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Multiband radio closes interoperability gap

Written by Dr. David Boyd

A new software-defined radio technology, known as the multiband radio (MBR), is capable of operating on all public safety radio bands between 100 MHz and 900 MHz. The new radio bridges a major interoperability gap for emergency responders on the frontlines.

Fragmented Frequency Bands
The advent of two-way radio communications in the early 1930s generated a need for additional public safety radio channels, or spectrum. To support emergency response radio communications, the Federal Communications Commission reserved radio spectrum within several different frequency bands for public safety use. Until recently, emergency response radios were built to operate within a single radio band. As a result, emergency response agencies and support units—such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Coast Guard, and National Guard—had to rely on the use of several, single-band portable radios to maintain a level of interoperability with partner agencies. While some agencies swapped or shared radios, others employed time-consuming methods to relay messages, including contacting other dispatchers and using runners to hand carry messages.

Technology Mile Marker
To address these challenges, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate recently awarded a contract to Thales Communications Inc. to demonstrate an MBR that enables emergency responders to communicate with partner agencies regardless of the radio band. The MBR prototype is capable of operating in the primary public safety bands between 136-174 MHz and 380-520 MHz, as well as in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands. Additionally, when authorized, the MBR is capable of operating on the Department of Defense bands in the 136-138 MHz and 380-400 MHz ranges, and two federal government bands: 162-174 MHz and 406.1-420 MHz. This capability represents a significant step for federal agencies that need to interoperate with their local, tribal, regional, and state counterparts.

Carrying a price tag of $4,000 to $6,000, the MBR is equal in form, factor, and cost to existing, high-end, portable radios. The only difference is that the MBR equips emergency responders with the unprecedented capability to operate across the entire range of public safety radio bands. To communicate with another agency, users simply select the assigned channel. For larger operations, such as the Super Bowl, users could carry a single radio instead of switching between multiple handhelds to talk to users in other disciplines and agencies.

Field Tests
Later this year, DHS will test and evaluate the MBR through pilots nationwide. The pilots will focus on testing the radio’s operation across multiple systems—analog, conventional, digital, and Project 25 trunked—and multiple agencies, including local, tribal, state, federal, and military. During these field tests, the primary users of the new technology will likely be responders in a command and control role or those involved in special operations that need to interoperate with multiple entities. These users include incident commanders; responders across all disciplines, including battalion chiefs; and federal officials who coordinate with local agencies.

How the pilots will shape the final MBR product is still to be determined. One thing is certain though: The MBR has the potential to significantly impact emergency response operations for the better.

Through a practitioner-driven approach, the Science and Technology Directorate’s Command, Control and Interoperability Division (CID) creates and deploys information resources—standards, frameworks, tools, and technologies—to enable seamless and secure interactions among homeland security stakeholders. With its federal partners, the CID is working to strengthen capabilities to communicate, share, visualize, analyze, and protect information.

Dr. David Boyd is the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Command, Control and Interoperability Division.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2008

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