It is a disconcerting dichotomy that while most Americans can rapidly thumb text messages and instantly send pictures and videos to their friends, public safety workers frequently are given antiquated wireless technologies to perform the important job of saving lives.
The solution to nationwide interoperability for public safety workers, however, is not as simple as giving them cell phones.
This is a complicated problem that will require a mix of technology fixes as well as improved mechanisms to distribute information within the public safety workforce.
Cellular technology is an extremely attractive option for public safety communications. The success of the commercial market will guarantee that the technology will continue to improve. In 2007, the wireless industry’s revenue was an estimated $153 billion. Cellular operator network upgrades were estimated at $23.6 billion, the equivalent of two-thirds of the Department of Homeland Security’s total program budget.
In the United States, coverage expands from coast to coast with the number of cellular sites steadily increasing at a rate of 6.5 percent a year. Virtually every single geographically populated area has cellular coverage. Cellular data rates are also increasing exponentially. By the year 2012, peak download rates for cellular devices are expected to be in the hundreds of megabits.
These high data rates will allow operators to replace circuit-based switching techniques with Voice over IP (VoIP) protocols, antiquating the “phone number” and replacing it with an IP address. Merging the Internet with cellular technologies has created an environment where any data can be available anywhere and at any time.
At the end of 2006, Municipal WiFi (Wireless Fidelity AKA 802.11) was seen as a market disruptive technology that could end the regime of the cellular carriers. The equipment is less expensive, WiFi devices are ubiquitous and they use unlicensed spectrum. Municipalities had just begun to use WiFi to provide public safety with data communications. Later that year, many companies and municipalities published grandiose coverage plans. Unfortunately by 2007, the economics of the municipal WiFi plans were not sustainable. The technology simply was not designed for widespread deployment, public adoption was low and costs were much higher than estimated. Companies abandoned their plans for municipal WiFi and sold their investments to avoid a loss. WiFi has its place in public safety communications, however, it was not designed for wide-area coverage.
WiMax, in laymen’s terms, is WiFi on steroids. It is a technology that has been designed for wider area coverage and greater mobility. But it faces many of the same challenges as WiFi. Analysts predict that by the year 2010, there will only be 2 million WiMax subscribers, which comes to less than 1 percent of the total wireless subscriber market.
Additionally, analysts have predicted that WiMax will be most successful where there is a lack of infrastructure, meaning it will be available in mostly niche markets. WiMax faces stiff competition from big cellular carriers. If WiMax delivers faster data rates, cheaper devices and services, and equal coverage and interoperability as cellular, it could be a viable option for both the commercial and the public safety sector. WiMax has yet to duplicate the equivalent capabilities and benefits as cellular.
So why have cellular operators not aggressively sought the public safety market? This spring, a Federal Communications Commission auction for the newly available 700 MHz D Block had only one bid, which was deemed as being too low. One reason might be the small numbers of first responders. Three million public safety workers represent only 1.2 percent of the total cellular market. In comparison, 12 to 14 year olds, represent about 10 percent of the total subscriber market.
The 700–MHz, D block spectrum auction was the FCC’s attempt to move public safety on to next-generation networks. License rules of the D Block allowed a public/private partnership with priority access for public safety workers. The D block failed to find a bidder to meet its reserve price of $1.3 billion.
As highlighted in the D Block auction, the first and most important requirement for public safety on public networks is priority access. The government emergency telecommunications service (GETS) and wireless priority service (WPS) provide voice communications. But data or IP-based communications are the basis for all future communications. This requires IP priority access over the cellular and IP networks.
GETS and WPS were effective because the U.S. government was able to broker deals with cellular operators to add these functions into their networks. Additionally, operators are able to charge a higher fee for these priority calls in times of network congestion. Similar arrangements need to be made with cellular operators and IP network operators to enable priority data for public safety workers. Fortunately, cellular and IP networks standards have been developed with these kinds of mechanisms in mind, which need to be defined by policy makers and implemented by the operators.
When natural disasters damage infrastructure, public safety workers require backup communications. Most land mobile radios can talk directly to another radio without the need for a network. Currently, cellular devices do not have network talk-around capability. But many cellular devices have WiFi, which could be used to create a WiFi “ad–hoc” network were data and voice could be directly exchanged between devices. This method could be especially useful in an incident area were data and voice will need to be exchanged.
In the event of a disaster, authorities also should plan to use backup networks known as cell on wheels (COW) or cell on light truck (COLT). Many cellular providers, and even federal agencies, have COWS and COLTS to respond to emergencies. These systems have the capability to augment network services.
While vendors have developed many different host/client applications to perform functions such as automated dispatch, location tracking, biometric data collection, and database access, most of these applications are not interoperable. These applications are developed independently and should be standardized.
Open access rules and policies allow for any application and device to use cellular networks. In the recent past, cellular operators have prevented certain applications or devices from operating on their network. Operators did this because they viewed third-party devices or applications as a loss of revenue.
With software development standards and open access policies, vendors, universities and labs could provide an interoperable selection of services to public safety workers. This should result in wider device selection and more opportunity for innovative applications such as public safety.
Once development standards are in place, the public safety workforce will require an entity to coordinate the development and testing of technologies. In the wireless industry, this entity is known as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO).
A public safety MVNO would package devices and services in a way that public safety personnel could have the same experience as a person shopping for a cellular phone. New capabilities could include: push-to-talk for inter-agency communication, automated dispatch and man-down alerting. In addition to packaging services, devices, and network plans, the MVNO could coordinate expansion of cellular network coverage based on public safety agency needs.
Achieving nationwide interoperability within the public safety workforce requires solutions in multiple arenas. Development will take time and involve participation from many entities. Implementation of policies could take years. Despite the difficulties, providing nationwide interoperability and next generation communications to public safety is a goal that can be achieved.
Juan D. Deaton is a wireless systems analyst
at the Idaho National Laboratory’s “next-generation wireless test bed.” His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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