These days, mobile devices are smart and they’re getting smarter. Operating systems juggle various applications at once, making it possible for people to look up movie times and discuss them with friends in real-time while navigating their way to the closest theater. Civilians are completely reliant on their smartphones and must-have tablets … but many people do not realize the technology they have access to is often way more sophisticated than that employed by law enforcement.
Smartphones and tablets are evolving so quickly that we no longer blink an eye when the newest device or version is released. We know that for around $200 and a two-year provider agreement a world of mobile voice, video and other clever data tools are available, keeping us one download, text or chat away from anyone or any interest in the world. Commercial enterprises have followed suit, discovering there are cost savings and productivity enhancements to be had by embracing technologies already bundled with their mobile work forces. New software platforms make it possible for enterprises to run various mobile devices over any network, allowing workers to contribute to a unified cause from any device of their choice.
This was unheard of not long ago. Most enterprise workers, public safety officials or military personnel had limited options and often recycled the same incumbent technologies like push-to-talk two-way radios. But newer, faster 4G and Wi-Fi networks and device capabilities have changed this, allowing industries with large mobile work forces to incorporate new devices into their existing communications architecture for a truly unified communications and operations experience.
Like consumers and the commercial enterprise, law enforcement will benefit from a rich application environment that delivers voice, data and video capabilities. Trade magazines, radio hardware vendors, even agency communications strategists are all celebrating these exciting opportunities, specifically what Long-Term Evolution (LTE) will bring to the public safety table. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission set LTE as the standard for a nationwide public safety broadband network, which is close to becoming a reality. Certainly new possibilities come with the faster mobile exchange of bandwidth-intensive voice and data, generating stronger response scenarios for public safety. Overcoming jitter and latency, as well as sharing real-time video, high-resolution images and better, more detailed maps, is only a sliver of what we can expect to see from the adoption of LTE.
However, while consumers and enterprises greet the newest device, law enforcement personnel rely on the same devices they’ve been using for 65-plus years — proprietary, multi-thousand dollar radios from a handful of vendors that do nothing more than allow them to talk to each other. Consumer technology should not be more advanced than public safety technology innovation. Those texting their buddies while watching YouTube videos are holding a world of technological progression in their hands, while our first responders rely on World War II-era technology.
Competition in the consumer market has demanded that vendors continually evolve, creating do-it-all devices like the iPhone, and bringing unknown companies like HTC to the forefront. Consumer demand is the reason the commercial market beat the public safety market in meeting its need for mobility, flexibility and security, as well as device form, fit and function.
The familiar (albeit uncomfortable) story in the public safety community is that progress costs a lot of money. Many of the developments that are associated with quicker voice and data traffic come with a caveat — the purchase of expensive new radio devices and hardware systems. P25 promised a world of interoperable communications for public safety, but only in exchange for the replacement of an agency’s full radio inventory. Sadly for the sake of progress in the public safety landscape, the LTE dialogue hasn’t been elevated beyond the cultural status quo. Hardware vendors are still driving discussions with the intent to sell more radios, leaving the same audiences with the same takeaways. But the pace of commercial sector device innovation is so rapid today that the public safety industry must reassess its approach to supporting law enforcement in the field. Many public safety officials and agencies have grown tired of business as usual.