Sacramento connects with Motorola for new digital network

Published: Friday, Apr. 4, 2014 - 5:47 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014 - 8:17 am

The outside consulting firm assisting agencies within the Sacramento County network had met with four vendors and evaluated options for buying a new emergency radio system for as many as 14,000 public employees, from cops to custodians.

What no one at the 2012 meeting seemed to anticipate, though, was that this consultant from Willdan Homeland Solutions was ready to render an opinion, even with a representative from Motorola, the industry’s leading manufacturer, sitting in the room.

Willdan’s senior executive said the county should go with Motorola. Those present sat in stunned silence, recalled Steve Overacker, at the time a telecommunications specialist for neighboring Yolo County who was serving on the technical evaluation panel.

They knew, he said, that the consultant had communicated to the representative from Motorola Solutions that the company might face no competition and have significant pricing power.

The incident also risked creating perceptions of a cozy relationship between Sacramento County and Motorola, which has held a tight grip over the county’s land-mobile radio business since securing a noncompetitive contract in 1996.

“Everybody who was there at that meeting was alarmed,” Overacker said.

The county soon awarded Motorola another sole-source contract, this time to build the first phase of the new digital, 48-channel radio network that will serve nearly 2,000 public safety workers in the city of Sacramento and more than 8,000 countywide.

David Applebaum, a radio interim systems manager in Sacramento County, said that the deal with Motorola will include the purchase of 2,941 public safety radios, ranging from $3,500 apiece for hand-carried models to $4,000 for those mounted in vehicles, and another 813 lower-priced models for other agencies.

Another 5,155 radios will be upgraded.

As in many metro areas across the country, Motorola’s presence in Sacramento has been a double-edged sword.

Its network has been solid, and its radios have been highly reliable and durable, most still working fine after 17 or 18 years of sometimes rugged use, said Scott Andrews, a senior telecommunications engineer for Sacramento.

But the company, with help from county officials, also has shut out competitors and maintained soaring radio prices by embedding proprietary features in its equipment so it can’t interact with radios made by other manufacturers.

The tactic also has stunted “interoperability” – the ability of every first responder’s radio to connect with the others – in areas where neighboring jurisdictions used different kinds of radios.

After years of delay, around 2005, uniform national design standards known as P25, drafted by industry-government committees, began to take hold to address barriers to interoperability and competition.

But Sacramento has been slow to transition to digital, P25 radios and a more competitive environment.

In 2006, while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was publishing federal grant guidelines to encourage state and local governments to honor P25 standards, the county was awarding Motorola a five-year contract extension worth $1.5 million to $2 million per year to upgrade its SmartZone system so it would conform to P25.

To do otherwise, city and county officials say, would have meant scrapping expensive Motorola radios, dispatch consoles and other equipment that wouldn’t connect with non-Motorola devices.

Similar issues led Hilldan to recommend sticking with Motorola, whose spokesman declined to respond to questions about specific company marketing practices.

Applebaum said the noncompetitive contract signed in late 2012 covers the first $6.5 million phase of a seven-year migration to a fully P25 network. The transition to the new system took place last Sunday.

Staying with Motorola, he said, was the only way to make the change gradually, rather than taking the costly step of immediately replacing the entire system.

“P25 is a huge step forward in interoperability,” Applebaum said.

Andrews said that the city told county officials: “We want to be sure that we’re not just drinking the Motorola Kool-Aid and locking us into another 20-year relationship.”

One option was to bring in an integrator, such as Raytheon Corp., which could tap technology from multiple companies that use computerized boxes, or “patches,” to link disparate systems. But Andrews said that was fraught with risks.

If something goes wrong in the current system, he said, “a small army of people (from Motorola) will show up within hours and help you fix your issues.”

If multiple companies were involved, “maybe each of those boxes is supported by a different company,” which could lead to finger-pointing over responsibility, Andrews said. “As a public safety entity, we can’t have that.

“I hate it, but nobody other than Motorola does build a transitional box that will integrate (the current system) with a new P25 infrastructure,” he said. “Still, you like to have competition. It gets you a better product.”

Read more articles by Greg Gordon

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