So the Project 25 protocol, with its IMBE CAI digital voice, is being rolled out in huge numbers. Motorola’s ASTRO is the most commonly-used, although several other providers make radios that do the P25 standard, too.
They’re calling it interoperability. When you and the next town over both buy $3,000 radios doing a crappy 9600bps digital audio protocol, your radios can talk to each other! I’m really not sure who fell for this, since the existing strategy, analog voice, worked 100% of the time. They’re switching people over to a new, proprietary (kind of: the voice codec is proprietary, but it’s part of an open standard) digital system so that everyone’s radios can talk to each other. This has never made sense to me.
The other big problem is that there are multiple bands out there. In New Hampshire, VHF is most common. You’ll find police, fire, and ambulances between 152 and 161 MHz. (More or less: they expand a bit on both sides.) Massachusetts is big on UHF, with the police usually being between 460 and 490 MHz. But it’s not quite that standard–some municipalities do their own thing. The 800 MHz band is becoming big, too, especially with trunked radio systems. You find that a lot in big cities. (Indeed, I think Manchester and Nashua are on 800, though I don’t monitor either so I wouldn’t swear to it.) And now there’s a 700 MHz band coming out that’s slowly being introduced.
As a ham, we have allocations on VHF and UHF that are both very common: 144-148 MHz and 420 or 430 through 450 MHz. Since both are commonly used, a lot of ham radios will do both bands. So my ham radios merrily transmit on both VHF and UHF. But, for whatever reason, this never caught on with “commercial” radios, like the ones public safety agencies use. If you want your police cars to monitor VHF and UHF, you put two radios in them. God forbid you work for something like a huge city, or a regional task force, where you may need to communicate on VHF, UHF, and 800 MHz. That’s three radios everyone will need to carry.
Vertex (the “commercial” branch of Yaesu, a ham company) made a dual-band radio. Once. The FTH-2070 came out in the 80s (?) and did VHF and UHF in one radio. It was huge, but for people who needed both bands (lots), it was a huge boost. For some reason, no one ever made a radio to follow in its footsteps, and the radio hasn’t been made for several years.
So it’s actually a grand mess. You have four different bands that a public safety agency may be on. They might be using analog voice, or they might using digital. (And this isn’t even counting wacked-out proprietary standards like OpenSky / EDACS / SmartNet, which are all additional technologies that need their own radios.)
Finally, someone saw the light. Thales has announced The Liberty, a handheld that supports P25 digital (and, of course, analog voice), and covers all four major bands. Pricing is rumored to be around $5,000, but you have to keep in mind that it’s doing the job of four radios that would probably cost $2,500 each. It’s SDR-based, front-panel programmable, and supports several different encryption protocols as well.
Thales previous filled a bit of a niche market. It looks like they do a lot of government stuff, and I seem to recall them being bigger overseas (but maybe I’m confusing them with another company). But this radio has a lot of high-end radio afficionados over here drooling. They not only did a dual-band radio, but they did a multi-band radio. It’s got a big color screen. (What the functionality is remains to be seen.) I think a lot of people, not just me, are hoping that this will lead to more competition, which will lead to more innovation.