The Politics Of Digital Radio

Is analog radio being phased out? Is digital radio technology ready for prime time? Is it adequate for emergency use?

Some police and firefighters in the United States are asking to delay or put off going to a state-of-the-art digital radio system. Public safety officials are voicing their concerns over the safety and reliability of digital communication. And some cities have even bailed out after buying the system.

First of all, it normally costs an average of $20 million or substantially more to install a P25 digital system. This is very expensive for something that isn’t 100% reliable. There have been reported several major issues with the new system.

There are problems with receiving digital signals. Digital signals use computer language to code and decode the signal. The code is compressed to transmit a very narrow signal. But if all the code doesn’t reach the targeted radio receiver, there is silence or talk that is garbled and indistinguishable.

It turns out that extreme noise (imagine a firefighter or policeman encountering noise) can interfere with transmissions of digital signals, producing high levels of distortion. Voice quality can decrease under these conditions. This could create mass confusion in case that a local or national emergency arises.

The signal can sometimes be delayed. And it may take 5 seconds to activate the PTT microphone on a digital radio. This could get quite cumbersome and cost more critical time on a response call.

Some environmental conditions can create vulnerable situations where digital signals cannot be heard. This is thought to have contributed to the deaths of several firefighters throughout the United States. Digital radios can also lose signals inside of a building.

P25 systems are becoming standard and are being deployed globally.