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HF offering could be valuable in the post-disaster toolbox

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There has been a great deal of talk in the public-safety industry about the small-cell, broadband functionality that exists in the commercial LTE networks that cellular carriers are deploying today, and will exist in the network that FirstNet plans to build for first responders. So, it has been interesting to see the level of interest that has emerged about a recent proposal to deploy an older technology — HF radio.

Last month, 911 solutions provider Intrado announced plans that it will provide a new service to critical-infrastructure entities on high-frequency (HF) spectrum from 3 MHz to 30 MHz that once was reserved for maritime use. After a 2010 FCC ruling, this spectrum can be used by public-safety and critical-infrastructure entities during times when other communications are down — something that happens in the aftermath of disasters.

That HF is useful during these times is not news, as amateur-radio operators have a long history of providing communications when everything else has been wiped out, such as in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The propagation characteristics in HF and other nearby bands are remarkable, allowing communications at distances that may not be as awe-inspiring as they were in the days before the Internet, but which still are extremely impressive — especially when the relatively small amount of infrastructure is considered.

This reality is what attracted Stephen Meer — co-founder and chief technology officer for Intrado — to the HF spectrum when it became available via an exclusive agreement between his company and ShipCom, the licensee for the airwaves.

RELATED: Intrado inks deal for 'Apocalypse-proof' HF offering

"The beauty of HF is that you need a radio on this end and a radio on the other end, and that's it — there's no intervening infrastructure … and you can talk pretty much to whoever you need to talk to," he said.

But, as amateur-radio operators are quick to note, HF radio can be very tricky, something Meer understands well. The significant challenge for Meer and Intrado is to develop an automated offering that can be used by anyone, not just people who have completed an extensive amateur-radio licensing process. And that's a great idea, because there's no way to predict who will be available to communicate when disaster strikes.

"We're going to use pretty sophisticated computerized front ends on these radios, so you just walk up and push the 'We're in trouble' button, and it goes from there," Meer said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "It's kind of patterned after the global maritime-distress system that they had gone to, where all these boats have these HF radios in them. These radios literally have a red button on them, and when you start to sink or need the Coast Guard for whatever reason, you push the button, and it squawks out your GPS location, the boat's name and other information."

In the Intrado vision, when other communications are down, someone in a public-safety or critical-infrastructure entity would go to the HF radio, hit the button, wait for the system to determine which frequency band will work best, and the radio would connect the user to an Intrado relay center, Meer said. The trained Intrado person would establish the desired connection for the HF user.

Of course, having all forms of communications go down is not something that should happen often, which is why it's difficult for critical-infrastructure entities to justify large outlays of capital for those rare times when it does. Meer said that Intrado hopes its offering will cost $10,000 to $20,000 for an installed radio, in addition to a yearly subscription fee at a "very small amount."

If Intrado can deliver on this vision, such an offering could be a very nice addition to the communication "toolbox" often referenced by first-response communications officials — not only for the public-safety entities, but also for the critical-infrastructure entities that must be restored quickly before a broader recovery can be realized.

Meanwhile, I think it's great that there's potential here to rejuvenate a technology like HF radio — basically voice, although Meer says some low-speed data could be implemented eventually — as a reliable backup to all the feature-rich broadband networks that are the focus of today's communications world. As the proverb goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Discuss this Blog Entry 21

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 15, 2013

This is a great idea if the appropriate parties ALL sign on, otherwise someone important will be in the dark. Utilities,
Local Govt, County Govt, State Govt, Transportation and
Communication need to be able to let others know what is
going on when a big event happens. The worst part is the span of an event has grown in the past few disasters.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2013

I have talked to Micom makers to include a narrow-band FM board, with effective noise blanking in their Micom HF radios. They refuse to see a need. In many counties, where repeaters do not quite make the range required, FM, HF radio could operate like like standard FM with with PL, and it would simplify usage. Truckers as well as emergency users would benefit.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 5, 2013

Micom makes a FM to HF interlink with the same exceptional Syllabic squelch circuit as the Micom radios. This extends the range of a traditional FM net.

Radio Randy (not verified)
on Jan 15, 2013

I do agree that HF offers substantial benefits for emergency comms (we have a commercial HF station where I work). What worries me is that some may see this as a "replacement" for venerable amateur services.
Remember that your local amateur community is required to provide this service for free...including supplying their own equipment. There normally are a number of local amateurs, which helps to ensure that the loss of a single station does not cripple your capability for backup comms. Lastly, the amateur can offer a broad selection of different communications technologies to choose from.
I'm not trying to steal the thunder from Intrado's offerings...I feel that they may just come up with a useful product for a reasonable cost. I only want to remind folks that there are many ways to "skin a cat" (my apologies to cat lovers) and that the amateur community will remain a valuable resource for many decades to come.

Karl WA8NVW (not verified)
on Jan 23, 2013

Licensed amateur operators are NOT "required to provide this service" to replace commercial phone circuits temporarily out of service, nor are they required to supply their own equipment when assisting public safety agencies during emergency operations. The restriction is simply that amateurs are not allowed to charge for the service they provide while operating on Part 97 Amateur Radio Service frequencies. The Intrado proposal does NOT operate in the amateur bands. When carefully implemented they should not cause harmful interference to other lawful amateur disaster support operations which are protected by FCC Rules.

Jim M (not verified)
on Jan 15, 2013

Why is this coming up now?? It was "killed" by public safety years ago, even though they still have frequency allocations for this HF radio coms. It is very viable, very adaptable, and useable, but someone gave it a bad karma of noisy, slow digital, sporadic, and then complaints about the high operator skill level needed to use it effectively, but this is using the old ship-shore radio service and users are talking to a "coast operator". Great idea, but "been there, done that, got the scars from the users".. over....

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 15, 2013

For $10,000 you can have a lot of Hams as volunteers to do this communications that know what they are doing.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 15, 2013

This has been done for several decades already -- HF radio with automatic link establishment, but it still relies on atmospheric conditions.

These days, mobile satellite service systems are much more robust, capable of voice, video, web/email, etc. Good luck Intrado -- you'll need it.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 16, 2013

If satellite is so great, then why couldn't SkyTerra/LightSquared make a go of it in Public Safety?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 22, 2013

The problem with LightSquared was that they started out as a satellite comms company, then tried to use that status as a foot in the door to establish a terrestrial network. With satellite, the link loss is essentially independent of location (everybody's far from the transmitter), but terrestrial user link loss can vary by 40 dB (or more), so the GPS receivers next door (both in geometry, and frequency) to the terrestrial LS transmitters would have needed exceedingly fine RF filters, expensive filters which would have been unnecessary anywhere else in the world except close to a LightSquared transmitter.

A better comparison would be OrbComm.

Our local hospitals do have satellite phones in the same area as the VHF/UHF ham radio equipment. They prefer not to exercise the sat-phone, though, due to per-call cost, even during our quarterly ham radio drills.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 31, 2013

I wasn't referring to LightSquared's doomed attempt to use satellite frequency bands for terrestrial service, but rather the SkyTerra PTT service for public safety interoperability.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 16, 2013

Good for these guys! As a Ham, I can relate to the article. The author, however, did not point out that there are digital solutions on HF, such as RTTY, where small text based messages could be sent. We are talking text messages the size of this comment, however, and not large attachments.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 16, 2013

As has been mentioned before, why not join the S.H.A.R.E.S. system. Run by Homeland Security at no cost to the user.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 16, 2013

Looks to me like another angle to develop subscription revenue. I have enough equipment already that requires on-going monthly fees for rarely used devices. And "no intervening infrastructure" seems to be an error in this case since there is a relay center (i.e. billing center).

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 17, 2013

The wheel has already been invented. There is a group of operators already trained and ready to serve in the ham radio community Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES). The cities and first responders need to embrace them and not look to them as a bunch of CBers ARES groups have got it together and have all modes and the skills to make it work!.

tony dinkel (not verified)
on Jan 17, 2013

Lets bring back the Ground Wave Emergency Network while we're at it. Add in vhf/uhf, 700, 800 access gateways and let the message propagate around the country at 50 baud.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 18, 2013

I believe there is a big difference between commercial HF and what amateur radio can provide. Some quick examples are transmit power, the use of high gain antennas, and private frequencies.

David Pollard, N5IT (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2013

Many Amateurs using HF have more than adequate power levels as well as directional gain antennas, although not always needed for reliable communications. Operating experience and knowledge of propagation often make the difference.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 18, 2013

Are there no more HF channels availiable for direct License? For 10 to 20 K an end. And a users fee? Users FEE?? Whats that for? SO god will keep the sun lit and bombarding the atmosphere with IONS? This isnt software, Hf propagation isnt licensable! Having a private HF infastructure is a bad concept. But to get the sheer penetration ham radio provides for free or darn near, would cost billions.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 22, 2013

The purpose of the subscription fee should be obvious: it's to keep the Intrado stations staffed between the "billable emergencies". Katrina was a great example, but how long will that Intrado operator have to sit by the radio, waiting for the next big disaster? Every customer should have routine drills, to make sure that the HF radio is still there, that someone knows that it's there and knows what to do with it, that the HF antenna(s) are operable on all bands, that its emergency power supply works, etc., etc. If Intrado is going to try to charge users for handling drill traffic, there probably won't be any. And then there won't be much disaster traffic, either.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 30, 2013

Katrina and the USCG are mentioned a few times....Since Katrina the USGC & it's Auxillary established a nationwide back up HF system that works great. It was used most recently durring Sandy and was instrumental in the Bounty's rescue at sea. Inaddition to Rescue 21 there is a network of VHF repeaters for local comms. No need for any outside source for comms.

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