A much-debated nationwide, mobile broadband network for first responders could be years away in most of the United States, but public-safety officers already are using commercial broadband technology to execute their job-related tasks more efficiently, according to a recent study in Florida.

More than 60% of the Pinellas County, Fla., officers responding to a survey conducted by AT&T acknowledged that they use their personal wireless broadband devices to supplement their issued communications equipment while on the job, said Pam Montanari, radio and data-systems manager for the county, during a session yesterday at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in Chicago.

Some critics of the proposed 700 MHz LTE network for first responders have questioned whether public-safety personnel would use wireless broadband technology regularly, if such a network is deployed. Of those responding that they use their personal wireless devices to fulfill job duties, 84% said they use their personal devices for this purpose daily, and 20% said they have used their personal devices in a critical situation, Montanari said.

“It’s not like [using a personal broadband device is] being done every now and then; it’s every day that their doing this,” Montanari said. “If you talk to some of the officers in the field, they’ll tell you that. They won’t tell you that in front of their supervisors, but they’ll tell you.”

Some of the most compelling uses of broadband cited by officers were 3D views of floor plans, GIS information, and a host of video applications that can accelerate the identification process and provide valuable evidence, according to the survey.

Next week, Pinellas County will be conducting a demonstration of these applications on a network established by Alcatel-Lucent that will use the vendor’s hosted LTE core, Montanari said, noting that the trial does not mean the county has selected a vendor for any permanent LTE system in the future.

Each public-safety entity will have to decide for itself whether to own, operate and maintain an LTE core and networking gear or leverage a hosted solution from a vendor, but personnel and financial resources likely will be key factors in determining the choice, Montanari said. Given the fact that many public-safety entities are facing tight budgets and that personnel trained in the complexities of LTE are difficult to find outside of the commercial arena, a hosted solution may be sensible choice for many first-responder entities, said Morgan Wright, vice president of Alcatel-Lucent’s global public-safety segment.

“From an industry standpoint, we think, with any new technology, there’s a lot of challenge for agencies to have the proper staffing and skill set — it’s going to take a lot of skills and a lot of people to effectively manage the network, if you do it yourself,” Wright said during the IACP session.