How Motorola came to dominate in emergency telecommunications

03/30/2014 12:03 AM

08/06/2014 10:44 AM

Motorola has dominated the emergency radio market for as long as anyone can remember, with police, firefighters and medics across the country carrying its walkie-talkies.

But when Sedgwick County looked for a new communications system, it found it could save millions by going with a competitor.

The county stands apart from many other cities, counties and states – including in Kansas – in choosing not to buy the Motorola system.

A seven-month McClatchy investigation found that, in one region after another, city, county and state officials have favored Motorola, helping it secure an estimated 80 percent of all the emergency telecommunications business in America.

From the nation’s capital to the Pacific Coast, government officials have handed the company noncompetitive contracts, have used modifications of years-old contracts to acquire new systems or have crafted bid specifications to Motorola’s advantage.

These officials, perhaps without recognizing their collective role, have helped stunt the very competition that’s needed to hold down prices and ensure the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

The company’s contract wins have been clouded by irregularities or allegations of government favoritism in Chicago, Dallas, the San Francisco Bay Area and on statewide systems in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Washington, to name a few. Losing bidders often have been left chafing with the belief that they weren’t playing on a level field.

“Motorola is, in practical terms, a monopoly, and they control the market for the purpose of keeping the pricing very high,” said Jose Martin, president of Power Trunk, a subsidiary of a Spanish firm, Teltronic, that is trying to break into the U.S. public safety radio market.

Kansas officials bypassed state competitive bidding requirements in 2005 by modifying a 1991 contract with Motorola to provide a new, $50 million digital system. They defended that action by saying that competitive bids had been taken on the original system 14 years earlier.

In Chicago, Motorola’s backyard, city officials justified a noncompetitive, $23 million contract on the grounds it would protect a $2 million investment in proprietary Motorola equipment when the equipment’s actual value was $350,000, the city’s inspector general found.

In Dallas, where Motorola has won a contract for a new digital network, the company has been snarled in controversy twice in recent years over the way it has met city requirements for use of minority subcontractors, because most of the money flowed back to Motorola. City officials would not release the contract documents, forwarding a Justice Department letter stating that to do so would interfere with an FBI investigation into possible “public corruption, tax evasion and money laundering.”

Between 2009 and 2011, the state of Iowa issued five solicitations for radio bid prices that each favored Motorola, one requiring that two knobs on the radios be exactly 19 millimeters apart – a parameter fitting only a Motorola radio, the Des Moines Register first reported.

Michael Miller, whose Marshalltown, Iowa, radio dealership represents competing companies, said he concluded that “somebody wants Motorola to win it.”

Interoperable radios

After communications breakdowns contributed to the deaths of 125 New York firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001, the nation spent tens of billions of dollars making public safety radios more compatible, or interoperable, no matter their brand.

In a weakly policed but huge patchwork of as many as 20,000 city, county, state and federal two-way radio networks, governments have paid as much as $7,500 apiece for Motorola models when some competitors offered products meeting the same specifications for a fraction of its prices.

In Europe, which has a lower-power network that requires more costly towers and infrastructure, police radios serving the same functions sell for $500 to $700.

“While our public safety people do an extraordinary job in protecting the public, I am not impressed with the choices they’ve made relative to technology,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who represents part of Silicon Valley and has for years monitored Motorola’s dominance.

In a phone interview, she called radio prices of $5,000 and above “ludicrous.”

Illinois-based Motorola Solutions, as its public safety arm has been called since Motorola Inc. split in two in 2011, would not make its chief executive, Gregory Brown, available for an interview. Nor would the company respond to detailed questions submitted by McClatchy.

Instead, Motorola issued a statement saying that it has developed “state-of-the-art technology to support the challenging and demanding missions of public safety” for more than 80 years.

“Customers choose Motorola because we have remained committed to serving these dedicated professionals by closely listening to them and responding with innovative solutions that meet their needs,” it said.

Slow to upgrade

Increased spending on emergency communications has delivered some public benefit in the decade since the Sept. 11 commission recommended radios work together, no matter the brand. Radio connections have improved. New York’s networks, for example, performed well after Hurricane Sandy in 2013.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sees a national system riddled with too many weak signals and fragmented frequencies. The push to resolve such issues with competitively priced upgrades has moved at a snail’s pace.

McClatchy’s investigation found that:

• Even after uniform design standards for two-way radios took hold in 2005, Motorola found ways to elbow rivals out of some markets by peddling proprietary extras that don’t interact with non-Motorola radios, such as special encryption software sold for a few dollars per radio in states including Kansas and Missouri.
• Many cities and counties have awarded Motorola sole-source contracts by using so-called “cooperative contracts” that piggyback on deals that Motorola won competitively elsewhere. In 2011, financially distressed Fort Worth, Texas, and Washington, D.C., each handed Motorola a $50 million deal by adopting pricing from a Houston-Galveston area regional contract. Fort Worth officials say they also negotiated an additional 34 percent discount on radio prices, but the District of Columbia did not, paying as much as $5,700 per radio.
• Auditors who track the use of grants from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have given little scrutiny to the behavior of state and local officials who tilt procurements toward Motorola, including those who ignore requirements that its radios fully interact with other brands.

Motorola’s rugged two-way radios, able to survive a dropped bowling ball or submersion in a tank of water, have for decades set the standard for performance in the emergency communications market.

The company usually has held a technological edge over competitors, even if its digital radios were plagued by some of the same failures as its rivals’ in recent years.

In addition, the company’s longstanding marketing of proprietary features in its systems has clashed head-on with the national goal of interoperability. Fire commanders in some cities, for instance, carried multiple radios to multi-alarm blazes to ensure they could talk with every unit dispatched to the scene.

John Powell, a former chairman of a National Public Safety Telecommunications Council panel on the subject, said that even today, “we’ve got these systems going in with federal grant dollars that are really being a detriment to interoperability.”

Powell criticized federal agencies for failing to put enough “teeth in those grant guidance documents” to ensure against proprietary features, such as Motorola’s encryption.

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