I became associated with two way radio systems now commonly refereed to as Land Mobile Radio (LMR) as far back as 1965 when I installed my first mobile radio. It had vacuum tubes in it and required frequent tuning as the tubes aged and replacement of some of the tubes every year or two. TV’s were the same and when I graduated from high school in 1967, going on to an Electronics Trade School made a lot of sense to a boy in rural America.
In the sixties, an Electronic Technician was expected to be able to read a tech manual and understand how all of the circuitry in any electronic device worked and then be able to trouble shoot it and fix it simply by tuning the circuit or replacing the bad components. In trade school, we were trained on radio, television, facsimile, telephone, radar, x-ray, and computer technology. We had lecture sessions in the morning and hands on bench work with these devices in the afternoon. By the end of school, we could pretty much fix anything that had electrons flowing through it with a schematic diagram in front of us and a few pieces of test equipment.
In 1969, I went into the Navy and they sent me to another two years of training on Navy radio and radar equipment. When you are 5000 miles out to sea, there is no calling the man to fix something. The ships ET shop repaired any electronic device on the ship.
After Vietnam, I mustered out in San Francisco and began working at a Motorola Service Center. Forty years later, I am still servicing LMR systems. Things have changed of course. In the 1960’s electronic devices evolved from tubes to transistors. This made the equipment more stable and the tuning and component replacements, slowed from monthly to semiannually. In the 1970’s Electronic Technicians were graduating by the thousands from trade schools and the shops couldn’t get enough of them. By the 1990’s the manufactures started making modular equipment like the Motorola Quantar. It has 5 easily removable modules that make repairs simple. You could just look at the lights on the front of the radio and see which module was not working. Servicing became much easier since the technician didn’t need to trouble shoot down to the individual component, just one of the 5 modules and if he wasn’t sure, he could just swap out each one until it started working again. This radio was so reliable and easily repaired that the life cycle went from an average of 10 years to over 20. You can imagine what happened to recurring sales for Motorola. For the non Public Safety folks, 90% of them have moved to Cell Phones. At this point we run into the Economy of Scale problem. With only 10% of the sales going to LMR devices, the manufactures were going out of business.
Today, there are no Electronic Trade schools turning out highly trained technicians. The manufactures are selling equipment that don’t have replaceable modules and must be sent back to a factory depot for service. Now when the manufacture wants more reoccurring sales, they simply stop servicing the equipment at the factory depots. The pool of Electronic Technicians is disappearing rapidly as they reach retirement age and most of the systems purchased today for Police, Fire, and EMS agencies are selected by departments that don’t have the expertise to evaluate what the sales people are telling them . The sales force will always try to sell the most proprietary, complex, and expensive systems they have.
The United States Congress saw the problem and came up with a fix. This week, a 25 year contract was awarded to AT&T to build out a nation wide communications system for Public Safety. The engineers at AT&T will select the equipment and build out the communication systems. These new systems will be based on the existing LTE cellular systems that we use on our cell phones. We can expect this system to evolve rapidly over the next few years. Of course, with change, I expect a lot of push back from the old school folks that never like change. Congress, though, controls the Grant Money. When that gets redirected to First Net, funding for the LMR systems will dry up.
I am old school as well and have my own reservations, but I have done some testing and listen to the seminars and webinars pertaining to these developments. There will be growing pains with some successes and failures, but the good thing is that the selection of systems and equipment is now in the hands of qualified engineers that will make informed decisions and avoid the pitfalls of proprietary equipment.
By 2020, we should see how well this is working.