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For the past two years, officials from the cities in Charleston County, South Carolina have been telling me about the horrific digital radio issues they are experiencing. I haven’t previously written about the specifics at the request of the city officials who are working with the County to fix the problems.

Today an article was published in the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper about the ongoing problems.  Reporter Glenn Smith did a lot of digging, but barely scratched the surface of the magnitude of the problem.  I encourage you to read his article by clicking here.

Charleston County purchased its digital trunked radio system from Motorola in 2007 for approximately $17.5 million.  The system experienced problems from the start, but the issues became worse after it was upgraded in 2008.  Smith reports, “it became plagued with lost transmissions, strange noises, volume issues and gaps in service that have placed police, firefighters and civilians in jeopardy on several occasions.”  The County is now prepared to spend an additional $12 million to have Motorola upgrade the system again.  A third phase, also expected to cost millions, will be discussed in the upcoming budget year.

My theory is that Charleston County fell victim to Motorola’s marketing strategy.  It’s unlikely that Charleston County would have initially funded the full amount necessary to purchase a radio system with sufficient infrastructure to provide adequate radio coverage.  I believe Motorola sold the County enough equipment to get the system on the air and lock the County into its proprietary product line, knowing that coverage would be inadequate and enhancements would be essential.  Once the fledgling system was installed, the County had no choice but to buy add-on equipment from Motorola, without the benefit of competition from other manufacturers.  Motorola now has full control over pricing, contract terms, product support life cycle and its proprietary variants that may prohibit non-Motorola radios from being used on the system.   This is another example of brilliant marketing strategy, at the expense of first responder safety and our tax dollars.  Motorola has positioned itself for a long-term revenue stream from the Charleston County tax payers. Motorola can say “when” and “how much” while its client has virtually no alternative but to pay.

Some documents indicate County officials were complicit in making the decision to construct a radio system knowing that digital coverage would be deficient.  Why would County officials knowingly proceed with a project that industry experts and the vendor knew would not provide adequate coverage?

Please study this case in detail if you are involved in purchasing a public-safety radio system and care about reliable radio communication for first responders and being fiscally responsible with tax dollars.

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