The U.S Government Accounting Office (GAO) and The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) recently released reports addressing the challenges of implementing a nationwide public-safety broadband network to enhance interoperability between federal, state and local jurisdictions. Based on extensive research and input from public safety personnel, both reports concluded that a number of technical and operational issues need to be resolved in order to create a network capable of supporting mission-critical voice over broadband.
The federal report, entitled "Emergency Communications: Various Challenges Likely to Slow Implementation of a Public Safety Broadband Network," points out that while such a network would enhance interoperability and increase data rates, it would not be capable of supporting mission-critical voice for at least another 10 years. Because first responders would have to continue to rely on their Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems, a broadband network would act as a supplement, rather than a replacement, for current public safety communication systems.
Today's public safety LMR systems rely on their allocated spectrum for reliable mission-critical voice communications. While these systems are also capable of providing some data services, such as text and images, they are constrained by the narrowband channels on which they operate. In the report, the GAO acknowledged the significant limitations of current LMR systems, and identified two factors contributing to their lack of interoperability: the fragmentation of spectrum assignments for public safety agencies and the incompatibility of radio systems acquired by individual agencies.
In addition, communications systems are generally configured to meet the unique needs of a specific jurisdiction within a given region, and many agencies are reluctant to cede management and control of them. To address this issue, the GAO recommends the Department of Homeland Security work with partners to provide joint procurement opportunities for public-safety LMR devices.
The NPSTC's "Assessment of Future Spectrum and Technology" report finds that separate narrowband and broadband spectrum allocations should continue until broadband technologies meet the needs of all public safety for voice and data capabilities. According to the report, seven elements are required for a network to fully support public safety mission-critical voice communications: direct or talk around; push-to-talk; full duplex voice systems, group talk, talker identification, emergency alerting, and high-quality audio.
In addition, mission-critical communication systems rely on "hardened" infrastructure (i.e., towers, etc.) to provide reliable communications during natural and man-made disasters. This requires redundancy, back-up power, and fortification against environmental stressors such as extreme temperatures and high winds.
Agency compliance with the P25 suite of standards has resulted in more effective and reliable inter- and intra-agency communications, but many LMR devices manufactured for public safety are incompatible with devices from rival manufacturers, ultimately undermining interoperability. Like the GAO, the NPSTC noted the important role the federal government plays in providing funding for emergency communication systems.
They also identified the need for additional VHF narrowband spectrum to support existing and future public-safety communications needs. The report stated that "additional VHF frequencies might be found if the FCC conducted a spectrum audit of this band to identify active users of the spectrum and to determine what VHF frequencies might be made available to public safety."
While input from the public safety community greatly contributed to the above findings, feedback from companies specializing in communications technology is crucial for the development of a successful long-range plan for interoperability. We asked representatives from nine leading communications companies their thoughts on the findings of the two reports, and what steps they would take to ensure the implementation of a nationwide broadband network that could effectively handle voice communications between agencies and jurisdictions. 1. EF Johnson Technologies www.efjohnson.com
The acquisition of EF Johnson Technologies, Inc. by Francisco Partners in 2010 provided the company with the resources necessary to pursue its vision of developing and manufacturing the highest quality mission-critical communications solutions for public safety, government agencies, and the military. From Portable/Mobile Two-Way Radio systems to their patented ATLAS(tm) P25 technology, EF Johnson products and services are used by agencies worldwide, delivering reliable, cost-effective solutions for enhanced interoperability.
A recently released EF Johnson Executive Summary recapped the GAO's findings about the challenges that both government agencies and industry vendors would face in launching a nationwide public safety network. Although current LTE systems cannot provide the mission-critical voice communications needed for such a network, the lure of LTE technology lies in its higher data speeds that allow devices to transmit video and data applications for quicker incident response.
EF Johnson shares the views of the GAO report that a broadband system can be an effective complement to an LMR network, but that it cannot replace the need for LMR in the foreseeable future. The company issued the following quote: "EF Johnson strongly believes in using LTE's broadband capacity and capabilities to complement and enhance the LMR networks mission-critical capabilities. We continue to evolve our P25 solution portfolio to maximize interoperability with LTE devices and applications through future P25-LTE interfaces and gateways." 2. Harris Corporation www.harris.com
Since its founding in the 1890s, Harris Corporation has focused on providing innovative, reliable technology solutions for a broad spectrum of markets, including government, public safety, defense, healthcare, and enterprise. Today, Harris has 17,000 employees serving customers in over 150 countries, and combines leading technology with in-depth knowledge of mission-critical communications requirements to deliver superior interoperable solutions to first responders. With a communication environment that brings together public safety broadband, cellular carrier, and LMR communications on a single infrastructure platform, Harris is one of a number of companies leading the way in the deployment of LTE for public safety.
Tori Dillon, Director of Communications and Marketing for Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications (PSPC), finds the GAO report correct in concluding that the full application of LTE solutions for mission-critical voice are years away from reality. "There won't be a 'flip of the switch' moment when all the older technology disappears and the LTE comes online all at once. We're looking at years of coexistence in which interoperability will be the key. Public safety must look for ways to get the most out of existing - and very reliable - LMR systems while using the immense data transfer capabilities that broadband offers in the immediate future," Dillon said.
Dillon goes on to say the P25 standards-based world is the future, in which interoperability and increased functionality will improve the situational awareness of public safety personnel. "The challenge for both public safety officials and communications providers is in the graceful migration from the present state to fully functional LTE." 3. Kenwood USA Corporation www.kenwoodusa.com
Founded in the United States in 1961, Kenwood USA Corporation is the largest sales subsidiary of Kenwood Corporation of Japan and is recognized by consumers and industry professionals for providing products known for quality, performance, and value. The company's Communications Sector is a worldwide provider of mobile and portable radios and custom systems to public safety, government, and commercial users. Kenwood's Project 25 Digital Handheld Radios are designed for intuitive user interface, incorporating enhanced features for optimal voice and data performance, as well as advanced interoperability capabilities.
Mark Jasin, Senior Vice President and General Manager for Kenwood USA Corp., concurred with the findings of both reports from a system technology perspective. He advocates putting a fact finding committee in place to investigate all issues beyond the technology. "Law enforcement is incompatible with jurisdiction authorities, so how can the jurisdiction authorities be expected to homogenize a communications system? Enforcement would need to go 'national' before their communications systems could effectively do so," Jasin said. He added that a well-conceived 20+ year plan should be phased in to allow acceptance and implementation. 4. Motorola Solutions www.motorola.com
Motorola Solutions is a global provider of state-of-the-art communications solutions for commercial enterprise, government agencies and public safety. From high performance data communications to mobile broadband and two-radio systems for narrowbanding, their interoperability technology solutions provide first responders with the flexibility needed in mission-critical situations.
Paul Steinberg, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Motorola Solutions, believes that public safety broadband will be a needed complement to the existing LMR voice systems that are so crucial in mission-critical situations. He pointed out that several issues must be addressed before a nationwide broadband network can operate on a level comparable to today's LMR networks. These include development of a broadband network with the same capacity and coverage of current LMR systems, and implementation of standards supporting the unique capabilities required of these technologies.
According to Steinberg, group voice communication (i.e., push-to-talk) will operate as an application that runs over the broadband network (unlike current LMR networks that are built specifically to carry mission-critical voice). Therefore, standards must be developed to ensure these applications are built openly for complete interoperability. He also acknowledges the communication challenges facing public safety personnel, specifically communicating under adverse conditions from virtually any location, and not only where commercial viability would dictate that a carrier provide coverage. "As the network is built and rolled out, it must be planned and constructed with the capacity and coverage demands of public safety in mind," Steinberg said. 5. Raytheon www.raytheon.com
With a history of innovation spanning 90 years, Raytheon is a global leader in technology driven solutions for defense, homeland security and other government markets. Raytheon provides state-of-the-art electronics, mission systems integration and other capabilities in the areas of sensing; effects; and command, control, communications and intelligence systems, as well as a broad range of mission support services.
T.J. Kennedy, Raytheon's Director of Public Safety and Security, agrees that legacy LMR systems will be in place for many years while the National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) is rolled out. He believes that it is critical to move to an open, standards-based platform for Public Safety Broadband while focusing on interoperability of new platforms and systems, as well as leveraging the new spectrum and bandwidth for improved safety and inter-agency communications and data sharing.
He also believes that mission-critical voice will benefit from the new network when data traffic is moved from existing LMR systems to the more sophisticated dedicated Public Safety LTE systems. Although the NPSBN will provide challenges during initial implementation to both data and voice, it will provide public safety stakeholders with the invaluable opportunity to improve operations and safety with the new capabilities. 6. Thales Communications www.thalescomminc.com
A pioneer of software-defined radio (SDR) technology, Thales Communications, Inc. is a leading developer and manufacturer of advanced communications systems for the military and public safety sector. Thales' Liberty(tm) Multiband Land Mobile Radio (LMR) is the first portable radio that allows federal, state, local, and U.S. Department of Defense agencies to communicate across all four public safety bands. With over 12 years of Project 25 experience, Thales Communications recognizes the need for a nationwide public safety broadband network that can support mission-critical voice.
According to a company spokesperson, Thales has invested 10 years of research into the development of a unique, full IP distributed architecture which will provide the added resiliency and reliability necessary to alleviate risks of temporary network shutdown. The end-to-end integrated and distributed Long Term Evolution (LTE) solution offering will operate on the LTE network and support first responders in the field. Thales looks forward to working with system integrators to help public safety officials accomplish their mission in broadband at a time of critical importance.
Susan Geoghegan is a freelance writer living in Naples, Fla. She can be reached at email@example.com.