Archived—Consultation Paper on Public Safety Radio Interoperability Guidelines

June 2006
Spectrum Management and Telecommunications


  1. Intent
  2. Background
  3. Radio Interoperability Definitions
  4. Levels of Radio Interoperability
  5. Radio interoperability Guidelines

1. Intent

As announced in Canada Gazette notice SMSE-005-06, Industry Canada is releasing this consultation paper to seek comments on guidelines that will outline different levels of radio interoperability between public safety users. In addition it will propose methods that the Department may use to ensure the capability of public safety systems to meet the appropriate level of radio interoperability.

The issue of radio interoperability is a broad and complex matter. It involves the convergence of issues such as governance through the cooperation of all public safety agencies, standard operating procedures for the different types of usage situations, training of personnel and exercises to ensure full functionality as well as the technology to allow communications.

Under the Department’s legislative mandate for ensuring the orderly development and efficient operation of radiocommunication, the focus of this consultation is on the issue of radio interoperability among public safety agencies in the area of technology, including radio frequency issues. Specifically, the intent of this consultation paper is to seek comments on the definition of radio interoperability and other associated terms, as well as an outline of different levels of radio interoperability, and the method that the Department would use to ensure that prospective users meet the appropriate level of radio interoperability.

Canada Gazette notice SMSE-005-06 invites interested parties to submit their comments by September 4, 2006 to the Director General, Spectrum Engineering Branch.

2. Background

Public safety agencies rely heavily on the ability to communicate with each other by radio, or to be interoperable, in planned and unplanned situations and emergencies. In recent years, the Department has recognized the need for radio interoperability and has found some solutions to meeting these needs in an orderly and efficient manner including identifying priority spectrum and developing associated spectrum policies, processes and technical standards.

With the modernization of radiocommunication infrastructures, new spectrum has become available to address some critical public safety needs. For example, the transition to digital television has created an opportunity to open exclusive priority spectrum in the bands 764-770 MHz/794-800 MHz for public safety (for more information, see Notice No. DGTP-002-04). Another example is the band 4 940-4 990 MHz which is currently under consideration to be designated for broadband public safety communications (for more information, see Notice No. DGTP-005-05). These bands are also harmonized with the U.S. to ensure that Canadian public safety agencies can develop the capability for compatible radio networks, which support radio interoperability, mutual aid and border security at a reasonable cost.

Historically, many law enforcement, fire and emergency medical agencies across Canada have deployed individualized public safety radiocommunication systems that do not enable radio interoperability. Furthermore, spectrum for public safety radio applications is spread across a range of frequency bands from 150 to 800 MHz, with no universally available and affordable radio being able to operate across the entire range.

The Department has worked with the public safety community over the past years to improve radiocommunication for public safety agencies. In this regard, it has sought to address radio interoperability, open equipment standards, and access to spectrum resources in existing and new bands. In May 1990, the band 821-824/866-869 MHz was designated solely for public safety use in Spectrum Utilization Policy 30-896-Part I, Spectrum Allocation and Utilization in Certain Bands in the Range 30.01-896 MHz (Part I), (SP 30-896 - Part 1). In addition, 5 channels were identified for organizations in both Canada and the U.S., on a shared basis for the purpose of mutual aid. These 5 channels were required, by authorization and equipment certification to use the Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System (CTCSS), a barely audible 156.7 Hz tone transmitted during voice communications, to ensure public safety agencies had the capability for national and cross-border communications. In addition, the Department has provided assistance for the deployment of shared public safety systems in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

To advance the issue of radio interoperability, the Department is now prepared to establish a definition of radio interoperability as well as guidelines that will outline different levels of radio interoperability and require that prospective users meet the appropriate level of interoperability within each new frequency band made available for public safety use.

3. Radio Interoperability Definitions

As previously noted, radio interoperability involves common spectrum efficient technical standards or standard operating procedures for agencies to communicate. A definition and associated terms are proposed as follows: 

Radio interoperability:
The capability of a public safety agency to communicate by radio (either directly or via a network) with another public safety agency, on demand (planned and unplanned) and in real time.

The communications link may involve any combination of mobile radio terminals and fixed radio equipment (e.g. repeaters, dispatch positions, data resources). The points of communication are dependent upon the specific needs of the situation and any operational procedures and policies which might exist between the involved agencies. The communications link may be classified as either of the following two types: 

Infrastructure independent:
The communications link occurs between mobile radio terminals over a direct radio frequency path. An example is portable-to-portable tactical communications at the scene of an incident.
Infrastructure dependent:
The communications link requires the use of equipment, other than mobile radio terminals, for the establishment of the link and for complete operation. Some examples include a communications link in which a repeater station is deployed; a communications link which provides full system coverage for a visiting mobile radio terminal within a host-trunked radio system; and a communications link which provides interconnectivity between two or more otherwise incompatible radio systems by bridging the radio signals and/or appropriate signalling functions at some central point.

The communications link, whether infrastructure dependent or indepen­dent, must satisfy one or both of the following requirements: 

Wireless communications involving agencies having different geographical areas of responsibility. Some examples include a fire agency from one city, communicating with a fire agency from another city; federal or provincial police forces communicating with a city police force; and the federal police force communicating within its divisional offices in another province, or with a police force in the United States.
Wireless communications involving two or more different agencies. Some examples include a police agency commu­ni­cating with a fire agency and a parks agency communicating with an emergency medical services agency.

In addition to the multi-jurisdictional and multi-disciplinary radio interoperability characteristics, there are different operating environments for public safety that impose different requirements on the use of public safety applications and therefore on the spectrum required.

Radio Interoperability Operating Environments:
  • Day-to-day operations
  • Planned Events
  • Large Unplanned Events and Disaster Relief Operations
Do the above definitions accurately reflect the concept of radio interoperability? Are the ways of classifying radio interoperability correctly stated? Are there other operating environments for radio interoperability that are not correctly captured by the three identified here?

4. Levels of Radio Interoperability

Currently, public safety users operate systems in a range of spectrum from 150 to 800 MHz. Recently, further spectrum at 220 MHz, 700 MHz and 4.9 GHz has also become available, or been identified, for future for public safety use. Some various levels of radio interoperability have been achieved within the bands already used by public safety, however there are no guidelines established that could be applied to encourage a more orderly and efficient evolution of a communications infrastructure to support public safety applications. Public safety agencies, on their own initiative, usually attempt to coordinate the use of these channels with other geographically-adjacent public safety organizations for mutual aid however, there exists no spectrum efficient standard or hierarchy to encourage and enable radio interoperability for domestic as well as national or international implementation.

Although the specific technology to facilitate radio interoperability varies depending on the band, the methods to provide this capability are universal and therefore a general hierarchy of levels of radio interoperability based on operational and technical means can be established. A proposed structure is shown below.

Levels of Radio Interoperability

Image of Level of Radio Interoperability

Exchange Radios at the Incident Scene

During an emergency, the first and most basic method to allow radio interoperability is for personnel from different agencies to exchange radios when they arrive at the incident site. One agency may simply provide all responders from various agencies with a radio. Personnel would use those radios for basic communications with the other responders. However they may need to carry a second radio to communicate with their own agency. This method may be limited when public safety agencies are responding to an unplanned event.


The second level, a gateway or network, links separate radio systems by deploying a capability that receives a transmission on one radio system and retransmits it on a different radio system on the same band or at a different band. The architecture can range from simple mobile repeaters to complex gateway communications systems, or leverage existing infrastructure like the Internet or the public switched telephone network (PSTN). This can be an effective solution to allow radio interoperability capabilities for many applications. However, it is not spectrum efficient and it may limit the functionality of the individual radios. Also, since it is an infrastructure-dependent solution, there is a potential for these networks to temporarily collapse during a large emergency or disaster relief efforts.

Shared Mutual Aid Channels with a Common Radio Equipment Standard

The third proposed method is the use of shared mutual aid channels where the radio equipment conforms to an agreed common radio equipment standard as an effective way of allowing dynamic radio interoperability. Radio equipment is certified in accordance with a common technical standard for these channels, thus requiring advance planning and agreement within the public safety community on this standard and a suitable band plan. As discussed earlier, the Department has specified such channels in the past in the 821-824/866-869 MHz band.

Individual Standards-based Systems

Individual radio systems built to serve multiple public safety agencies using a specific standard, can allow radio interoperability limited only by the extent of cooperation between public safety users. If each agency uses its own individual solution, there will be very little or no radio interoperability between users. However, as more public safety agencies in a geographical area coordinate to use the same standards, a more flexible and reliable radio interoperability environment could be developed. These types of systems are often proprietary in nature with tailored solutions utilizing new technologies to meet the specific needs of the user.

Common Standards-based Systems

Common, standards-based systems provide a permanent radio interoperability solution within a particular band and broad geographic area. All public safety agencies would have systems that use identical standards to allow them the most flexible, dynamic and reliable radio interoperable environment. The systems can be open or proprietary in nature allowing each agency to have full functionality of their radios so they can communicate independently with tailored solutions for their specific requirements, as well as have the capability to be radio interoperable when necessary. This would require an extremely high level of coordination involving all public safety agencies in the broadest geographic area to agree on a suitable shared standard.

Does the above hierarchy adequately describe the various levels of radio interoperability that are achievable between public safety users? Are there other levels of radio interoperability which should be included?

5. Radio Interoperability Guidelines

The Department recognizes that the most effective way of achieving radio interoperability is the use of common, standards-based radio systems by all public safety agencies in the broadest geographical area, whether these systems are owned by the public safety agencies, or provided by service providers on contract. Although this may be seen as ideal, it is not always feasible considering the vast array of public safety agencies and differing operational, security and geographic requirements they may have.

Considering the various levels of radio interoperability described earlier and recognizing the need for flexible standards and the goal to promote public safety interoperable radiocommunication, the Department has examined different options to institute radio interoperability guidelines. These guidelines would specify a level of radio interoperability that could be a prerequisite to authorization for the use of the spectrum in frequency bands made available for public safety use.

  1. The first option under consideration by the Department is designating specific technical capabilities for radio interoperability such as identifying common, mutual aid radio interoperability channels and mandating the shared standard without additional requirements (i.e. the approach used presently in the band 821-824 MHz/866-869 MHz). Based on the experience acquired from present deployments, the Department notes that this option does not address differences in applications or spectrum and does not fully address the concern of the Department regarding the lack of radio interoperability among public safety agencies.
  2. The Department has also considered a second option of specifying an agreed minimum level of radio interoperability and requiring public safety users to demonstrate to the Department with their application how this level of radio interoperability will be achieved with all users of the band, in the same area. It also includes a demonstration of radio interoperability in an engineering brief to be submitted with the application. This option will place a heavy burden on the last applicant who will need to have the cooperation of existing users.
  3. In order to provide flexibility to users and achieve a high degree of radio interoperability, the Department is in favour of a third approach. This approach would require a potential user to accept a condition of authorization that requires them to demonstrate the capability of the system to meet a specified minimum level of radio interoperability as described in the hierarchy of levels in Section 4. This level of radio interoperability would be established by consultation when new spectrum is made available for public safety use. All public safety licensees in the band would be expected to cooperate in the usage of the band and the means of radio interoperability, as well as to resolve issues by mutually satisfactory arrangements. All information and arrangements used in the coordination of radio interoperability would be retained by the licensees and be made available to the Department upon request.

These options do not address other issues of radio interoperability such as governance and funding, standard operating procedures, training and exercises and usage. These issues are not related to spectrum management and come under the responsibility of the user and other government departments or other levels of government.

The Department does not intend to discourage any solution that can provide a greater level of radio interoperability between public safety users.

The Department seeks comment on the proposal to establish the guidelines outlined in option 3 above, requiring public safety users to meet a minimum level of radio interoperability in frequency bands made available for public safety use. This would be applied as a condition of authorization. Are there other approaches to advance the issue of radio interoperability between public safety users that the Department should consider within its mandate?

Issued under the authority
of the Radiocommunication Act

June 3, 2006

space to insert signature
R.W. McCaughern
Director General
Spectrum Engineering Branch

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