First Responder InteroperabilityMonday, August 11, 2008
I spent most of last week at the APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) conference and exposition in Kansas City. The event was well attended as you might guess, and you might also guess that one of the main topics of the sessions and show floor talk was interoperability between federal, state and local first responder agencies and agencies that support the first responder community.
The consensus, I believe, is that the 700-MHz public/private nationwide network will take a very long time to become a reality if it ever does. If and when it does, while it will be great to have an interoperable broadband data system, it won’t address the real issue, which is voice interoperability. At some point, this network will be able to support Voice over IP (VoIP), but in the beginning it will only support various forms of data. Data is important, especially during a major incident when it can help locate resources on the ground, be used for real-time video from a helicopter to show what is happening within the incident parameter and provide building layouts to help swat teams among other things.
But during the dispatch process, data has a lot less value to first responders. They might get some additional information on their mobile data terminal or wirelessly-enabled notebook, but voice is usually of utmost importance to them. Further, the types of voice services they need are not supported today by the commercial wireless sector―many in the commercial sector do not even understand what is required by first responders. The important issues are one-to-many dispatch and operation so everyone in a division, region or area knows what is going on and can be prepared to assist if needed. One-to-many is also important to all of the responding units because the unit first on the scene will broadcast a situation report and, in many cases, tell incoming responders where to go and what to do.
Once on the scene of a major incident, manpower must be deployed. In a wildfire, for example, the incident commander starts splitting off divisions, a logistics unit and other groups including air support. Each of these groups needs its own tactical channel and the leader of each group needs to talk to the incident commander or some other level of command. Some of the secondary command traffic ends up on a cellular network, but commercial wireless is not always available.
Another interoperability issue occurs when law enforcement needs to talk to the fire department regarding closing roads, evacuations and other information needed by both groups. It is not usually necessary for a fireman on the ground to talk directly to a police officer, but it is important for the incident commander to be able to communicate with law enforcement commanders at the very least. There are times when the agencies are working hand in hand and it would be helpful for two individuals to be able to talk to each other, but the bigger picture is to provide interoperability at the command level first.
Today in the United States, first responders are using spectrum in the 30-50 MHz, 148-174 MHz, 450-512 MHz, 800 MHz, and now 700 MHz bands (and 4.9 GHz for a licensed version of Wi-Fi). On each of these bands, channels are set aside for nationwide communications between agencies in each of the services. In the fire service, the most prevalent interoperability channels are called Fire White and there are, I believe, four of them. Law enforcement has its own channels, referred to in California as CLEMARS. Each service has nationwide channels dedicated to interoperability in each of the bands, but most of today’s voice interoperability is handled in the dispatch centers.
The old fashioned way is for a dispatcher to monitor, for example, a fire channel, and then report to the police department about the incident and if any assistance is needed from the police. The field version of this is for a police and a fire incident commander to be on the scene talking to each other and then to their respective units.
One of the big breakthroughs in voice interoperability over the last few years is the use of IP bridges. These bridges are installed in a dispatch center or in a command vehicle and when needed, two, three or more radio channels can be tied together to enable command personnel to talk to each other. This works, and at the APCO conference there were plenty of exhibitors showing new and improved methods of using IP bridges to help various agencies communicate with each other. The one drawback of this method is that it does not make good use of the spectrum because it ties up at least one channel per agency during the incident―but it does work and a number of departments have and are implementing this type of interoperability workaround.
In the 1980s and into the 1990s (yes, these were issues back then, too), many emergency vehicles had several radios installed in them and some also had scanners so they could monitor the surrounding first responder community. This was an expensive semi-cure for the problems and it did not address the fire-to-police issues at all. Typically, this type of multi-radio installation cost $5,000 or more per vehicle, not counting the portable radio that needs to be carried by officers when they get out of their vehicles. For an agency such as the LA County Sheriff with 1,400 or more vehicles, this was a huge investment in communications equipment. When mobile data terminals and wireless notebook computers were added starting in the 1980s, the cost per car could reach $8,000 to $10,000.
For many years, Nextel’s push-to-talk services have been used as a secondary means of communications to help offload the main first responder channels and as another way of providing voice interoperability. However, in a major incident, the Nextel channels, like the rest of the commercial networks, become so overcrowded that the delays encountered with the PTT service can render it almost useless.
Meanwhile, in the commercial community, handset vendors were building multiband cell phones with multiple technologies built into them and they were selling in the marketplace for several hundred dollars or less. We had analog and TDMA and analog and CDMA. Today, we have cell phones with five different radio bands, three or four different technologies, plus GPS, Bluetooth and even Wi-Fi in the same device, still selling in the sub-$500 range. One might think that since the commercial side of the wireless business was capable of building these products that the first responder community could take advantage of the same technologies and the same cost savings.
But specifications for a first responder radio are very different. First, they have to withstand the rigors of the job. Next, they require higher-power transmitters because unlike cell systems, most first responder systems use a single high-level transmitter and receiver or multiple high-level sites, each of which provides a broad range of coverage. These radios are also built to much tighter standards to prevent interference from other radios that might be operating in close proximity and, of course, you cannot build ten or twenty million of them to take advantage of quantities to drive down the prices since there are only about three million first responders in the United States.
Prices have come down since the 1980s, but the first responder community is adopting a new, digital technology known as P25 (for the APCO committee that worked on the specs). P25 is used for many different types of systems ranging from simplex (peer-to-peer) to single repeater (relay) systems to very sophisticated multi-channel and multi-site systems known as trunked radio systems. Since each type of system has its own requirements, you cannot even build a single radio for all three million first responders; you would have to build ten or more different models.
A few years ago, several of the major two-way radio companies including Motorola, Tyco/M/A-Com, Icom, Midland, Tait and Kenwood started building dual-band radios for both vehicles and handheld use. These radios helped with interoperability but having only two of the many bands available doesn’t solve all of the problems. There are 150-MHz systems surrounded by 800-MHz systems or 800-MHz systems surrounded by 450-MHz systems and so on.
Of interest here is that I and other hams have been using multiband two-way radios in the amateur radio service for a number of years, some built by the same companies that sell first responder and business radio equipment, namely Icom, Kenwood and Yaesau. These radios sell in the $400-$700 price range but are not hardened for first responder work and do not have the FCC approval or meet the receiver specifications necessary to be used in private two-way radio systems or first responder networks. But the technology has been around for a long time.
This year at the APCO show, we began to see some radios that cover more of the radio bands and support all of the various technologies in use. They will help solve the interoperability issues and they are expected to start shipping next year.
However, unlike their commercial counterparts that include five different portions of the spectrum and a variety of wireless technologies, and sell for less than $500, these radios provide access to most of the first responder channels and will sell for around $5,000. At this price, they will be issued only to command personnel and officers in a department, but they won’t find their way into normal everyday operations. They will enable command and line officers to communicate with other agencies and cross-agency, and they will enable scanning of all of the channels in use at an incident to make sure all of the related traffic is being heard.
The three radios being shown at the APCO conference included one by Thales, a large government contractor, Harris and Motorola. The three radios differ in their capabilities and each one will represent the first generation of this type of radio. There will be more entrants since, like in the commercial wireless or cellular world; it appears the interoperability issues will be solved in the radios used in the field rather than by any coming together of technologies or clearing of spectrum to provide first responders with unified spectrum assets.
These radios appear to have been first developed for the military and are now coming into the first responder world. They differ in their capabilities, but all of them cover at least three of the first responder spectrum bands (700/800 being counted as two). The Thales Liberty covers 136-174 MHz (VHF band), 380-520 MHz (UHF federal, state and local) and 700 and 800 MHz bands. The radio supports analog (narrowband FM) and P25 (digital TDMA style) technologies, as well as conventional and trunked operation. Three types of encryption are built in (DES, AES and OTAR) and they can be “rekeyed” over the air for advanced security. The radio meets Mil Specs and is fully waterproof to 6 feet (try that with your cellular phone). This may sound strange to someone accustomed to cellular systems that select which channel a phone is on, but in the first responder marketplace, the channel is selected by the user and a number of additional channels can be scanned to hear others at the incident that might be on a different channel. For some reason, Thales has chosen not to build in GPS but offer it as an external device and it offers a data port although P25 data speeds are equivalent to GSM speeds at best. Thus far, this radio does not support any broadband data. It is programmable via a computer and radios can be cloned to match each other in the field.
Next up in this category is the Harris Unity XG-100, which is also built to Mil Specs and also submersible. It also supports all of the data encryption, and the transmitter provides 5 watts of power to the antenna (not the 500 mW we are accustomed to in cellular service). At 5 watts, it will operate for up to ten hours on a single battery (two-way radio duty cycles are measured as 80% standby, 10% listening and 10% transmitting). It covers 136-194, 380-450, 450-512, 762-806 and 806-870 MHz, or virtually all of the federal, state and local first responder channels except for the 30-50 MHz band. The Unity is a software-defined radio so, according to Harris, it can be field upgradable in the future. At the moment, it supports all modes of first responder technology including analog FM, P25, conventional and trunking systems. Unlike the Thales unit above, you can order this radio with embedded GPS. Again, it will be priced in the $5,000 price range (single-unit pricing), but as with any new product, we will see the prices coming down as more companies enter this market.
The last entrant is from Motorola, the leading supplier of first responder radio systems in the United States. It is called the APX (pronounced Apex) 7000 and it is very different from the other two offerings in several respects. First, it covers only three of the five public safety bands (136-174 and 700 and 800 MHz) and it is a dual-sided radio. One side looks like a plain vanilla radio with no screen and frequency selection with a knob on the top and the volume control and push-to-talk switch on the side. When it is turned around, it has a full display screen and a keypad for data access or frequency selection. GPS is built in and it supports full encryption as well as analog FM and P25 on all three of the bands. Battery life is eight hours, it can be customer programmed, it has integrated voice and data capabilities and it is Mil Spec rated and fully submersible.
At the booth, Motorola had a number of the designers of the radio on hand to answer questions and an audio booth to demonstrate what they consider to be better voice characteristics including a very good noise cancellation system for use when talking and louder audio from the speaker so the radio can be heard better in high noise environments. When asked about a UHF (420-512 MHz) model, I was told one will be forthcoming next year and there seems to be a debate about plans for a radio that provides for both the VHF and UHF bands as well as 700/800 MHz in the same radio. I don’t think Motorola has any choice given the fact that both Harris and Thales are offering that capability today, and it won’t be long before M/A-Com and others have their own radios on the market.
One thing that is common to all three brands of radios is their ability to be programmed in the field and to clone other units. So far, none of them are able to offer over-the-air programming that could be used to change the channel selection as units were arriving on the scene of a major incident, but all of the companies said that capability is on the horizon.
Those of you who design and spec wireless cellular phones have to be astonished at the $5,000 price for a five-band radio with four modes of over-the-air technology. You have been doing more than this for a long time now and your radios have been selling for less than $500. However, when you design your wireless phones, you are expecting to sell millions of them, they don’t have to work underwater, nor do they have to meet the Mil Spec requirements for being dropped and stepped on.
Still, there is a huge difference in the pricing. No one in the first responder sector, to my knowledge, has decided to put all of these capabilities into a single chipset as Qualcomm has done with Gobi or other multiband, multi-technology chipsets that are available in the commercial marketplace. But once again, the total available market for both handheld and mobile radios for first responders and related support agencies is probably less than 10 million in North America, and Europe has, naturally, selected a different technology.
None of these radios include broadband data capabilities with the current assumption being that broadband devices will be mostly mobile and handheld and they will include their own broadband radio.
First responders data interoperability is being fought over by the FCC, many commercial companies and the first responder community. The 700-MHz system won’t be a viable alternative for voice for a very, very long time if ever. But just like with commercial wireless around the world, the first responder device community is trying to find ways to help solve the voice interoperability problems. These three new radios are only the start. Now if we could only get them into a $500 package, we could solve all of the voice interoperability issues.
Andrew M. Seybold