DHS Outlines Critical Communications Migration
Wednesday, May 08, 2013 | Comments

Photo courtesy DHS


When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created in 2003, it inherited more than 20 separate radio networks serving more than 120,000 frontline agents, representing the largest group of mission-critical field communications users in the nation. In the age of instant communications and increasingly sophisticated threats, the nation cannot afford to continue supporting a fragmented approach to the basic premise of public safety and law enforcement — the ability to communicate in times of need. We must unify our efforts now, before more time and resources are spent pursuing outdated and unmanageable systems.

True partnering across federal, state, local and tribal public-safety agencies operating on a national system with national standards and the ability to support evolving technology was a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission Report. The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 mandated creation of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to build a nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN).

The NPSBN is central to transforming the current unsustainable model of spending billions of dollars to own and operate numerous disparate systems. It must be a common network infrastructure capable of supporting communications needs across public safety, with a technology foundation that addresses specialized device features, mobile applications and mission-critical voice needs. Government also must coordinate with the private sector to use infrastructure and commercial technology as much as possible to share and minimize costs.

While the nationwide network is being developed, leadership is needed to facilitate development of interim interoperable wireless communications capabilities. Toward that end, DHS chartered the Joint Wireless Program Management Office (JWPMO) in April 2012 to work with agency components and partners at all levels to provide a single collaboration point for the planning, development, acquisition and implementation of enterprise-level wireless communications systems.

The JWPMO already has reached beyond DHS to other federal departments to enhance the benefits of an enterprise-wide approach to tactical communications. On Oct. 5, 2012, DHS signed an agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) that will allow the two departments to share infrastructure and use their combined bulk purchasing power.

Voice-Only Challenges

DHS, DOJ and other law-enforcement and public-safety organizations employ LMR systems to provide mission-critical voice communications. Using available funding, components within DHS are modernizing these systems to meet RF spectrum and advanced encryption standard (AES) mandates that provide another generation of voice-only capability. Analysis shows there will not be sufficient funding for DHS to continue modernization of its systems using the current approach and at the pace needed to meet the increasing operational need. Furthermore, initial projections show billions of dollars and decades of time will be required to upgrade and maintain these systems using the current acquisition approach.

The multitude of DHS networks provides effective mission-critical voice communications, but some of these systems were deployed more than 20 years ago. They are well beyond their intended service life, don’t provide sufficient coverage or capacity for officers in remote locations, and don’t meet federal mandates for security (encryption) and efficiency (narrowband spectrum usage).

The modernization approach has been to replace analog systems with new digital LMR systems, continuing to provide similar voice-only capability that can only be fulfilled by LMR. Unfortunately, this approach does little to support the increasing need for mission-critical data. The JWPMO believes wireless broadband systems, specifically the NPSBN, could yield substantial cost savings and increase technical capabilities, coverage and capacity in direct support of the various missions and operations.

Drivers for Change

Following are key objectives for changing the current modernization approach.

Unsustainable Cost, Lengthy Deployment Schedule: The traditional approach by the public-safety community is to deploy many overlapping, privately owned and operated systems, each serving relatively small user communities with customization and proprietary features. The annual costs of owning, operating and maintaining these private systems is expensive, and DHS doesn’t see this model as financially sustainable into the future.

Because LMR technology serves a relatively small market segment, costs associated with refreshing these systems at the end of their lifecycles are exorbitant. According to DHS estimates, a $3.2 billion investment would be needed just to upgrade and modernize existing end-of-life tactical communications systems departmentwide, with only 15 percent of this requirement funded at the current time. For example, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) projects it will take more than 20 years to upgrade its voice-only LMR systems given the projected costs and funding levels, likely to be reduced from current levels. Keeping these systems operational using the limited or foreseeable available funding prevents DHS from focusing on emerging needs for broadband wireless technology. To meet mission-critical needs, DHS was forced to find a radically different approach.

Expected Use of Broadband Services: DHS is experiencing a growing demand for mission-critical voice, data, video and applications that require mobile broadband. Our homeland security and public-safety communities have not systematically incorporated the powerful new commercial broadband mobile smart devices available because of the need for enhanced security, always-available reliability and survivability.

Increased User Complexity: Instead of building smarter networks that are easier for users to operate, voice-only LMR systems currently deployed are increasingly more complicated and difficult to use. For example, LMR radios feature more than 500 channels, with more than 1,000 programmable options in each radio. There is a heightened risk of user error when functions typically handled by a network in modern commercial systems have to be performed manually. Many of these radios cannot be configured and updated over the wireless network, and therefore require temporary removal from service and reprogramming by trained technicians before redeploying them.

Spectrum: A nationwide modernization of the DHS LMR network using the latest LMR technologies requires a significant number of dedicated RF channels in the federal VHF LMR band. DHS faces a risk of not having enough channels to deploy the required system capacity and design. This lack of available spectrum makes it more difficult when deploying new LMR systems along the borders because DHS must compete for frequencies with neighboring countries in addition to other federal agencies. If spectrum is not available, then DHS will not be able to provide coverage at those locations.

Furthermore, commercial, public and public-safety wireless spectrum demands are increasing. Federal VHF radio bands are a fixed resource and likely won’t be expanded. Public-safety agencies are unlikely to acquire the necessary spectrum to continue deployment of traditional LMR systems. Next-generation mission-critical communications solutions must reduce the need for dedicated LMR spectrum and move in a common direction with commercial broadband innovation, where increases in spectrum are likely to occur. The NPSBN would leverage spectrum more efficiently.

Impediments to Interoperability: DHS needs interoperable communications with federal, state, local, tribal and international partners to effectively conduct its missions and operations. Two main issues obstructing interoperability are the use of hundreds of separate systems using different frequency bands and widespread customization with proprietary features and equipment. Many state, local and tribal agencies use the 700 and 800 MHz non-federal radio bands, while federal agencies continue to use the federal VHF or UHF allocations. Standard LMR radios cannot communicate across these frequency bands without DHS investing in costly gateways and significant amounts of hardware. Interoperability is further complicated by many public-safety users migrating to narrowband systems in the 700 and 800 MHz bands, while DHS and other federal agencies continue to build and operate systems in the 162 – 174 MHz and 406.1 – 420 MHz federal bands.

Proposed Approach

The modernization approach proposed by DHS and DOJ provides broadband capabilities, while reducing costs and deployment time, improving interoperability, and simplifying operations and maintenance.

New Subscriber Devices Enable Broadband: Many public-safety agencies are contemplating building, owning and operating two separate, privately owned networks — one delivering narrowband LMR voice and another delivering broadband high-speed data processing, video and high resolution imaging. Instead of using this two-network approach, technology could enable converging LMR voice along with broadband data on a single network. This approach would significantly reduce cost.

Transitional Products Sought: Many innovations could accomplish the convergence of LMR voice with broadband data and video applications as communications migrate from the Project 25 (P25) standard to technology compliant with the NPSBN. The NPSBN is mandated by law and is central to transforming the current unsustainable model of spending billions of dollars to own and operate numerous disparate systems. The JWPMO is directing development of technology and strategies to facilitate the migration to NPSBN infrastructure.

Potential transitional products and approaches include LMR radios with an embedded wireless broadband chip, a card slot or a USB slot similar to a laptop computer; sleeves or adapters that attach to existing inventory for wireless broadband access; and high-level quality of service agreements. These new radios or existing radios with adapters would have two modes of operation: traditional LMR and commercial/public-safety broadband. This approach allows direct LMR radio-to-radio communications on current frequencies and data transmissions over available broadband networks. All devices would be capable of communicating over the NPSBN, as well as commercial standard — or preferably higher grade of service — broadband infrastructure.

Costs of Ownership, Deployment Schedule: The vision for DHS/DOJ systems is to leverage the NPSBN, private networks, and existing or future commercial networks to the maximum possible, without building and owning networks. In a limited number of unique mission need areas, the funding model could require a one-time investment of dollars and/or infrastructure (towers, land and facilities) for service installation followed by a monthly subscription fee, significantly reducing capital investment. These monthly operating costs would be less when compared with the privately owned and operated model, because the network operating costs are shared among a much larger community of users. By aligning with commercial broadband service evolution, additional cost savings would be realized by not having to continually upgrade private infrastructure as broadband speeds continue to evolve at a rapid pace.

Leveraging existing and commercial resources provides a straightforward, graceful migration path from current P25 standards to the NPSBN in the near term. The DHS approach uses the NPSBN as a first priority wherever it exists. It also seeks commercial availability to enable a national migration and quickly realize reductions in cost and rollout schedules.

Network Hardening: To meet public-safety and law-enforcement needs, these networks must be optimized to meet a higher grade of service. Specifically, the networks must provide priority access during high demand. To ensure law-enforcement and public-safety traffic is safeguarded, the network must support federal information technology security standards. Finally, voice traffic must be carried with high reliability and minimum delays.

The DHS/DOJ approach would begin introducing tactical wireless broadband capabilities to users in a cost-effective, timely manner, while facilitating a longer-term graceful migration to the nationwide broadband network. The approach uses public-safety networks when available, improves coverage, enhances interoperability and simplifies operation. Innovative research and development, such as that proposed by the JWPMO technology demonstrator project, including transitional products and smart technology for the future, are needed immediately to assess the ability of private industry to implement solutions. That is the nature of the DHS/DOJ graceful migration path to the FirstNet NPSBN and more efficient, effective wireless communications. 

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