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Low-Cost Data Communications

Written by Tom Rataj

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Mobile data to any police agency regardless of size.

Low-Cost Data Communications
By: Tom Rataj

 

In the mid-1980s, mobile policing underwent a major technological step forward with the introduction of the mobile data terminal (MDT). Suddenly, patrol officers had self-serve access to large amounts of data that until that point had only been available through the dispatcher or someone back at the station. The “self-serve” part of this is the most important aspect, because officers could for the first time run checks on any person, vehicle, address or item of property at any time without interrupting anyone else.

As good as the MDTs were, they were actually quite limited because they were just “dumb” terminals, capable of only sending and receiving text data. Finally, in the early 1990s, the first real computers began to arrive, often rugged laptops such as the now-famous Panasonic ToughBook series. They came with 12- or 14-inch color screens, and real computing power with the ability to do almost everything that could be done on the computer at the station. Color mug-shots, maps and any other images could now also be viewed.

 

Big Budgets

As great as all this mobile data was, the costs associated with it were also quite substantial. The computers themselves often cost thousands of dollars, and required expensive mounting solutions to secure the equipment from theft and protect the officers from injury caused by a flying laptop.

All of the infrastructure required to make mobile data work required a private wireless data network and specialized computers and software. Particularly in the early days, this was expensive because it was a very specialized niche product, with a very small potential market. For agencies with large geographic areas to cover effectively, numerous antenna sites also had to be installed and connected to their private data network, further driving up costs.

Complementary technologies such as global positioning systems (GPS), in-car cameras and other technologies then came along to consume the funding freed up by the price drops experienced in the initial mobile data implementations.

 

Business Case

The business case for all this technology is usually made using phrases such as “efficiency”, “do more, with less” and other reasonable and mostly true justifications. Unfortunately the efficiency part can sometimes be undermined by poorly or incompletely implemented systems, and under-skilled or untrained personnel. Due to the high cost of acquiring and operating mobile data systems, many smaller agencies are left stranded with only mobile and portable radios, unable to justify the many thousands of dollars per-car price tag.

Fortunately, this situation is slowly starting to come true with the introduction of a mobile data system that can be had for only about $1,000 per car. Mobile Innovations of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada recently launched the latest addition to their “Mobile Police Assist” product line, by introducing a complete mobile data solution using a BlackBerry Smartphone, Playbook tablet and Bluetooth keyboard. With over 17,000 active police users in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, Mobile Innovations has extensive experience in the field of portable wireless data.

Their hallmark Mobile Police Assist product line operates on agency-issued BlackBerry smartphones, which provide secure wireless data access and communications to officers in the field. Officers use a variety of Mobile Innovations-developed applications on their smartphones to access their agencies’ records management systems (RMS), dispatch systems, and their local or national vehicle registration and criminal information networks.

Putting self-serve data access into the hands of all your front-line officers has never been cheaper or easier. Officers and their agencies also get the benefits of having private voice communication at all times. While the phones are not rugged in any way, they are relatively cheap when purchased in bulk, and a decent aftermarket rugged case such as those made by Otterbox, will protect them against most bumps and bruises.

The entire communications part of the system uses the local cellular company’s network, eliminating most direct infrastructure costs. The agency only pays for voice and data access, which is generally quite reasonable per user because it is purchased in bulk. To protect the police connections from peak period and network overloads during major emergencies, the business agreements between the agency and cellular company generally include a priority-based voice and data access agreement.

Since cellular voice and data coverage extends to most inhabited areas in North America, Europe, the UK and Australia, this type of system is relatively easy and affordable to implement and operate almost everywhere. The native GPS capability in the BlackBerry smartphones also supports the officers in all the usual ways and provides the dispatcher with the officer’s location.

While most of the communications hardware required to support the system is offloaded to the cellular network, the police agencies still need to have their own local data processing and system infrastructure including BlackBerry Enterprise Server.

 

BlackBerry Playbook

In 2011, Mobile Innovations began a pilot project with the Chatham-Kent Police Service (CKPS), to expand the capabilities of CPKS’s existing 135 frontline officer-strong BlackBerry smartphone-based network. The CPKS covers a large swath of mostly rural southwestern Ontario north of Lake Erie, using a fleet of about 30 vehicles. They had already been successfully using the Mobile Innovations BlackBerry smartphone products since 2009 and eagerly outfitted several of their patrol cars with the BlackBerry Playbook tablet and Bluetooth keyboard for a pilot project.

Installing a typical rugged mobile data solution in all their cars, and building the communications infrastructure to support the solution was well beyond their budget. But by leveraging their existing BlackBerry smartphone network with the addition of the Playbook tablet and keyboard, they could easily and affordably improve the in-car experience for their uniform front line officers.

The Playbook and the Bluetooth keyboard together run about $225 in bulk. While neither of these items is “rugged” to military specifications, their almost bargain-basement pricing makes them easy and affordable to replace should they get damaged or destroyed. Working with local Ontario vehicle mount and electronics provider D and R Electronics of Bolton, Ontario (northwest of Toronto), they developed an elegantly simple and effective tablet and keyboard mounting solution for the vehicles.

Both the tablet and keyboard can quickly and easily be removed from the vehicle mounts in the event an officer needs to take them into a crime scene to prepare a report. Because of the communications protocols and setup, the tablet does not retain any confidential information, so there is no risk of a security breach should the Playbook be stolen from an unattended patrol car. A Beagle board-based USB hub completes the integration of the smartphone, tablet, keyboard and even the vehicle’s emergency lighting, siren and public address systems.

 

Technical Stuff

The BlackBerry Playbook tablet is a 7-inch tablet computer developed by Canada’s Research in Motion, the parent company of the BlackBerry brand. It operates on the secure QNX Operating System. The Playbook tablet features a 1.0 GHz dual-core Texas Instruments OMAP processor, 1MB of system memory (RAM), and 16, 32 or 64 GB of user storage.

The original version used in this setup only has WiFi and Bluetooth, although both a 3G and 4G-LTE cellular wireless network version were released in the fall of 2012. The 3G and 4G versions of the Playbook feature a faster 1.5GHz dual-core processor and a near-field communications (NFC) chip.

The user interface on the Playbook is the most efficient and elegant design currently in the tablet market, easily outdoing the much-touted iPad and the various Android-based tablets, particularly when it comes to multitasking. The fast and efficient multitasking in this implementation is what really makes the product shine.

The Playbook’s QNX-based operating system is also unique in its design. It’s very stable and basically crash-proof and has already been used extensively in embedded systems such as automotive “infotainment” and telematics systems. The Playbook mount includes a connection to a USB charger so the battery is always fully charged, affording officers about six hours of battery run-time when away from the car with the tablet.

At first glance, the Playbook appears to be too small for an in-vehicle system. It actually works quite well, partially because it doesn’t obstruct the vehicle’s HVAC and car stereo controls as many larger displays do. The Mobile Innovations software design also does a great job of leveraging the screen size limitations by taking advantage of the multitasking user interface.

 

D/L Reader, Mobile Printer

To electronically capture data from driver’s licenses and other government-issued identification cards, this system uses an E-Seek M250 2D card reader. The card reader is able to read the magnetic stripes on the back of the card as well as the newer 2D bar-codes that are gaining in popularity on government-issued identification. Electronically capturing information from ID cards facilitates computerized ticketing applications and persons checks, eliminating some date entry and reducing input errors.

With the next upgrade to the system, officers will also benefit from the addition of a Brother PocketJet thermal mobile printer for printing documents and tickets directly in the car. Instead of having to carry a ticket book, officers will be able to create tickets and documents in an application on the Playbook and print them on an 8 ½ x 11-inch page. The paper comes off a 500-page equivalent roll, mounted under the printer.

 

Security

The Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), roughly the equivalent of NCIC, requires users access the system only from computing devices that use Two-Factor Authentication (2FA). To achieve 2FA, the BlackBerry phone is connected to a SafeNet brand Smartcard through a BlackBerry SmartCard Reader. The connection is established and maintained using short-range Bluetooth wireless technology.

The SmartCard must remain in the reader, and the pair must remain within the 20-foot range of Bluetooth radio technology. At the start of a session, the SafeNet card establishes a Bluetooth connection with the phone, and the officer enters a password on the smartphone keyboard. Once the session is established, it remains active unless there is no data usage for 15 minutes, or if the SafeNet card is removed from the smartcard reader, or there is a Bluetooth communications failure of some type.

Officers typically carry the SafeNet card and smartcard reader together attached to their duty belt or in a cargo pocket. The BlackBerry Smartcard reader was chosen because it is part of BlackBerry’s out-of-the-box security solutions that meet Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140-2, a U.S. government computer security certification standard. BlackBerry phones running OS 6 and 7 through BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) 5 also meet Common Criteria EAL 2+ certification.

Additionally, Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption secures e-mails and other data while in transmission between the smartphones and BES. They also meet the DoD requirements for Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME) and Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) password systems. The BlackBerry smartphone is the only portable device to obtain approval for access to CPIC because it complies with all these security protocols.

 

Future is Here

In February 2013, the all-new BlackBerry 10 smartphones were launched, ushering in numerous advantages over the current system including the ability to connect over the much faster LTE (4G) cellular data networks. The all-touchscreen Z10 arrived first, followed by the famous BlackBerry mechanical keyboard-based Q10.

These BlackBerry 10 phones are based on the same QNX foundation as the Playbook tablet, and are FIPS 140-2 (security) certified for enterprise and government use. This will ensure they can continue to be used in future versions of this mobile data product.

Self-service mobile data for front-line police officers is a huge benefit. Traditional rugged mobile data solutions, operating on private wireless data networks, are very expensive and are often out of the financial reach of many smaller police agencies. Not having mobile data is a serious operational, quality of service, and officer safety problem. This solution can bring mobile data to almost any police agency regardless of size because of its affordability and simplicity.

 

Tom Rataj is a Divisional Planning Officer, now in his 34th year of service as an officer with the Toronto Police Service in Ontario Canada. He can be reached at trataj@rogers.com.


Published in Law and Order, Apr 2013

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Related Companies

BlackberryBrother Mobile SolutionsChatham-Kent Police Services (CKPS)D&R ElectronicsE-SEEKMobile Innovations of Niagara FallsOtterboxSafeNetThe Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC)
 

Related Products

BlackBerry - Enterprise ServerBlackBerry - Playbook BlackBerry - SmartCard ReaderMobile Innovations of Niagara Falls - Mobile Police Assist product lineQNX Operating SystemSafeNet - Smartcard
 
 
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