Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Florida Gives Sweet Deal To Harris Corp For Secret Digital Radios

Digital Radio Deal With State Bringing Secret Communications To Florida

LABELLE, FL. -- Wondering why police communications are being digitally encrypted by county sheriffs, city police, state highway patrol, and state law enforcement agencies? The answer may lie in a deal Florida made with a large communications company, Harris Corporation.

The state of Florida has entered into a monopolistic contract with the Harris Corporation to use Harris digital communication radios for all state agencies. The radios provided by Harris are digitally encrypted so no one without the "key" can hear what's being said over the air.

Anyone with a radio "scanner" can no longer hear law enforcement radio transmissions from agencies using the secret codes.

The FCC regulates radio frequencies and radio transmissions in the U.S. and does specifically allow the public to own "scanners," radio receivers capable of monitoring or listening to any radio communication. The only exception is manufacturers may not sell radios that are capable of listening to cell phone conversations in the 850mhz and 1900 mhz bands.

But now, the State of Florida is gradually shifting from inexpensive analog radios, capable of being monitored by the public with inexpensive radio scanners, to radios transmitting in the 800mhz band and coding the transmissions so they are not available to be monitored by the public.

Update: Many agencies are finding lots of problems with the new digital communication systems including the apparent failure of Oakland, California's $18 million system that repeatedly went offline during the visit of President Barack Obama on July 23, 2012. Police officers were unable to reach dispatch and other officers during the visit and during protests that were taking place that day. Oakland's digital radios went online in June of 2011 replacing it's analog radio system.

And because of the monopoly created by the agreement between the State of Florida and Harris, other agencies are persuaded to purchase Harris equipment in order to standardize protocols and theoretically be able to communicate with state agencies when necessary, since all agencies would be using the same encrypted system.

Unfortunately for the public, news agencies, and the public safety, all Harris equipment used by the state, and county agencies is encrypted, making all communications secret and not available to be listened to by any radio available to the public.

Although the new radios are digital, and much more expensive than previous analog radios, they do not have to be encrypted. But Harris makes an additional $1,000 per radio unit by selling the encryption feature to the State, counties and other agencies.

The State Law Enforcement Radio System mandates an encrypted radio system for all users, costing about $1,000 extra for each individual radio used by law enforcement agencies throughout Florida. The cost of an un-encrypted radio package according to a Harris price list is $3,130. The encrypted radios cost $4,271.

Now using the digitally encrypted radio is the Florida Highway Patrol, all State agencies, U.S. Marshall, Glades County Sheriff, Hendry County Sheriff, Okeechobee County, and many other agencies throughout the state.

While Glades county switched to the system several years ago, Hendry county switched to the "secret" communication system in December 2011. Hendry Sheriff Steve Whidden says each portable radio carried by a deputy costs about $5,000.

In response to complaints around the state by newspapers and TV and radio stations, some agencies have allowed "leasing" of the radios to news media in order for monitoring of police and fire radio transmissions. But the latest trend is for agencies to deny use of the encrypted radios by anyone outside the agencies.

Florida's Department of Management Services explains the funding of the Harris radio equipment this way:

In order to implement SLERS, DMS entered into a "public/private partnership" with Harris Corporation (formerly Tyco Electronics).

For providing the services in the contract, Harris was paid a $40 million advance payment. Additionally, the company receives an on-going proceeds from a motor vehicle and vessel registration surcharge (approximately $15 - $18 million annually) less certain stipulated expenses incurred by the State. 

This revenue stream to Harris provided the initial system infrastructure (communications towers, system equipment, and dispatch consoles) and ongoing system maintenance.

In return for the conveyance of selected State-owned communications tower and tower assets, Harris extended $26.4 million in credits to the State for radios, radio equipment and accessories.

In addition to these credits, Harris provided additional credits to replace 6,000 radios formerly used by the State.

The Department of Management Services receives funding to improve and enhance SLERS under Section 318.18(17) Florida Statues which provide revenues from certain criminal offenses and moving traffic violations. These funds are apparently going to the Harris Corporation.

The Harris contract provides for revenue sharing in two ways: After the initial term, the State will receive 50% of all net revenues received from third-party tenants on communications towers conveyed to Harris from the State for an additional 30 years; For any SLERS Partners (like Harris), the State receives 5% of the gross revenue.

Joint Task Force Agencies provides Harris radios for their users and the remaining dispatch center facilities, equipment and expenses.


  1. Anonymous12:40 PM

    Like you, I'm an amateur radio enthusiast. I'm not sure where you've been hiding, but this encrypted system has been in place for several years. I, for one, am glad that our state has been so forward-looking by spending the money to encrypt the system. Florida's crime rate (the occurrence of major crimes per 100,000 persons) is among the highest in the nation. I don't want to live in a state where the crooks have the upper hand and total access to police frequencies. That's the way it was for the last 50 years and it's a dumb way to conduct business. I've found that many hams feel like privileged characters that want to listen to these freqencies when nobody else can. The fact that you cannot listen is for the common good of our state. Encrypting police frequencies makes perfect sense to me and is worth the extra expense of doing so.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I am an amateur radio operator and one of the advantages we do have by Florida law is the right to carry a scanner in oiur cars, others are not legally allowed to do so. The idea is in case of an emergency hams can rely important info that might be heard over a scanner. Of course, law enforcement already have means to have privileged communication including cell phones. As a journalist, I also need to keep up to date on what's happening around the community, not necessarily confidential info, which is rare over the radio anyway, but general info about where dispatchers are sending fire and police to emergency situations including traffic accidents and fires.

  3. Anonymous8:50 PM

    Most public safety fire / ems communications is NOT encrypted, with some exceptions. (HIPPA rules do regulate protection of medical information that may need to be transmitted) It is law enforcement that uses encryption, and with good cause.

    In the event that public safety needs outside assistance, there are nationwide mutual aid channels that are NOT encrypted. In fact, the mutual aid channels are conventional analog radio that any manufacturer radio can access. These channels provide an interface between sister agencies. In situation where mutual aid channels are used, dispatchers are trained that information is in the clear and to monitor content stated.

    As an amateur radio operator, I am sure you know technology is constantly changing and providing more spectrum efficiencies. In fact the FCC has mandated that systems below 800MHz move to equipment that is more spectrum efficient before the end of the year. This "sweet deal" arrangement appears to provide a way for smaller law enforcement agencies to comply with the FCC mandate; and capitalize on newer technologies without having to build out costly infrastructure. I do not know if your county needed to replace aging equipment, but I suspect that may be part of the timing of the change.

    Permit me to clarify your statement "in case of an emergency hams can rely ..." I assume you meant relay. As an active ARES/RACES amateur myself, in many cases when amateur radio operators are asked to assist with traffic it is best to originate the message content directly at the local PSAP (911 center), and not from something heard on a scanner. The direct verbal/written communications between amateur operator and public safety communicator help to prevent mistakes in message content.

    Change is difficult to accept. However, working around public safety for a long time, this is nothing new. Law enforcement at all levels throughout the USA have good reason to use, as you say, secret radios. Not only does law enforcement use them, but so does our military.

    In conclusion, I am sure if you have valid journalistic needs, you should be able to review the public records for information.


  4. Yes, the "rely" should be "relay" in my comments. Thanks for your comments.

  5. same old thing keep em in the dark they dont need to know what we are doing for our paycheck that they give us

  6. As a compromise to the public and media organizations, many agencies are putting a display of active calls on their webpage. This is usually updated at least once a minute. If the agency's computer aided dispatch system or website can accomodate this, it may be worth asking the agency to do. Polk Co. Sheriff, Orange County Sheriff & Fire, as well as Orlando Police do this. I'm not sure if any SW FL agencies do, but check their website (usually under media relations or Dispatch/Communications section).

  7. They have spent $40m in radios, Plus a $18m fee for the privilege of using them per year.. You just know that some 15 yr old will crack them, sending their nearly $100m investment (assuming it's lasts 3 yrs before it's cracked. The Schools could sure use $100m over 3 yrs.
    All to keep news agencies from monitoring them? Can you say Military State?

    1. Anonymous10:50 AM

      Virtually impossible a 15 year old will crack it.
      If it uses AES encryption, it's highly unlikely a well funded drug cartel could crack it.

      Basically, you're SOL for listening to it.