Keys to Success for Nationwide Broadband
By TJ Kennedy
Currently deployed public-safety technology establishes an environment that promotes stovepipes within each agency and barriers between agencies. Unique proprietary communications systems in various spectra make interoperability difficult and patch work at best. A common interoperable series of communications systems is not practical given the wide range of frequencies in use and various protocols implemented.
Many agencies use unique narrowband voice systems that are not compatible with surrounding agencies, older low bandwidth data systems integrated with proprietary data systems, dongles to access commercial services for data, and personal or agency-issued commercial phones. This mix requires juggling each technology as the situation dictates. Although patching technologies can solve these interoperability problems, we must look to the future to prevent the interoperability issues from existing in public-safety broadband.
The national public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) will establish a common national infrastructure based on Long Term Evolution (LTE) commercial standards for use by all public-safety agencies. This includes both the common backbone or backhaul and the over-the-air portion that will allow national interoperability using the 700 MHz spectrum reserved for public safety. By using the latest commercial standards, economies of scale can reduce the cost of devices. Public safety needs the innovation that is occurring in commercial mobile broadband to be leveraged into specific technology improvements for police, fire and EMS.
The possibilities of leveraging the latest commercial technologies in networking, devices and applications with the mass buying power of the commercial market is endless. Tailoring capabilities to satisfy unique public-safety needs and providing the certainty of a fair marketplace in which developers and innovators make a return on the investment of creating functionality that improves public safety should be a top priority.
An undercover officer walking the street with the latest smartphone fits into the surroundings easily, but his smartphone could connect through the NPSBN to provide tailored applications, such as speech-to-text translations, full-time location tracking (not just in emergencies), real-time video distributed from networks around the city, and the ability to speak to anyone in his department or in neighboring jurisdictions.
An officer in a rural area with coverage gaps in traditional two-way radio communications could automatically change to the NPSBN as he enters one of these coverage gaps using a router in his vehicle, ensuring communications using several types of technologies. This will all happen without any input from the officer, as the architecture of the NPSBN should be built to cover rural areas as well as major urban locations, but often using different types of technology.
Other real-time information sharing benefits include those for incident managers and firefighters. A sheriff’s department incident commander can receive real-time video feeds from every aspect of the incident and the exact locations of all the responders from fire and EMS. Tactical response plans can be transmitted in real time to the on-scene responders. Or while a firefighter is in route to a fire, he can receive building plans annotated with the incident report, live video feeds from surrounding security cameras, and map information showing current location and expected arrival times/routes of all responding units.
Public safety is moving toward a common standards-based infrastructure that will allow market influences to drive new capabilities. I predict there will be a ground swell of tailored public-safety applications that become available to provide real-world solutions to police, fire and EMS agencies. The public-safety community needs to leverage its combined buying power by embracing large, pooled purchases and similar agency needs.
A certification process should ensure infrastructure integrity prior to general acceptance of public-safety applications. After certification, an approved app store construct similar to commercial models should be created that allows any public-safety agency to download, for a fee, the capabilities desired by the agency. This market-based shift will create a natural sharing of capabilities and resources across agencies based on the needs of many. Connections are made throughout the country, ideas are exchanged, efficiency increases and the public is better served. A fundamental business model shift will occur that demands open standards to allow the competitive forces to dictate supply and demand instead of the closed systems driven by proprietary architectures and planned obsolescence.
Communications systems are typically bought and paid for by each local agency, thereby maintaining local control. In some instances several agencies have banded together to form regional systems that share resources and control. A formal process for these regional systems is formed to continue the governance model and maintain the balance between local control and shared resources for the benefit of the group. This same model must extend to the NPSBN governance structure, maintaining the appropriate balance between local public-safety control and shared resources for the benefit of all. By extending this construct to the NPSBN architecture, a fully open standards-based model must be maintained that allows the right balance of local functionality and control with regional and national resource sharing. The exponential benefits of achieving this balance cannot be predicted, just as the explosion of capabilities that commercial wireless technologies have brought to the market could not be predicted several years ago.
It is important to ensure the reliability of the NPSBN in a way that has eluded the commercial carriers in times of natural or man-made disasters. Recently during Hurricane Sandy, the Northeast suffered significant degradation of the commercial cellular infrastructure. Inevitably, when disasters occur, the commercial cell systems have trouble meeting demand because of overloading at specific locations or power and other disruptions within the affected region. Public safety cannot afford the same disruptions that occur, especially when they need their communications systems the most. The network must focus on hardened infrastructure that meets the resiliency requirements of the nation’s first responders.
TJ Kennedy is the director of the public safety and security, network centric systems at Raytheon. He previously worked for Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). He also served as public-safety lead in Wasatch Back, Utah, and as director for Aviation and Air Security for the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command (UOPSC).