In an event that was equal parts technology demonstration and public-policy lobbying, the Spectrum Coalition for Public Safety hosted a highly-publicized demonstration of the District of Columbia's public-safety pilot broadband wireless network and called for assignment of an additional 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band for public-safety users.

The Capitol Hill event was attended by a high-powered mix of lawmakers, their staffers, public-safety officials and executives from Flarion and Motorola. The demonstration included real-time video transmitted through the network from a U.S. Park Police helicopter flying over the District into a hearing room at the House Rayburn Office Building.

D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, a member of the Homeland Security Caucus, hailed the District's accomplishments in public-safety communications as she called for faster action on spectrum.

“I don't think there's any city in the United States that can do what the District can do,” Holmes said. “We can talk underground, we can talk deep into a burning building, we can talk into the tunnels of the Metro in the entire region…we can talk all among ourselves, and we can talk to our federal responders. We are totally interoperable.”

She said first responders not only needed the 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum scheduled to be turned over from broadcasters in the future (see story on page 10) but an additional 10 MHz spectrum to support public-safety broadband wireless networks. “We not only need to be able to talk deep but to see deep” by enabling wireless video.

Public-safety officials attending the event underlined the need for faster legislative action to transfer the spectrum currently used to transmit analog television signals.

“As a first responder who deals with these issues on a daily basis, I'm here to tell you that we need this [spectrum] to do our jobs effectively,” said Lieutenant Charles Smith of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Los Angeles County is in the process of overhauling their public-safety communications system and wants to be able to include a high-speed broadband wireless network into their new infrastructure.

“We desperately need [Congress] to make this decision [on spectrum],” Smith said.

District of Columbia's pilot network is operating in the 700 MHz band on TV channel 68 under an 18-month experimental license from the FCC.

“We're really lucky that the closest adjacent station [using the frequency] is channel 68, Maryland public television out in Hagerstown, [Maryland, about 72 miles away,] “said Bill Butler, project manager, Wireless Projects Group, D.C.'s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. “A lot of other municipalities have television stations on these frequencies and couldn't do what we're doing right now.”

The network is consists of 10 broadcast sites distributed around the city and can deliver as much as 1.5 Mb/s of bandwidth to first responders' laptop computers and personal digital assistants to let them watch video feeds, access databases and use other applications. Access to the network is enabled through Flarion's FLASH-OFDM wireless network cards, 200 of which have been purchased initially at less than $100 each.

The District hasn't decided on an upper-end number of users on their network, but “the network is extremely scalable and, if we don't have enough sites, we can add another site. Throwing up another [base station] is not that expensive,” Butler said. In addition, the network is being used to beta test Motorola's Greenhouse Project, a high-speed public-safety applications suite that includes voice, video and computer-aided dispatch.

Ultimately, Spectrum Coalition members envision a network far larger than the District's trial infrastructure. Adjacent jurisdictions would be plugged into a single fully interoperable wireless data network that would seamlessly exchange voice, data, and video.

“Our plan all along is to try to roll out the ability to do this nationally where you could basically roam, like a cellular network,” said Butler.