National Public Safety Wireless Network Starting to Take Shape

Harris County, Texas, rolls out the first pieces of what could become a nationwide broadband wireless network for public safety.
by | August 21, 2012

By Wayne Hanson

Last week Harris County, Texas, stood up the first 14 sites of what could one day become a nationwide broadband wireless network for public safety. The launch was a major milestone in an effort stretching back to the late 1990s, when Congress ordered the FCC to set aside 700 MHz spectrum for public safety.

For many years the dream of an interoperable radio for the nation’s first responders had stalled at the federal level. Twenty-one cities, counties and states got tired of waiting, said former Seattle CTO Bill Schrier. In 2010, those jurisdictions formed the Operator Advisory Committee (OAC) and formally applied to the FCC to use the bandwidth, which was granted in May 2010. According to Schrier — who led Seattle’s effort and became chairman of the OAC — members began building their networks.

Last week the FCC gave permission for Harris County and Charlotte, N.C., to go live — with Harris County first out of the gate. That permission came in the form of a provisional waiver, which allowed those two jurisdictions to move ahead since both projects met interoperability requirements needed for the planned national network.

The national system is backed by a $7 billion congressional appropriation, which experts say is only a small fraction of the amount that will be needed to fully build out the network. This year Congress also created the First Responders’ Network Authority, called FirstNet, to help make the project a reality nationwide. “But that will take years to get that done, so there’s full interoperability nationwide," Schrier said.

A July 31 FCC document says permission granted to the 21 OAC member jurisidictions was conditional, and questions are being raised as to whether to allow them to continue. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration — the federal agency in which FirstNet will be housed — wants the commission “to dismiss any pending 700 MHz public safety waiver applications and to terminate existing leases in the public safety broadband spectrum.” NTIA contends that continuing these deployments “jeopardizes nationwide interoperability and ultimately could increase the cost of the nationwide network.”

In addition, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) – which is currently holding its annual conference in Minneapolis — is “urging the commission to deny all pending waiver requests,” says the FCC document, “and replace the existing waivers with STAs [Special Temporary Authority] that expire sixty days after FirstNet receives its license, with any further deployment by waiver recipients left “solely ... to the discretion of FirstNet.”

Charlotte and Harris County were allowed to begin operating their networks under the original FCC waiver because both projects were nearly complete. For example, the FCC document says that Charlotte received a $17 million federal grant and already "incurred all costs" of the first stage of development and halting it would require additional costs. But both Charlotte and Harris County must seek an STA from the FCC to continue operation beyond Sept. 2. The remaining 19 OAC member jurisdictions must also apply for an STA before the Sept. 2 deadline.

Requests to several Harris County and Texas Department of Public Safety Officials were not returned by press time, as they were in Minneapolis for the APCO conference. Today at that conference, Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, released the names of FirstNet boardmembers.

The Vision

“The vision” said Schrier, “had always been to create a nationwide network … for public safety, so that police officers, firefighters and EMTs — on their smartphones and tablets, would have a dedicated network for communications and data.” The network would be fast [enough] to enable images and video, dedicated to public safety, and it would be immune from the dropped calls and other problems of public wireless networks.

It’s no secret that many police departments already are deploying applications in the field on tablet computers, laptops and smartphones. Schrier said that if someone calls 911 to report a home burglary, an officer will be dispatched by voice radio. En route the officer receives details on a smartphone, tablet or computer in the patrol car. The officer responds to the call, and afterward can write a report on the same computer and upload it to a police records management system.

The new wireless broadband network, however, is much faster and enables some interesting new applications. Take, for example, an incident like a convenience store robbery. With a new wireless network for public safety, the video would be routed from the convenience store, through the police 911 dispatch center and then wirelessly out to a laptop or tablet computer that officers could see as they respond.

“They could actually see the video from inside the store, along with images and mug shots of potential suspects,” Schrier explained. “So where before the networks were mostly text-based or reports-based, this one is going to be fast enough to support video and images. Furthermore, it’s two-way. Police cars now have front-facing video cameras, and some police departments have officers wearing the video cameras to record interactions with suspects or citizens. Because the network is higher speed, that video can be beamed back in real time to 911 centers and police commanders. So if the officer is in trouble, they can see what’s going on in real time — in the field as well.”

Officers could also take on-the-spot photos of suspect and upload them instantaneously for identification purposes. The FBI is developing an application that can compare that photo taken in the field with a mugshot database. “Images are megabytes in size,” Schrier said, “so you need a really fast network to do it. That’s the kind of network that Harris County stood up.” In addition, officers could access surveillance cameras on their beats that were connected to the network.

The nationwide part of the network means that applications and devices will interoperate and will work regardless of location. The FirstNet board will help develop the technical specs for the network.

Schrier is enthusiastic about the network and about the “network number,” assigned to the new system. “Every network in the world — including commercial networks like Verizon, AT&T or Sprint — has a network number. For the first time, we have a network number assigned for public safety. And that number is 313-100. And Houston actually came up using that network number for 14 sites. But eventually, that network number will be used by maybe millions of responders and tens of thousands of network sites across the country.”

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