As New Orleans continues the painstaking process of rebuilding itself in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana TIE — “totally interoperable environment” — Project, or LATIE, is embarking on an ambitious plan to establish a statewide Project 25 interoperable voice, data, and imagery system in the 700 MHz band.

Upon completion, the system will serve about 40,000 public-safety radio users from all levels of police, fire and emergency medical service agencies statewide. Once the system is in place, LATIE will launch a wide area data service in the same spectrum, plus a mission-critical broadband data service in the 4.9 GHz band. But that's not all: the system will be IP-based, allowing unmatched flexibility in the types of content being moved over the airwaves.

After Katrina tore through Louisiana, severely damaging or destroying local government radio systems in the affected areas, FEMA stepped in and, with the state's help, planned a quick installation of a 700 MHz voice system to support local and state first responders, plus the thousands of new relief workers and volunteers pouring into the area. At a price of $15.9 million, this system — which represents the first phase of LATIE — is being built by Motorola using Project 25-compliant ASTRO 25 digital radio technology.

“We believe this to be the first 700 MHz-only trunked voice radio system to be deployed in North America,” said Dan Delaney, vice president of sales for Motorola's western region. Under the FEMA contract, Motorola is building 18 new tower sites, installing dispatch consoles, and supplying between 500 and 600 portable and mobile radios, he said.

If all goes according to plan, Phase I will be fully operational this year. It covers the lower southeastern third of Louisiana that was pummeled by Katrina, including New Orleans. Phase II, which covers the southwestern third, is slated to be up next year, while Phase III — which covers the northern third — is scheduled for completion in 2008.

While the FEMA deployment represents the launch phase of the project, LATIE was on the drawing board long before Katrina, according to Joseph Booth, deputy superintendent for the Louisiana State Police's Crisis Response and Special Operations Section, the agency spearheading LATIE.

“We began our planning for a more robust and interoperable statewide system for a number of reasons, none of which had to do with Hurricane Katrina,” Booth said.

The primary motivator was the state's legacy 800 MHz system, which Booth described as the oldest such system in the U.S. Installed in 1996, the analog trunked system currently serves about 70 agencies and 10,000 users, using 46 towers and 28 dispatch consoles. In addition to its aging voice system, the state's Motorola RD-LAP data network is limited by its 14.4 kb/s data throughput.

The decision to make the system Project 25-compliant was a “no-brainer,” Booth said.

“We want to put in a statewide radio system that every agency can use, whether federal, state, local, or military,” Booth said. “This is why we never envisioned anything less than Project 25-compliancy. Not only would this ensure that everyone could talk to each other, but by specifying Project 25, our participants can buy equipment from whichever Project 25-compliant vendor offers the best price.”

Another easy decision was to utilize the 700 MHz band, which is the much touted future home of public-safety communications once broadcasters vacate the band, which pending legislation mandates by February 2009 (MRT, January, page 8). For LATIE, 700 MHz made good sense because this spectrum offers much more available bandwidth than the currently crowded 800 MHz band.

“We decided that our interoperable path — which we see serving up to 40,000 users — would be far better served by 700 MHz,” Booth said. “It has the bandwidth we need to support everything we want to do.” Louisiana can move into the 700 MHz band today because the previous licensees of those frequencies already have moved to another part of the spectrum.

When all three phases are completed, 105 radio towers will blanket the state. To provide redundancy, the system will be devised so that if one or more towers fail, the others can be easily reconfigured to cover the affected areas. To pare deployment costs, LATIE will simulcast the network's signals on both the new 700 MHz and the existing 800 MHz systems.

“One thing we are not going to do is unplug existing infrastructure,” Booth said. “For instance, we want to refit existing 800 MHz towers so that they broadcast 700 MHz signals as well. Meanwhile, we want to keep our existing 800 MHz users — not just the [state police], but the 70 agencies who currently use our network — running on their 800 MHz equipment for as long as possible. We want to wear [the existing] equipment out before abandoning it.”

However, the state plans to motivate 800 MHz users to make the move to 700 MHz and integrate their networks into the new system — currently some cities, including New Orleans, operate their own public-safety radio systems — by absorbing the cost of operating and maintaining the statewide TIE network. This will leave member agencies to buy and maintain their own mobile and portable radios, laptop computers, and dispatch radio consoles. Agencies that already have purchased Project 25 reprogrammable radios can connect to the new network simply by resetting these radios to operate on 700 MHz.

In the wake of Katrina and the failure of New Orleans' 800 MHz radio system (MRT, November 2005, page 40), hurricane survival is a top priority for the TIE radio system. Beyond the ability to re-route traffic should towers be lost, the system also employs multiple layers of natural gas and diesel-fueled generators. In addition, the system's architecture makes it possible for affected dispatch centers to relocate elsewhere in the state without disruption.

Finally, system designers took into account the massive overload of radio traffic that occurred during Katrina's aftermath. “The existing 800 MHz system was unable to cope with the thousands and thousands of new users that were on air after the hurricane,” Booth said. “The new system will be able to cope with such growth.”

LATIE goals

  • Achieve redundant statewide radio coverage for public-safety agencies

  • Create a single voice and data Project 25 network across Louisiana at 700 MHz, plus a 4.9 GHz network for mission-critical data

  • Ensure data speeds fast enough to support Internet access, mug shot and fingerprint image transmissions on both 700 MHz and 4.9 GHz

  • Encourage migration to 700 MHz by local agencies paying to operate and maintain the network

  • Interoperate with existing 800 MHz radio networks