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Friday, July 10, 2015

Sure, Kid, first one's free

In the face of rising new technologies, it is tempting to place mission critical facilities into the hands of the apparent rising star. Think Microsoft's early DOS, for instance. Or, more pertinent to this post, Motorola's emergency radio system. 

Microsoft's DOS and its Windows progeny, and Motorola and its hand-held radios are ubiquitous, not because they are the best in show now, but because they were best in show when the curtains went up on the show. And like Vaudevillians, they refuse to retire gracefully, even in the face of newly emerging and disruptive technologies offering more effective and economic solutions. If only they would embrace an open source system. By doggedly hanging on they loose their luster and prestige; they become speed bumps in the race to the future.

I think, to foster competition (which is a fundamental principle and requirement of US federal and local procurement laws based on the ABA Model Procurement Code), no technology should be purchased with government funds for what is or is likely to become a standard and commonly used piece of equipment (or software) unless the vendor offers to submit its proprietary rights in the equipment to open sourcing after a limited period of time: say, five years. They don't have to sell to the government if they don't want to. And rising technologies bring out competition, so the government would not long be left out of the loop.

I have mentioned the Motorola example before, here and here. But it's a story that won't go away, as seen below. The the full stories at the links.

Want government reform? Idea #3: A new public safety communication strategy
Have you ever noticed how police officers carry both a cellular phone and a hand-held radio? It might surprise you to learn that you are paying hundreds of times more for the radio than the cell phone. And you’re about to pay millions more unless we have the courage to change course.

Today there are as many mobile phones as people, prices have fallen and consumers have benefitted from innovation that led to iPhones, Windows Mobile, Droid and other robust platforms. The change has been technically disruptive and positive. In that same time, the nation’s public safety community—law enforcement, fire, EMS—has also spent billions of public tax dollars on new infrastructure and yet the quality, cost and functionality of their expensive, proprietary, two-way radios has not materially improved since the 1970s.

The uncomfortable truth is that for city, county and state governments public safety radio equipment costs between 10x and 100x more than it does in most other countries, despite the U.S. leadership position for wireless technologies such as smartphones, WiFi, WiMax and more. The reason is that the nation’s public safety communications market does not enjoy healthy, vibrant, market-based competition in any way comparable to consumer mobile services.

Our nation’s first responders and 9-1-1 dispatchers aggressively moved to establish an industry standard for first responders called “P25” to get better radios at lower prices, to break the monopoly of the current structure. Unfortunately, more than 25 years later, P25 is still not available, still not implemented and even the Chairman of the FCC recently jolted Members of Congress by acknowledging “…[P25] has taken more than 20 years to develop and is still not complete” and “the protracted development of P25 has allowed vendors to take advantage of selling proprietary solutions.”

If our state’s march toward P25 continues, it will be more business as usual – and first responder radios will still cost $5,000 each. Just one P25 radio for one police officer costs $5,000 and yet it has less processing power and functionality than an iPhone, Windows Mobile or Droid phone. Public safety is building their own mirror system to commercial services. A mirror system that is on track to be proprietary, closed, and expensive like our existing first responder radio systems.

We should stop buying P25 radios at literally $5,000 per radio and start buying TETRA radios. TETRA is similar to P25, but it is truly open standard radio used by police and fire departments in Europe and Asia . They offer more features and are tested around the globe… and cost less than $500 each. They are essentially “Nextel-like” in their capability but are a fraction of the cost of the non-open standard P25. We should absolutely back a national broadband plan – but not this one. Not until it is legally bound to an open, public standard that enables true, free market participation from any and all vendors. Not a penny of federal or state funding should go towards any proprietary 4G/LTE solutions.
Faced with a tech tsunami, Motorola fights to preserve cop-com franchise
As Chicago cops braced for protests in advance of the NATO and G-8 summits in 2012, hometown radio giant Motorola made what seemed like a grand gesture. The company, which for years has used tenacious marketing and clout to reign over the emergency radio business, donated to the city $1.8 million worth of telecom equipment that could beam data and videos to law enforcement officers shielding the world leaders. Motorola Vice President John Molloy said the company also could operate a network for the city as a “test platform” until year end and provide Chicago’s public safety agencies entrĂ©e to the world of emergency broadband LTE – the new global standard for transmitting huge amounts of data at rocket speed.

Motorola’s gift was designed to keep on giving.

From Mississippi to Texas and California, the company now known as Motorola Solutions Inc. has reshaped its business strategy in the face of a technology tsunami that threatens to upend its decades-long hold on the emergency communications market. While fighting to preserve its immense walkie-talkie franchise, Motorola has maneuvered to become a player in broadband, where it must contend with new and bigger competitors in a scrum for billions of dollars of taxpayer funds pledged for a coast-to-coast emergency data delivery network.

Motorola’s aggressive push into broadband, however, is a cause for consternation among officials of the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, the Commerce Department agency tasked with building the first nationwide public-safety communications system. To garner broadband business, Motorola has relied on many of the same strategies and deep customer relationships that helped it capture more than 80 percent of the radio market.

As McClatchy reported in a series of articles last year, the industry giant has landed scores of sole-source radio contracts and wielded enough pricing power to sell its glitzy handsets for as much as $7,000 apiece, at a taxpayer cost of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars that could have been saved in a more competitive market.
Motorola rival charges FBI’s new radio deal also biased
For the second time in a year, the FBI’s attempt to replace its 30-year-old two-way radio network could be stalled because of accusations that the bureau is skewing its bid solicitation to favor Motorola Solutions Inc., the emergency communications industry’s dominant player.

Last year, the bureau scrapped a plan to hand Illinois-based Motorola a sole-source contract worth up to $500 million, including upgrades for other law enforcement agencies, after four competing vendors filed protests.

Now the FBI has sought competitive bids for a contract limited to modernizing its own network at a cost of about $200 million, but the action is still drawing allegations of bias from Motorola’s biggest rival, Harris Corp., which has formally protested. The conflict offers the latest evidence of how difficult it will be to break one company's market power over a multibillion-dollar business underwritten solely by taxpayers.

The FBI’s dilemma is that it wants its agents’ radios to be able to connect with all of the thousands of law enforcement agencies nationwide. But many state and local systems use older Motorola equipment with proprietary designs that cannot interact with other manufacturers’ products, meaning that Motorola’s rivals cannot meet the bureau’s requirement.
Motorola Solutions’ monopoly on radio systems needs to end
In 2005 San Francisco Sheriff, Warren Rupf, and Alameda Sheriff, Charlie Plummer, decided that because of the failures of communication during 9/11, they wanted to implement a new digital two-way radio system so that all of their first responders could talk to each other.

Unfortunately, Motorola Solutions stood in the way. Motorola had no interest in allowing for any competitive bidding process. Before the Sheriff’s could try to solicit bids for such a radio system, they were told that any plan must include the first $5.7 million going towards a master controller made by Motorola and any equipment must connect with the older, antiquated Motorola SmartNet II system.

A seven-month McClatchy investigation found that local and state politicians around the country have helped Motorola secure an estimated 80 percent of all the emergency telecommunications business in America. The politicians help Motorola by giving them noncompetitive contracts, modifying years-old contracts to acquire new systems or by crafting bid specifications to Motorola’s advantage. [Read the story for more on this study.]

In 2004, a Sept. 11 commission recommended that the nation’s public safety community adopt measures to improve interoperability, meaning that all radios must interact no matter their manufacturer. Yet, Motorola has continued to fight such interoperability. In Colorado, Louisiana, Kansas and other states, Motorola has found ways to insert software encryption that serve no purpose other than to not allow rival companies to interact with them. John Powell, a former chairman of a National Public Safety Telecommunications Council panel, criticized federal agencies for failing to put enough “teeth in those grant guidance documents” to ensure against proprietary features, such as Motorola’s encryption.
Et cetera

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