As FirstNet mulls what its nationwide broadband communications network ultimately will look like, a couple of critical questions keep popping up: Will the network be able to deliver mission-critical voice at some future point? If it does, will that spell the end of land mobile radio systems (LMR) in the public-safety sector?

Many people have opinions on these questions, but no one has a definitive answer. Meanwhile, one thing seems perfectly clear: Project 25 (P25) digital radio technology delivers, whether the need is performance, interoperability or both, according to panelists during an educational session conducted last month during the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) in Las Vegas.

"In public safety, if you want to play with your neighbors, you almost have to be P25," said Tom Sorley, deputy director of radio communications services for the city of Houston, which turned to P25 technology when it sought to replace four legacy systems that had reached end of life.

But Sorley initially encountered "some resistance from the technical folks," who preferred staying with UHF analog conventional technology.

"The problem with that is that you can't do modern policing without enough capacity — you have to be able to divide these groups up," Sorley said. "It is very, very difficult to do that with anything other than a digital trunked radio system — and if you go into the digital trunked world, you need to go Project 25."

RELATED VIDEO: P25 questions still ahead

There was another compelling reason, according to Sorley.

"Quite frankly, we funded our system primarily out of grants, and it [P25] was a requirement to get the grants," he said.

Performance was a key factor in the Missouri Department of Public Safety's decision to leverage P25 when it built out its statewide wireless interoperable network (MOSWIN), said Steve Devine, interoperability program manager.

"We knew that a lot of our constituents were going to be folks in rural areas that, at the time, were operating wideband [systems], and we timed our system completion to be right at the FCC's narrowbanding [deadline]," Devine said. "A lot of people went from having one or two channels wideband to narrowband, and they were going to lose coverage — we know the laws of physics, and there's no way around that.

"But they were able to come onto our system for a lesser dollar amount than it would have cost them to actually narrowband and lose part of their existing footprint," he continued. "The radios were more expensive, certainly, but they perform better, especially in a lower-signal-strength environment. That was a big part of it for us."

RELATED VIDEO: Devine on P25, interoperability

Cost remains a significant barrier to entry for P25 technology, despite the fact that interoperability was supposed to foster competition, which in turn was supposed to drive down the price points for subscriber units.

"Let's not kid ourselves — cost is a huge factor in this decision," Sorley said. "I have local volunteer fire departments calling up every day and saying, 'Can you give me some way to talk to you on an analog, because I can't afford to buy a $5,000 radio?'"

That's why it is vital that agencies keep an open mind and not set their sights on a particular vendor when procuring P25 radios, according to Sorley.

"Project 25 gets better and more affordable when we hold true competitive procurements," he said. "I see this so many times: I was involved in one, somewhere in the Northeast, where they asked me to come in and help them with their RFP … because they couldn't figure out how to write it to get the vendor that they wanted.

"After I figured out that's what they were doing, I said, 'Thanks but no thanks,' because to me, you have to have competition."

Another way to drive down costs is to do some research, according to Bradley Stoddard, director of the Michigan Public Safety Communications System.

"Reach out to your counterparts across the nation and ask them, 'What was your price?'" Stoddard said. "Tom [Sorley] and I talked a couple of years ago, and we understood what the pricing was in his backyard, and we used that as an argument to get our manufacturer to reduce its prices."

To manage costs long-term, Missouri officials made a key decision, according to Devine.

"As a policy, the state of Missouri is a multiband environment," he said. "We have 115 counties, and 85% of our population lives in 15 counties, while the other 15% of our population lives in 100 counties — so we are your classic rural-urban dichotomy.

"We've already determined that there is no more VHF spectrum in Missouri — we've used just about every piece that we can find. … So, our system was designed on the premise that, eventually, dual-band subscriber units are going to be what allows somebody to roam from 700/800 [MHz] to VHF trunking. That's not to say that we're not allowing single-band radios that you already own, but our grant dollars are really being focused toward what's going to promote that 12- to 14-year lifecycle of that radio."

Next: More challenges