Commercial Networks and First RespondersTuesday, February 27, 2007
I am a commercial member of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials and today I will be speaking at the APCO Regional Conference in Long Beach, California. My topic is, "Where do commercial networks and technologies fit in the world of first responders?"
Some of the points I will be making concern the commercial sector and its desire to work with and help the first responder community and I would like to share my thoughts with you in this Commentary.
In my presentation, I start by discussing first responder community requirements that many in the commercial sector don't understand. Primary among these is one-to-many dispatch, which is at the heart of all first responder systems. It is not enough to be able to dispatch a unit to an incident. All of the surrounding units need to hear the dispatch and be ready to move toward the incident if assistance is required. Further, since fire dispatch usually sends more than one vehicle in the initial response, it is imperative that the highest-ranking officer knows what resources have been assigned to the incident.
One-to-many communications are also needed at the scene of an incident for coordination and orderly direction of people and resources. At many incidents, there is an additional need for one-to-many radio channels that are not tied to a base station or repeater. The first responder community refers to these channels as simplex or tactical channels, and as an incident grows, so does the demand for additional tactical channels that provide short-range communications at the scene without taxing the main dispatch channels and without re-broadcasting the voice traffic across an entire city or county. The Internet community might refer to these channels as peer-to-peer because there is no server (base station) between the talking parties. Unfortunately, commercial wireless providers don't have the capability to provide this type of communications. (Nextel has phones with some simplex capabilities, but they are certainly not capable of handling a major incident.)
Another requirement commercial operators don't seem to understand is the need for both vehicular-mounted and handheld radios that have a speaker and microphone so radio traffic can be heard by everyone without having to hold a radio up to their ears when driving or walking around a scene.
I bring up other points, but the last and perhaps most important is that first responder radio systems provide better radio coverage than any commercial network in existence today. First responder radio systems have been designed over time specifically to cover the response areas of their city, county or state. They provide solid outdoor coverage and usually in-building coverage as well. While dead spots are a fact of radio coverage (radio or wireless is part science and part black magic), the communications engineers designing these systems have an advantage in that, in most cases, they are providing radio coverage exclusively to their own jurisdiction.
Next I look at what many, but not all, commercial operators honestly believe about first responder communications. It appears that they believe they can, indeed, provide for all of the communications requirements of this special community and that they can do it less expensively with commercial technologies and devices. They think it is absurd for first responders to pay $3,000 or more for a radio and that the first responder community has enough spectrum if only it would use it more efficiently. Finally, they think push-to-talk, if it is necessary at all, does not need to be near-instantaneous. My tongue-in-cheek test for a push-to-talk system is a swat commander who pushes the button on his radio and says, Don't shoot! If the system delay cuts off the first word, the consequences are quite different from what he intended.
I then move into a discussion about how fast commercial technologies are advancing -- how many generations of technologies there have been over the last five years and we will see even more advancements in terms of spectral efficiently and higher data speeds over the next few years. This rapid advancement means that customers are changing out their wireless phones on an average of every six to nine months, whereas most first responder organizations are using technologies at least twenty years old and radios that are replaced, if they are lucky, on a ten-year cycle.
Most of the commercial wireless community doesn't seem to understand the unique requirements of the first responder community. Another issue that is not well understood is that enabling first responders to be able to talk to each other, no matter what the jurisdiction or where an incident takes place, is a good thing and we need to make it happen. The problem is that first responder channels are spread out from just above 30 MHz to Wi-Fi-like spectrum at 4.9 GHz with many frequencies in between. For years, the commercial wireless industry has been building radios for wireless phones that cover four or more bands of spectrum, some separated by hundreds of Megahertz, without difficulty so they don't understand why first responders can't get equipment with similar capabilities. The answer, of course, is that the demand for commercial wireless phones is huge and the demand for first responder radios is not, so not much has been done in the way of developing first responder equipment with expanded capabilities. The good news is that the software-defined radio industry is working on the issue of interoperability.
I wrap up by outlining proposals to help the first responder community. The most notable, of course, is Cyren Call's proposal. It is asking the feds not to auction 30 MHz of the 700 MHz spectrum and to turn it over to the public safety community. A "keeper of the spectrum" would have commercial entities build out a nationwide broadband network for use by the first responder community.
When I first read the proposal and talked to a few Cyren Call executives, I asked who, exactly, they thought would build out this network. They responded that the incumbents would do so in order to gain secondary use of the spectrum. I was skeptical, so I asked representatives of the top four commercial networks in the United States and was told by each that they would not be inclined to build out a network on spectrum for which they did not have a license and had only secondary use. Further, since there are two different broadband technologies in use in the United States, how would one determine which to use? Now I am told, and congress was apparently told, that the network would be built by new entrants and that having yet another wireless network would be good for the industry and consumers. Never mind that this network would be available only on a secondary basis to this new network operator and that demand for commercial wireless services peaks during times of emergency, which is when the first responder community would make maximum use of the network.
Perhaps a company with really deep pockets that is promoting a new technology and is not in the wireless business from an infrastructure point of view would be willing to spend the $billions it would take to build a new network. But I am skeptical, and it seems that those in Washington heard the real reason behind the Cyren Call story -- establishing yet another commercial network. It would operate on the best possible spectrum, it would require fewer cells sites and the company would not have to pay for the spectrum that would be "owned" by the public safety consortium.
There are other, better proposals out there from the first responder and commercial wireless communities and somewhere there is a solution waiting to be discovered. In the meantime, the commercial and first responder communities need to seek each other out, work together to find common ground and introduce newer and more spectrally efficient technologies into the mix. The first responder community also needs to spend more time educating commercial wireless operators, equipment manufacturers and people in high places who tend to make decisions based on the winds of politics rather than hard, solid facts and the realities we face.