Improving radio system important

Pennsylvania is embarking on a positive step, having begun the process of implementing a new statewide emergency radio system — called P25 — that officials hope will not be infected with access “bugs” like those currently hindering emergency responders.

The key word is “hope,” because, until the system is installed completely, it won’t be known whether any access problems remain.

As detailed by Mirror reporter Ryan Brown in an article on June 12, a total of 22 state agencies, including the state police, continue to use the Pennsylvania Statewide Radio Network — known as Starnet — that enables emergency communications over all of the commonwealth’s 67 counties.

Starnet is not at the height of modern communication capabilities, but it has continued in use, as state officials watched for newer, better systems.

Eleven years ago, the state police began a final transition to a new digital system, OpenSky, that promised greatly expanded information-relaying capabilities, such as to onboard police vehicle computers.

As Brown further reported, OpenSky, despite being top-of-the-line in terms of technology when it was put in service, quickly began exhibiting shortcomings, especially in mountainous and rural areas, of which the Keystone State has many.

The problem is that OpenSky operates on a radio frequency too high to effectively cover some of those mountainous and rural areas, and efforts to correct the problems, although costly, have not been able to exterminate the “bugs.”

Thus, the state police have resorted to carrying old-style VHF radios as backups to the OpenSky system.

Still, although being “double-armed” from a communications standpoint, troopers do not have all of the communications capabilities that they need and deserve.

Commendably, the state is trying to remedy that with P25, which is being implemented first in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The first “pilot” P25 implementation was initiated in Warren County in April, and implementation is scheduled to expand to several other northwestern counties soon, then move eastward.

P25 purportedly will enable hooking directly into county-level networks to whatever channel is needed.

The goal is for all 67 counties to be covered by the new system by 2021, although a number of counties, including Blair, Bedford and Centre, already have transitioned to P25, at least for some services.

But the word “hope” still remains applicable. Until the system, statewide, is in full operation, emergency responders won’t know whether access “bugs” — new or not-so-new — will exist.

State taxpayers, who have had to foot $800 million worth of bills tied to OpenSky, plus the $44.5 million that the state is spending for P25, hope not.

The June 12 Mirror article quoted state Sen. Daniel Laughlin, R-Erie, who made the good point that “there should be something in that (P25) contract (with Chicago-based Motorola Solutions Inc.) that says we’re going to get every penny back if it doesn’t work.”

It’s unclear what guarantee exists under that pact but, at a legislative committee meeting in Harrisburg on June 7, P25 was described as the future of communications.

Mountainous and rural counties such as those in the Southern Alleghenies region will be major determinants as to whether P25 will live up to expectations.