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Texas Interoperability Pilot Project

Written by James Careless

In a perfect world, police departments wouldn’t have to chase down vendors for radio interoperability solutions. Instead, the vendors would bring all of their products to one place, so that the police departments could compare the products at their convenience. Better yet, the vendors would deploy their interoperability solutions in equivalent environments, to make the comparison process easier. Finally, the whole presentation wouldn’t cost the police departments a penny.

The state of Texas has come as close to realizing such a perfect world as possible, at least in terms of the interoperability comparison described above. Specifically, the state of Texas Communications Interoperability Pilot Project has convinced three interoperability solution vendors — M/A-COM, Motorola, and Northrup Grumman — to install demonstration interoperability solutions in Texas for the Department of Public Safety, at their own expense.

Each vendor has been given a series of first responder networks to interconnect, spread across a region with eight or more first responder agencies. The State’s Department of Public Safety will then analyze how well each interoperability solution actually works against a fixed set of standards, compile the results, and publish it on the Web for all first responder agencies to see. When it comes to generating hard data on real world interoperability solutions, it doesn’t get any better than this!

What Texas Wants

The Interoperability Pilot Project (IPP) was the brainchild of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Communications Long Range Planning Committee. “Our goal is to interconnect all state and local agency radio systems, no matter what their technology or band, into an integrated statewide system,” says Major Robert Burroughs, the IPP’s Project Manager. “We want a system where you could use your cell-phone to talk to a radio-equipped trooper on the road, where headquarters commanders can not only talk to officers from different agencies, but do so state-wide in real time.”

The primary goal of the project is to create networked interoperability between all first responders to ensure that regardless of who arrives at the scene of an emergency, everyone can talk to each other. “Although the use of assigned interoperability channels goes a long way, the ability to interconnect disparate and proprietary radio systems is needed,” notes Robert Pletcher, the IPP’s program director.

“Such network-based interoperability solutions can also be interconnected with deployable gateway devices. These gateways can provide enhanced on-scene radio coverage during an emergency situation at locations that are not within the normal coverage of the responders’ radios.”

In addition, the state of Texas would like to have the ability to shift call loads between different dispatchers at will, so that call centers across the state can share the radio traffic when disaster strikes in one locality. Also on the shopping list is the ability to allow officers in the field to customize interoperability settings on the fly, to create their own talk-groups, and to get access to mobile data as they need it.

VoIP Central to All Three Systems

Voice over IP (VoIP) is central to the solutions being demonstrated by M/A-COM, Motorola, and Northrop Grumman. In plain language, VoIP is the transmission of voice calls over data networks, an approach that saves money by bypassing the regular toll telephone networks. “We told all three vendors that they had to use a VoIP approach to interoperability,” said Pletcher. “Using VoIP allows us to send the voice traffic over our existing data networks. Not only does this save long distance charges, but it uses assets that we already have.”

The reason this works is because VoIP converts voice into data packets, which can then be transmitted across a standard IP (Internet Protocol) data network. In an interoperability configuration, the audio is captured from each radio system, converted into packets, and then sent down the data network to all other users. It doesn’t matter if the radios that initially received the audio were VHF, UHF, or 800 MHz; all the VoIP server cares about is the audio, period.

Once the packets have reached their destinations, they are converted back into audio for retransmission across the connected radio systems. Again, it doesn’t matter whether the radio transmitters are VHF, UHF, or 800 MHz. What does matter is that the data network that is carrying the VoIP traffic extends to every police, fire, and EMS agency in the state, to ensure that everyone’s audio can be converted, transported, and heard by everyone else. For the record, the VoIP solutions being tested are M/A-COM’s VIDA (Voice, Interoperability, Data, Access), Motorola’s MOTOBRIDGE, and Northrop Grumman’s WAVE.

Beyond supporting VoIP and data, VIDA can work with new technologies such as high speed Wi-Fi and 700 MHz band radio equipment (when this spectrum is vacated by TV broadcasters). VIDA will also interconnect with M/A-COM’s NetworkFirst technology. It uses IP networking to interconnect incompatible legacy radio systems.

Motorola’s MOTOBRIDGE also relies on IP technology to help first responders talk to each other. It promises easy expandability and distributed control points, so that a single network disruption or break won’t cause the system to fail.

Northrop Grumman’s WAVE (Wide Area Voice Environment) promises fast and broad connectivity to all kinds of communications devices, not just radios and conventional telephones, but IP phones and voice audio routed through networked PCs and other service providers such as Nextel.

Results to Date

Launched on August 16, 2004, the IPP’s interoperability tests wrapped up on May 31, 2005. Once all of the results have been compiled and analyzed, the final report will be furnished to the Texas Office of Homeland Security, which oversees the distribution of federal homeland security funds, and made public on their website.

When the Texas trials do end, police, fire, and EMS departments nationwide will finally have access to an apples-to-apples comparison of the latest VoIP interoperability solutions. All that will be required is for federal and state governments to provide the necessary funding to buy them!

SmartLink in Manchester, CT

Rather than plug incompatible radios into an audio bridge, SmartLink Radio Networks uses software to create interoperability. Essentially, each transmission site within the interoperable radio network is equipped with a SmartLink network link. The network link encodes the audio into digital data signals, and then sends it over an Ethernet network to a SmartLink software-defined switch.

It is the software, as configured by the user, that routes the data feeds between different departments using their interconnected LANs. In this way, a portable VHF radio on one network can seamlessly talk to a UHF radio on another. SmartLink can also be routed into dispatch, so that they can monitor and even control the interoperable radio groups as needed.

Manchester Fire-Rescue-EMS (MFRE) in Manchester, CT (population 55,000) has installed a SmartLink Radio Network switch to ease its communications problems with Hartford County volunteer fire and EMS agencies.

“It used to be that we had to carry two departments’ radios on us, a solution that was both heavy and time-consuming, because you found yourself going from radio to radio repeating things,” says Dan Huppe, the MFRE’s battalion chief. “With SmartLink, I just change the channel on my radio, and automatically get linked to the other agency I’m trying to reach, no matter what frequency they’re on.” The MFRE system is also connected to the region’s schools and hospitals.

The only tricky part is the price. SmartLink RadioNetworks’ installation was entirely covered by a grant from the US Fire Administration’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. “SmartLink made clear that they would do the project for whatever the grant was set at,” says Huppe. “Still, this is a relatively uncomplicated system. It doesn’t cost millions of dollars to install and manage.”

James Careless specializes in first responder communications and may be reached at jamesc@tjtdesign.com.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2005

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