like Bear Sterns, Lehman, Merrill Lynch and others by creating poisonous sub-prime loans and feeding them to the greedy investment bankers to choke on. This was orchestrated by brilliant players and clearly served its purpose.

Could the same be said for what’s occurring in the public-safety radio sector?

State and local governments are clamoring for “free” Federal grant money to build extraordinarily expensive radio systems without regard to how they will fund recurring maintenance and replacement expenses. The complex digital trunked radio technology that is aggressively being sold will be prematurely obsolete, often before the systems are put into service. The usable life of the equipment will typically be half or less than what the previous generation of equipment served. How will city and county governments fund the replacement of these systems, most of which should never have been purchased in the first place? There is no commitment or assurance from the Federal government to pay recurring expenses, or for essential upgrades or for replacement.

Local government radio technology managers seem to have lost sight of economic reality in the excitement of rolling out these massive new systems. Little attention is paid to the huge ongoing financial commitment that will be needed after the grant money is gone. Most jurisdictions are struggling to meet current obligations and are not prepared for the future expenses that come with digital trunked radio technology. And where will the money come from to mitigate problems when it’s discovered that most of these systems will fall short of the basic performance expectations of police officers and firefighters?

A typical digital trunked radio system designed to serve a county with a population of 700,000 and 450 square miles could easily cost in excess of $100,000,000. The useful life of the equipment is 5 to 12 years and maintenance expense will be at least 10% per year, or $10,000,000. The maintenance expense combined with prefunding the system replacement will result in a financial obligation of at least $20,000,000 per year. Highly reliable, conventional analog radio systems that would meet the county’s business requirements would cost approximately 85% less and not be plagued with performance issues, security vulnerabilities, and premature obsolescence associated with digital trunking.

Promoters of these systems create the illusion that public safety agencies will be “left behind” if they don’t implement digital trunked radio technology. Solutions to communications interoperability are pitched as something that can be achieved by writing a big check, which clearly is not the case.

Manufacturers impose subtle proprietary “features” in their products to limit compatibility with industry standards so clients are locked in to buying only their products and prices are kept artificially high by this anti-competitive behavior. Manufacturers release products when they are sufficiently debugged only to the point where the user might tolerate them. This helps set the stage for early replacement, and the opportunity to sell improved equipment on short intervals. Vendors and consultants pump-up the most expensive technology possible, without regard to functionality or long-term affordability.

It’s inevitable that the digital trunked radio bubble will burst and the consequences will be significant. Will the Federal government bail out the city, county and state governments like it did for AIG? Only time will tell. In the meantime, police officers and firefighters who deserve and truly need effective radio communications systems will suffer the consequences every time they pick up the microphone of a digital trunked radio.