Taking A Holiday - But Still ConcernedMonday, July 09, 2007
Then of course, a week or month cannot go by without someone mentioning the 700-MHz situation. The latest is the Comcare organization, supposedly a nationwide group of emergency responders who are calling for the use of Radio over Internet Protocol (RoIP) to solve interoperability issues. I don't have any problems with the technology, just the fact that they want to use the Internet for the backbone of this system. I have been suggesting that one of the most important things we could do for first responders is to build an off-Internet Internet―a system that is truly mission-critical, not IWN and not using the Internet, but a duplicate system hardened and managed so it would function all of the time, no matter what.
Do you believe the Internet is a mission-critical network? Do you believe that no matter what happens it will be up and running? Okay, if you do, try this. Go to speakeasy.net/speedtest and run a speed test to the node nearest you. I just did that using LA and got 2888 Kbps down and 733 Kbps up (using my DSL service). Next, go to the site that is furthest away from you and run the test again-the faster speed you start with, the more of a difference you will see. Next, install NetPerSec (www.pcmag.com) and turn it on, it measures the performance of both your uplink and downlink. Watch how much it varies from day to day and from hour to hour. Note that if you have a service that limits your uplink and downlink speeds, you might not see fluctuations as significant as I did, but if you watch long enough, you will see the differences.
If you use VoIP from a service such as Vonage or Skype, how many times have your calls been dumped or not intelligible? This is not due to their technology, but rather to the Internet and its inherent flaws and the way it routes packets. Many people will put up with poor connections or dropped calls (we all use commercial wireless, correct?) but first responders cannot afford to work with a system that does not provide near-100% performance all of the time.
RoIP might be a great technology, and it might work just fine during normal conditions, but I still maintain that using the Internet as a mission-critical network is dangerous. It is a well-known fact that when emergency traffic spikes, so does traffic among citizens on both voice and data services. As I mentioned in a previous Blog, I helped a friend install a cable modem and service. The first time we tried to make use of it, the results were great (if you can believe them): 22 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up (using the Speakeasy speed test). However, connections via Dallas, New York and Chicago clocked in at less than 5 Mbps during the afternoons, and in the early evening the system was operating at less than 3 Mbps, which is still pretty fast but indicates to me that there are some problems with the system.
RoIP and VoIP do not require nearly the bandwidth that I have been talking about, but they do require a connection that is time sensitive and mission critical. When you are talking about first responders, you are not talking about situations where if a call is dropped or garbled it is okay because it can be remade or some other form of communications can be used. It is sometimes a matter of life or death. Would you trust a call for help to the Internet? Would you trust your life to the Internet today?
The other point they missed, while I am talking about interoperability, is that tying two or more radio channels together via a RoIP connection or a VoIP connection or directly via the Internet is not a long-range solution. As an example, during many of the fires we have in California, all of the communications channels are in use. As the fire grows and the number of resources continues to increase on scene, different channels are assigned for different divisions, branches, command, logistics and more. Many times they run out of channels and have to share, and there are delays that can result in not having the right resources in the right place at the right time. If you take away some of the channels because they are bridged to other channels over whatever means you use (Internet or otherwise), they are no longer available for assignment.
Networks work when they are managed, controlled and monitored. The Internet is not a managed network, it is free-running and so far it has worked well. I have very few problems getting to where I need to go via the Internet, but sometimes it is slow, even with a broadband connection. If it were a managed network, someone would be controlling the flow of information (voice or data) and in instances where there was a major issue with traffic, they would decide what traffic was most important.
But betting that it will always be this way and will always work, especially when it comes to first responder communications, is neither sensible nor prudent. Our entire communications infrastructure is less robust than it used to be. Blame whomever you want, but it comes down to economics in the long run. Establishing "almost good enough" communications links because they are cheap is very different from establishing communications links that people in the field can bet their lives on!