A recent report card from the 9/11 Commission confirms what everyone in government already knows: First responders cannot communicate with each other in a disaster, and little progress has been made to correct the situation. With new spectrum for first responders not becoming available until 2009 and a much-needed nationwide overhaul of public-safety communications infrastructure currently stalled by a dearth of funds, an alternative seems obvious to many: Sprint Nextel's iDEN network.

With the merger between Sprint and Nextel, the combined company has made its CDMA network a priority, while the iDEN (integrated dispatch enhanced network) system, used by many public-safety agencies nationwide, appears to be an asset Sprint Nextel would be willing to give up.

“It's a fantastic way to get rid of something that in essence is going to be shut down,” said Joe Nordgaard, president of consultancy firm Spectral Advantage. “The iDEN network has its merits. In the age of homeland security, it's not a far-fetched idea.”

Indeed, rumors have surfaced in recent months that indicate the Department of Defense wants to buy Sprint Nextel's iDEN network as the first phase of a nationwide overhaul of its communications security framework. Reports also have indicated that the federal government would like to move much of its wireless communications onto the encrypted iDEN network, and Sprint customers will be issued dual-network CDMA/iDEN handsets so that as iDEN becomes restricted, CDMA will take its place.

Last June, then Nextel President and CEO Tim Donahue said he believed the iDEN network could be part of the “public-safety network of the future,” playing a key role in another national project, known as the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) — a massive project that would divide the country into 19 zones and overlay a VHF trunked radio system in six phases over a 10-year period (MRT, July 2005).

Post merger, Sprint Nextel is keeping mum on the prospect, saying only that mandates from the carrier's senior leadership call for technology innovation for both networks with a focus on making sure the combined networks are able to have similar products and services and offer subscribers combined iDEN/CDMA handsets.

Sprint Nextel has aggressive plans to migrate iDEN users to the CDMA network in 2008, when the next revision of EV-DO technology is commercially available. The new standard, known as EV-DO Rev. A, supports quality of service and includes a larger reverse link to support high-quality push-to-talk (P2T) service. However, the carrier has indicated it also plans to operate and invest in the iDEN network through at least 2010.

MAKING INROADS

Sprint Nextel is becoming more entrenched in the public-safety arena, which might bode well for a transition of the network to first responders. It is well documented that many public-safety agencies are using Nextel's Direct Connect network as a secondary or parallel means of communication for logistics and non-mission-critical operations. In some cases, the carrier's P2T network is the primary communications system for some small public-safety agencies and military posts.

Sprint also has focused heavily on the first responder sector, creating emergency response team (ERT) reservists nationwide to respond to disasters. As part of the reserve program, the carrier has put employees into emergency operations centers (EOC) across the country and hardened many sites to provide better redundancy. In the southern U.S. alone, Sprint has 512 emergency centers where the carrier is training people and hardening networks, said Matt Foosaner, ERT director.

“If you are going to step into the public-safety space, you have to make the commitment and restore operations as well as have a flexible model to meet that,” Foosaner said. “We provide interoperability and a force multiplier. We can scale.”

During the response to Hurricane Katrina, Foosaner said Sprint Nextel deployed 7600 handsets to military, local and civilian users and received a waiver from the FCC to use more than its allotted frequencies.

“It was rapid because we can throw a lot of equipment out there,” Foosaner said. “Even in areas where iDEN wasn't restored, we have a direct-talk horizontal and vertical capability.”

Sprint Nextel also has replaced entire land mobile radio (LMR) systems, although the company purports that such activity generally is an aberration. Because of narrow-banding rules, some domestic military bases ceased using their old analog LMR systems and opted to use Nextel as the primary radio system.

Local public-safety agencies are under increasing pressure from elected officials to simply use commercial services like Sprint Nextel's P2T rather than budget for expensive LMR systems. A handful of the nation's local jurisdictions, such as the fire department in Wilson, N.C., are relying more heavily on the carrier's services, and Sprint Nextel has obliged by installing backup generators and hardening tower sites to make them more resistant to natural disasters. The carrier's iDEN network is simply cheaper than building out an LMR system.

UPGRADES STILL NEEDED

Yet Sprint Nextel's iDEN network needs quite a bit of overhaul before it can serve the needs of first responders as a primary system. Many public-safety users today are concerned about the positioning of iDEN as a primary system — or even as a backup for that matter — because it lacks many features on which public safety relies.

As a result, the International Association of Fire Chiefs came under fire last year for promoting the use of Direct Connect as an effective method to achieve interoperable communications, despite the fact that the IAFC did not endorse the service as a replacement for a primary LMR system.

“iDEN is really good, but we are talking about some significant changes. iDEN was never designed as a public-safety solution,” said Fred Wright, senior vice president and general manager responsible for iDEN infrastructure with Motorola, the company that invented iDEN.

Providing backup power to every site would be the biggest cost item. Since iDEN operates at low power, the technology requires significantly more sites than the handful of sites used in today's LMR networks. Hurricanes that have battered the Southeast show the vulnerability of Sprint Nextel's iDEN system today.

While virtually all communications were knocked out in the wake of Katrina, redundant public-safety trunked networks have a significantly better track record compared with commercial carrier networks. And coverage of the iDEN network would need to be significantly enhanced to provide communications in remote areas.

Wright also cited a plethora of software enhancements the iDEN network would need in order to serve public safety. While iDEN has the fastest call set-up time in the commercial P2T world, it still is no match for public-safety networks. That is a software enhancement on which the carrier is working, Sprint Nextel's Foosaner said.

In addition, iDEN technology can't support the same group-call functionality available on first-responder networks. Rather than waiting until all members of the group can hear the message, iDEN automatically connects a call when just one member of the group is available, making it impossible to know whether other members of the group are listening and whether they received the critical message.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Wright said Motorola has yet to calculate what it would cost to make iDEN public safety-ready, but said it would be “significant.” Nevertheless, he said iDEN would make a “great backup for interoperability.” Indeed, many federal agencies already use iDEN as a preferred secondary network for interoperability, which could continue under government ownership while the network becomes enhanced.

In addition, Motorola says it is committed to supporting iDEN for “many years,” Wright said, regardless of what Sprint does with the network. The vendor supports about 5 million other users in more than 20 countries. “We have to continue developing features,” Wright said.

Consequently, Motorola has developed a software upgrade to iDEN known as wideband iDEN, or WiDEN, that allows compatible subscriber units to communicate across four 25 kHz channels combined, for up to 100 kb/s of bandwidth, offering data speeds between 40 Mb/s and 80 Mb/s, comparable to 2.5G cellular technology.

Prior to the merger, WiDEN originally was expected to be the major stepping stone to a next-generation high-speed data network for Nextel and its affiliates, but now Sprint says it is still reviewing whether it will deploy WiDEN. Motorola already has released WiDEN-compatible devices, PCMCIA integrated circuit cards and handsets. While WiDEN is built into the Motorola i850 and i760 codeplug, Sprint has not enabled the feature.

Although WiDEN's data speeds are better than what can be accomplished on public-safety LMR systems, WiDEN can't become the broadband wireless network public safety desires to transmit critical data — such as maps and location-based information — because the platform's foundation is based on narrowband channels. As a result, major design changes would be required to deliver significantly increased bandwidth.

“There are no plans for higher speeds beyond WiDEN,” Motorola's Wright said. “We were able to group channels four at a time to increase the data rates to get comparable speeds to GPRS and [CDMA] 1x without major design changes to the technology.”

Sprint Nextel's Foosaner said Sprint and Nextel combined their IWN contract bids after the merger to include both iDEN and EV-DO high-speed data technology. “It's recognition that we already have 50,000-plus federal users on iDEN, not to mention how many other CDMA users. There is a real pent-up demand for EV-DO data capability. … First responders need more than voice.”

Foosaner envisions a powerful combination of iDEN, EV-DO, whatever technology the operator deploys in the 2.5 GHz band and Sprint's IP backbone network converging to work for public safety.

“Sprint has one of the premier IP networks in the world, and we can take a creative private-sector product development and work it tightly in with public safety for services such as international push-to-talk and dynamic groups,” he said. “There are already gateways today between iDEN and LMR systems.”

Although Sprint says it will offer a combined iDEN/CDMA handset, Motorola says it has not made a final commitment to building them. Concerns over market size for such a device could prevent Motorola from taking the plunge. Compounding matters for Sprint is that there currently aren't many options beyond Motorola, as no other handset vendor thus far has tried to build an iDEN handset.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUND

Regardless of how the evolution of iDEN plays out, the entire prospect of the government buying the network likely would be problematic should Sprint get spectrum in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands in return, which some reports have speculated. History suggests that competing carriers such as Verizon Wireless would strongly oppose a government swap of this valuable spectrum.

Also, prior to merging with Sprint, Nextel told MRT it was interested in moving deeper into the mission-critical communications arena. However, the carrier indicated at the time that such a move must involve more of a private/public partnership to subsidize the expense of adding extra capacity and hardening cell sites. When asked if Sprint would consider such a scenario, Foosaner was noncommittal.

There are many unanswered questions when it comes to a private/public partnership, the answers to which may require new government regulations. For instance, what does each side contribute? How much control would public-safety entities have in terms of defining requirements and maintaining or repairing the system? How would Sprint meet government security requirements? And which is liable should something go wrong with the system?

Nevertheless, the pressure is on to find a solution to radio interoperability problems that continue to plague first responders. The 9/11 Commission gave the government an F grade because Congress still hasn't helped police and firefighters communicate with each other in a disaster. The problem was highlighted with the World Trade Center bombings and the 9/11 attacks, and it was highlighted again during Hurricane Katrina months ago.

Said 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton in releasing the report: “It's scandalous that police and firefighters in large cities still cannot communicate reliably in a major crisis.”

THE PROS & CONS OF PARTNERING WITH SPRINT NEXTEL

+ PROS:

High-speed data capability

No upfront costs to build out network

No regular maintenance requirements

Service available in most areas nationwide

- CONS:

Users must pay monthly charges

Unknown network capacity for first-responder services during crisis (although some operators have implemented priority access)

No quality-of-service guarantee for repairs without special contractual agreements

Coverage in rural areas is questionable