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Managing a Smooth Transition from Analog to Digital P25

Written by John Szpak on 5/17/18 1:38 PM

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a narrowbanding mandate that prompted many agencies to consider making the transition from analog to digital P25. While the mandate did not require this transition, it did require existing wideband systems to be modified or replaced to comply. Agencies were forced to reconsider their communication requirements and seek alternative solutions and many found that the transition to digital made sense.

Digital P25 systems have many advantages over analog system technology and have proven to be a more effective solution for many agencies. The digital system is less susceptible to interference and provides consistent and improved voice quality. This modern solution can better encrypt digital radios for more secure communications in mission-critical operations. Additionally, the advanced features of P25 systems including background scanning, hands-off roaming, efficient patching, location services and data applications can make for a better user experience and more efficient use of the system.

Here are 4 tips to ensure a smooth transition of an Analog to P25 Digital System implementation:

1 Determine Your System Requirements

Your system needs are the driving force behind which technology is an appropriate fit.

Communication – Will your system be utilized by more than one jurisdiction? Do you often communicate with agencies or users on other systems? You will need to verify that the vendor you choose has a technology that can support your communication requirements. Most importantly, you need to set expectations with all of your stakeholders and understand their needs.

Resiliency – Whether it’s a fire, tornado, or an island-wide hurricane, first responders need to be able to communicate in the most extreme conditions. Choosing a system with no single point of failure, self-healing sites, and a distributed network architecture takes the complexities out of mission-critical operations.

Interoperability – Many agencies work with multiple vendors to meet their communication requirements often resulting in a wide-range of subscribers, consoles, base stations, logging recorders and other equipment. Selecting a vendor who supports interoperability and encourages the integration of multiple vendors’ P25 components will make it simple to implement a communication solution that best meets the needs of your agency.

Cost – Your job is to protect the interests of the agency/city/county/state that you represent and that means selecting a P25 system vendor that offers the best solution at the most economical price. Unfortunately, you are often presented an initial price that does not include fees for operational licenses, console features, network management system (NMS) features, additional user and talkgroup IDs, or number of NMS client users. Choosing a system vendor with a flat pricing model ensures that all additional licenses and features are included in the initial prices with no hidden fees. 

Future-Proof - Core-based radio systems are outdated. Public safety agencies need a flexible, modern architecture that combines the benefits of both traditional LMR and the simplicity of LTE that can be adapted for emerging technologies. Many agencies who haven’t transitioned from analog to digital P25 are considering waiting to migrate from analog to FirstNet™. Unfortunately, most legacy analog systems will not be able to wait for FirstNet technology to prove its mission-critical nature – you will need an interim solution to bridge the gap and ensure the safety of your first responders.

2 Select an Appropriate Partner

After you determine which solution meets your system requirements, you will need to select a vendor to partner with. Remember, this is a 10-20+ year partnership. It is important to choose a vendor that shares your goals and values, a vendor that will be there to support you for the long haul – not just up until they make the sale or sign off the system. Long after the system goes live, you want a partner who will continue to understand and serve your needs and take the journey with you through the life cycle of your system.

3 Prepare Your Team

One of the key challenges to user acceptance is changes in the user experience when switching from an analog to digital P25 system.

Dispatchers are often accustomed to being able to identify first responders by the sound of their voice. With the P25 system, the voice is digitized and some of the familiarity can be compromised. Modern voice encoding algorithms produce audio that is much closer to the natural voice the dispatcher is used to, but still loses some of the voice’s “warmth” that the analog system provides. Initially, this can be frustrating to dispatchers who aren’t prepared for the change. Over time, dispatchers will get used to the “new voice” of the officers, but it does take time and patience.

First responders in the field should be briefed up front that digital radios behave differently than analog radios. For example, P25 trunked systems have controlled access where analog systems do not. Officers used to pressing the Push-To-Talk (PTT) and gaining immediate access to the channel will need to understand that they can’t begin speaking on the P25 system as soon as they hit the PTT. The PTT must now request access to a channel to make a call or to contribute to an already in process call.  If a channel is unavailable or another officer is talking, the officer will not be able to talk.  Digital systems force orderly communication and require some adjustment from legacy users who are accustomed to gaining immediate access to a channel when they press the PTT.

Additionally, digital systems behave differently when a responder is nearing an out-of-range area. While the voice on the analog system will degrade in poor signal conditions, you may still be able to hear it through the noise. Digital systems give a crystal clear voice for a much greater distance, but may drop off entirely when a user is out of range.  Users will need to be aware of the boundaries of their system and vendors will need to ensure that system coverage fully extends to the operational area. Preparing users for this experience can ease the transition period. 

Given the set of changes the dispatchers, first responders and system administrators will experience in the transition from an analog to a digital communication system, engaging in conversation about what they can expect in the transition and differences from current operation is crutial to the success of the upcoming transition and ultimate user acceptance of the changes. 

4 Train Your Team

The first 30 days after P25 system implementation are critical. Dispatchers, first responders, and the system administrator must all go through a mandated training program to learn the new system, new equipment and what to expect in the conversion to ensure user safety.

As with any major process change, repeated training and consistent usage is key. Specialized training for each user based on their role is recommended. Radio users will require a refresh on how to utilize the P25 digital radio and speaker microphone and will need to be trained on the additional features including visual and audible indicators and emergency button usage. System administrators will also need additional support as the P25 digital system will require much more active management. They will need to be trained on network management system usage, control terminals, how to configure users and talkgroups via applications, and how to monitor the health of the network. Training can be facilitated at the manufacturer, local dealer, or agency level. This is why it is so important to choose a vendor with a strong dealer network, so that you will have a capable partner who you can trust at the local level who is qualified to train and to provide local support.

30 days after the system goes live, your vendor should work with you to address any early transition pain points with your users or additional needs of your agency and adjust accordingly. It is quite normal to make radio or system configuration adjustments or provide some clarifications on the optimal usage of equipment during the early stages of your system. This is important to help your users get the most out of the system and radios. Giving your users the opportunity to have their questions answered is vital to the smooth implementation and user acceptance of a digital P25 system.

While every system implementation is different, following these 4 key steps can help take the complexities out of choosing a vendor partner with the technology to support your system requirements and increase confidence and acceptance with system users. For additional information on the latest digital P25 system technology, download the 'Modernizing the Framework of LMR Systems' white paper today. 

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Tags: Products and Solutions, P25, ATLAS

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