Exercise Tests U.S./Canada Cross-Border Communications Capabilities
By Dr. Walt Magnussen
Thursday, April 02, 2015 | Comments

A joint U.S. and Canadian exercise tested cross-border communications in two locations on the border, offering technical and operational lessons.

The Defence Research and Development Canada – Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS) held the third Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE) Nov. 24 – 25, 2014. CAUSE III was a joint effort of DRDC CSS and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T), and unlike CAUSE I and II, this CAUSE involved two scenarios in two locations.

The first phase involved a hurricane scenario on the eastern border of the United States and Canada, and it studied the use of social media to support a natural disaster response. The second scenario took place on the central border and involved the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the state of Montana. The scenario for phase two was a raging brush fire that burned out of control following a drought in the region and that started in Canada and was pushed into Montana by a strong southerly wind.

Phase two of CAUSE was divided into two days of activities. The first day used Project 25 (P25) interoperability on both sides of the border to support first responders, and the second day repeated the first day scenario but added support for a 700 MHz band 14 public-safety broadband network (PSBN) that will be part of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in the United States. A full report and video on both phases of CAUSE III is expected in mid-2015 and should be available on both the DRDC CSS and DHS S&T Web pages. This article will focus on the U.S. Long Term Evolution (LTE) element of the experiment.

The Experiment
DHS S&T invited the Texas A&M University Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center (TAMU ITEC) to support the FirstNet activities in the United States. This involved the installation of a deployable band 14 LTE cellular network at three fixed and mobile sites in Havre, Montana. Sites included equipment at the offices of Sheriff Don Brostrom of Hill County, a cellular on wheels (CoW) site at the offices of Triangle Communications in Havre, and an installation outside a central office facility halfway between Havre and the Canadian border, about 30 miles north of Havre. The mobile unit was a sheriff’s vehicle with a vehicular repeater supported by a satellite connection back to the network core.

There were four aspects of the TAMU ITEC portion of the experiment, including:
1. Backhaul acquisition to connect the eNodeB cellular base stations in the field to the enhanced packet core (EPC) in New Hampshire;
2. Installation of the eNodeBs in the field;
3. Support of handheld and mobile band 14 devices for use by first responders, and
4. Support of applications that the first responders would use to fight the fire.

All of these activities had to be coordinated with counterparts on the Canadian side of the border.

A deployable network in the field must have a high-speed connection back to the core. While technically a virtual core can be made a part of any deployable, its use is significantly reduced because most of the applications that run on the network have at least some element in the cloud. For this task, Triangle Communications, a local Internet service provider (ISP), provided an Internet connection for the fixed locations, and a combination of AQYR, Incident Communication Solutions (ICS) and IP Access International provided a satellite connection. Triangle Communications also offered a fiber-optic multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) connection with a metro Ethernet link between its two fixed locations. The core and the eNodeBs were connected over an Internet connection using an IP Security (IPSec) tunnel between the cellular sites and the core.

The radio access network (RAN) on the Montana side involved the installation of three fixed eNodeBs at three sites and one vehicular eNodeB in a deputy’s squad car, all managed by an LTE access controller (LAC). Steve Kropper of Parallel Wireless and his team of support engineers provided the LTE systems. While still considered a deployable, the cell site at the sheriff’s office was strapped to the side of a flagpole by Sheriff Brostrom and myself, showing that it does not take a full CoW to deploy a temporary cell site.

The cell devices used in the field included both Motorola Solutions LEX and Sonim Technologies handheld devices. These devices both use the Android operating system, so they supported a wide range of applications.

Applications included a situational awareness tool, unified communications (UC) clients, a P25 LMR gateway and video applications. The Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System (MASAS) is a tool developed by DRDC CSS that allows first responders to post status updates from the field for view in real time by emergency operation centers (EOC) located in both Havre and Willow Creek, Saskatchewan. During the experiment, a deputy sheriff posted both notes and pictures of the fire site from a Sonim handheld band 14 LTE device. He could also view all of the other activity posts made in both the United States and Canada.

A Mutualink P25 gateway was installed using one of the sheriff’s Motorola APX radios. This allowed first responders with P25 radios to communicate with others over an LTE connection using BroadSoft UC client software. BroadSoft UC clients were also used to allow the EOC in Canada to communicate with the EOC in the United States via voice and instant messaging. The clients were registered to a BroadSoft proxy at the TAMU ITEC in College Station, Texas. We attempted to include session initiation protocol (SIP) video in the experiment, but this failed because of what appeared to be driver issues on both Sonim and Motorola devices.

During the experiment we met with our counterparts on the Canadian side. Joe Fournier of the DRDC and his team located a mobile EOC just north of the Willow Creek border-crossing site for support of the experiment. This site was intended to support communications for the Canadian first responders similar to the site in Havre at the sheriff’s office.

The TAMU ITEC also had the support of Dr. Rob Stafford and Jenny Hansen. Stafford, from the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) labs in Boulder, Colorado, observed the entire exercise from both the United States and Canadian perspectives. The PSCR labs support FirstNet in its nationwide PSBN deployment efforts. Hansen works for LR Kimball Associates and is a resident of Montana. She has years of experience working with public safety.

Following the experiment, all participants sat down together to conduct a hotwash that would go into the after-incident report. First responders involved in the experiment noted the following:

1. The combined use of P25 LMR and LTE provided a strong disaster response;
2. Applications such as MASAS did not require much, if any, support training for mutual-aid responders who didn’t use the application on a daily basis because they were developed with an intuitive user interface; and
3. Unified communications can significantly augment first responders’ ability to communicate with each other in a large-scale disaster scenario.

The experiment was a huge success for all involved. However, we would have liked to add several additional components to this exercise, but time did not allow. These components included additional video elements, quality of service (QoS) implementation, and cross-border interference issues when LTE networks are installed within a stone’s throw distance of each other. These and others facets were left to be revisited sometime in the future, perhaps in CAUSE IV.

Walt Magnussen, PhD, runs the Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center (ITEC), an emergency communications lab, at Texas A&M University. He also has an appointment with U.S. UCAN, which oversees the Internet2 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant for $96 million to build national infrastructure with a commitment to support public safety. He also served on the FCC’s Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC) technical advisory committee and the FCC Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) working group seven. He is a member of the MissionCritical Communications editorial advisory board. Contact him at w-magnussen@mail.telecom.tamu.

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