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The shared first responder/public safety spectrum allocation at 700 MHz will not, by itself, solve the interoperability issues

First Responder Communications

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

For now, the 700-MHz rules are in place and the auction is scheduled for early next year, however, that doesn't mean this is what will actually happen. It remains to be seen whether any organizations will file with the FCC for reconsideration of the rules or perhaps even take the FCC to court, both of which could delay this entire process, which would be detrimental to both the first responder and commercial interests that want and need this spectrum.


For the past few days, there has also been speculation in the press that a single entity could, in fact, come into the auction and win all of the spectrum if it had deep enough pockets. I don't believe this is likely to happen, but I suppose it could if someone is willing to spend enough money. We do know that there are already a number of back-channel meetings and discussions with potential partners reaching out to others, but no one really knows who is talking to whom.


There is also speculation that perhaps no commercial network operator will step up and bid on the 10 MHz of spectrum (one license) that is to be shared with the first responder organizations and co-managed by the selected public safety entity. There will have to be a lot of cooperation between these two groups if this idea is to succeed and it has to be perceived as a win-win for both entities.


Common sense says that both the public safety's exclusive 10 MHz of spectrum and the shared spectrum should be built out using the same technology. Right now, the primary use is for broadband data, but it will also be used for voice (VoIP), video and push-to-talk over time as the technologies mature and these capabilities are built into the network. If all goes well, the first responder portion of this network can be used for dispatch and other daily functions and it will provide interoperability.


Missing from this plan is any involvement of Federal first responder agencies. To me, it would make sense for these agencies to be included in the plans for the spectrum moving forward since, in time of major incidents, they will be working shoulder-to-shoulder with state and local government agencies. If these federal agencies do not have the ability to use this new network, we have only solved a portion of the first responder interoperability issue.


Building a nationwide broadband network for public safety is not enough. While a broadband network with all the capabilities mentioned will go a long way toward helping the public safety community, it will not solve all of its problems and it will not provide all the functionality it needs. While this network is being designed, the equipment that will be used by first responders in the field must also be reviewed and, if possible, combined into a single radio rather than requiring two or more radios.


The public safety community needs to retain a number of its capabilities vital to operations that cannot be built into this broadband system. For example, as we watch the Zaca fire, burning since July 4 and not due to be fully contained until early September, the resources being used on this fire are staggering. At the moment, there are 2,652 firefighters and logistic personnel at the fire, spread out over more than twenty miles, with three base camps and two command centers. There are 112 engines, 28 bulldozers, 68 water tenders, 20 helicopters, 8 air tankers and 2 air attack planes in the air. The air attack planes are the command centers for aircraft and the liaison between those on the ground and those in the air.


Most of the fire is burning well outside the reach of any base station communications or commercial cell sites, and most of the communications are over simplex or tactical radio channels (47 at last count). These channels are used for person-to-person communications, but it is also important that those in the various groups hear radio traffic about the conditions of the fire for the safety of the personnel and their next set of orders.


None of these types of communications will be possible on this new 700-MHz system, so the existing systems spread out from 30 to 800 MHz will have to remain on the air and active, and many of these systems are ten or twenty years old. In particular, years ago, the Associated Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) initiated development of a newer TDMA narrow-band technology known as P25 and radios capable of both analog and P25 are available to the first responder community from a number of vendors.


As we move forward, these technologies along with newer capabilities need to come together in a standard mobile and handheld unit. I am not talking about a flip phone or iPhone here. I am talking about a device that can be operated truly one-handed, with a speaker and microphone that can withstand environmental extremes. In-vehicle radios must be capable of several watts of audio power so the speaker can be heard over the noise of a siren, it has to be able to interface with headsets worn by most fire personnel when they are in their cabs and it has to be designed with a remote control head located near the controls for pumps. Handhelds have to be rugged and easy to use with gloves on, and the user interface has to be quick and easy to understand.


It would be great if someone were to develop a series of radios that included analog FM on 700 and 800 MHz, P25 on 700 and 800 MHz and whatever broadband technology is deployed. Oh, and they should have GPS and even Bluetooth (or its replacement by then, which I believe will be wireless USB 2.0). The devices would need screens at least for the handhelds and the mobile units would need to be able to be connected to a laptop or other device in the vehicle.


One of the promises of this new set of services for the first responder community is to move today's in-vehicle data systems directly out to individual personnel. Another is to be able to better locate resources and to be better able to coordinate incidents. I believe these radios should also be programmable over the air so that when an outside agency is responding to an incident, the command center can assign it to a specific channel and the incoming resources won't have to manually change the channel as they do today. One last thing. Many of these radios need to be able to scan different channels with the channel in use being designated as the priority channel.


One more thought about dispatching on 700 MHz is that if dispatch is contemplated over  VoIP in the future on the broadband network, it is incumbent on those designing the network to understand how critical one-to-many communications is in all public safety sectors. When a call is dispatched, other vehicles must hear the dispatch in order to know what is going on and, in many cases, to move into position for coverage if needed. In a fire department, it is important because those responding need to know what resources are on the way. It is also important that when those on foot or in vehicles respond to voice traffic, they are heard by others in the field around them as well as by the dispatcher. A call for assistance that has to be relayed via a dispatcher can cost precious minutes.


The shared first responder/public safety spectrum allocation at 700 MHz will not, by itself, solve the interoperability issues. These new capabilities cannot provide all of the features of technologies now in place in the first responder community so there must be a combination of technologies. It is important that there be an off-Internet nationwide backbone system for both the radio systems and communications between agencies and, most importantly, there must be a realization that voice is the single most important component of any public safety radio system. Data, GPS and all the other additional functions are helping those in the field, but it is plain and simple push-to-talk voice, one-to-many, that is the most important tool in public safety, now and into the future.


Andrew M. Seybold


COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

Nicholas Meyer - 08/17/2007 15:43:52

Public safety communication is yet another public infrastructure issue. (bridges are the current hot sub topic).
We need good interoperabe coms - it all about safety for the citizens - building a strong nation - being able to take the hits of hurricanes, terrorists, goodnes knows what...
It's sad to think that these issues are avoided because they are either not interesting or too complicated for the average legislator to understand.

Andrew Seybold - 08/17/2007 15:53:06

Nicholas--thanks for your comments--unfortunately you are right on the mark--one of the issues is that their cell phones are "interoperable" that is they can make calls and receive calls from anywhere in the world. Trying to explain the differences is like hitting a brick wall--even the reporters I talked to during the FCC 700 MHz report and order did not understand, why, under the new rules, today's iPhone could not be used on Verzion or Sprint, I will keep trying to get some of these people to understand but I don't think it will help much!!!