In the 700 MHz debate, a lot of attention was given to the needs of public safety, and the goal of an interoperable public safety radio network. Rightly so: It's a bad situation when a major disaster hits and first responders, often from different jurisdictions, have no means of electronically communicating with one another. Chaos and complexity are the unfortunate–and it is hoped, not inevitable–result of the fact that our country's public safety teams–police, fireman, paramedics, and so on–are very decentralized, answering to many different state, local, and federal government bodies, or to private entities. It is extraordinarily difficult to coordinate different public safety agencies, who answer to no one master.
The FCC has made it clear that the fulfilling the needs of public safety is one of the goals of its 700 MHz policy. It is heartening to see the FCC make an honest effort to address the needs of the public safety community. At the same time, it can be educational to look to other ways that the interoperability problem is being addressed.
The US military has also faced serious interoperability problems. Of course, the military is much more centralized than the thousands of public safety agencies around the country. Yet, different radio technologies have been developed at different times in the military, by different services. Additionally, military services from different nations often have to communicate with each other. The situation in the military is somewhat analogous to the situation in public safety. In some ways, the frequency-hopping and encryption requirements of a military service make the technical challenges of communications interoperability more daunting.
The way the military is addressing the problem, though, is very clever. It has been working on a system called the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS)–pronounced as “jitters.” Rather than standardizing on one and only one technology–one radio to rule them all–JTRS is a “smart” radio. It is a software-defined device that can emulate dozens of other kinds of radios. JTRS is fully backwards compatible with the installed base of hundreds of millions–possibly billions–of dollars worth of equipment, is flexible enough to adapt to new technologies as they come along, and can operate over many different spectrum bands. JTRS is a future-proof solution that will allow the military to solve its communications interoperability problems without it having to commit early to a technology that might turn out to be the wrong bet.
When we're thinking about spectrum policy in America, it makes a lot of sense to look long and hard at smart, software-defined radios. These innovative technologies can solve a lot of problems and make complex problems of technology standardization and spectrum reallocation simply disappear.