1. 700 MHz: Will everything come together for public safety?

    There is a lot happening in the wireless sector, but there's little doubt that the biggest story of 2008 will be the 700 MHz auction and its results, which promise to shape the future of the industry in the United States for at least the next decade.

    Given its excellent propagation characteristics, there's little doubt that the 700 MHz spectrum is highly valued by wireless operators, which is why the FCC set an unprecedented aggregate reserve price of more than $10 billion for the 60 MHz of airwaves scheduled for commercial bidding. If the spectrum were unencumbered, most analysts believe that the auction easily would exceed the price tag sought by government officials.

    However, that is not the case. The 22 MHz of spectrum in the C Block will be subject to open-access provisions designed to let customers use any mobile device, as long as those devices don't harm the networks. Large entrenched players publicly opposed the open-access notion, but Verizon recently dropped litigation asking that the FCC change the rules.

    For years, the 700 MHz spectrum has been a source of hope for more competition in the increasingly consolidated U.S. commercial wireless market. Everyone from technology companies to content players has been rumored to be interested in bidding for the airwaves, but it's not clear whether such entities really want to build, maintain and operate their own networks, particularly if the open-access provisions enable new business models for innovative wireless strategies.

    Not only are members of the wireless community anxiously anticipating the identity of the auction winner(s), many are interested in the technologies that will be deployed on the spectrum. Chip-making giant Intel used its considerable political capital to help drive the Capitol Hill compromise that ensured the 700 MHz auction would happen, but the company's wireless technology of choice — WiMAX — has been conspicuously absent from any technology discussions to date.

    Of course, no group has as much at stake in the 700 MHz process as public safety, which hopes to gain the use of a nationwide, public-safety-grade broadband network that is built and maintained by the D Block winner.

    “We are embarking on a grand experiment, the likes of which public safety — certainly in North America — has never seen before,” said John Facella, director of public-safety markets for M/A-COM.

    On the surface, such a public/private arrangement appears to be a logical way to bridge public-safety's need to access broadband services it cannot afford to deploy itself, while providing a commercial operator with a stable “anchor tenant” as its priority customer for a premium network. But there remains considerable doubt whether a commercial operator can build a network that public safety will trust while still making enough profit to keep investors happy.

    This question will not be answered fully for several years, but 2008 will provide important clues — whether a commercial operator will bid on the D Block and whether the D Block winner can reach a network sharing agreement with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, the national licensee for public safety's 700 MHz broadband spectrum.

  2. Intelligent radio: Are we there yet?

    As the U.S. wireless community prepares for what many believe to be the last great spectrum auction, long-promised technological advances in cognitive radio and software-defined radio, or SDR, should hit the market next year and possibly change the industry's perception of airwaves.

    For years, the wireless industry has complained of a spectrum shortage, but FCC officials and others have noted that the vast majority of frequencies are not used at any given moment. Traditional technologies are not capable of exploiting this situation, but new technologies — from frequency-agile RF transceivers to software solutions — can. More importantly, many of these technologies are scheduled to become tangible products in 2008 at prices much lower than many experts projected.

    Shared Spectrum already has demonstrated that its solution can meet military specifications for finding and operating on “open” spectrum, and the company is teaming with M/A-COM to develop a cognitive radio costing less than $500 by the end of 2008.

    Cognitive characteristics allow radios to be built less expensively because they are designed to avoid spectral environments — strong signals next to weak ones — that today require expensive radio front-ends, said Preston Marshall, a program manager in the strategic technology office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

    “In the past, we built very expensive and very power-consuming front-ends [to radios],” Marshall said. “WNAN [wireless network after next] has a much poorer performing front-end, but it uses a cognitive radio to find the right place for a network, so it doesn't need a very good front-end.”

    Improved transceivers that can handle a wide range of frequencies also promise to be on the market soon, with chip solutions from Bitwave and Terocelo scheduled to be commercially available in 2008. These solutions promise to make multiband handsets more affordable and easier to develop than the current practice of replicating baseband RF combinations for each frequency swath being accessed.

    Developments also are happening on the infrastructure side. SDR company Vanu has deployed a network that supports both GSM and CDMA protocols, and Vanu CEO Vanu Bose said his company's software solution can support any protocol — a notion that threatens to change the way wireless infrastructure deployments are made.

    “The main benefit we get by moving the standard entirely into software is that we decouple the hardware from the standard,” Bose said. “No longer is it the case that, when you buy infrastructure, you're making a standards decision.

    “The way we describe it to our customers is, ‘An investment in our hardware is not an investment in a standard, it's an investment in your frequency band. Whatever you want to do in that frequency band, we can change the software in the future and reuse the same hardware.’”

  3. WIMAX vs. UWB: The choice for mobility

    Gartner Research coined the term “Hype Cycle” in 1995 to describe the brouhaha and subsequent disappointment that typically follows the introduction of new technologies. Gartner came up with several phases of the hype cycle, beginning with a heralded technology breakthrough, followed by over-inflated expectations and then a period of despair and disillusionment when the technology doesn't immediately live up to the hype. The news surrounding the formerly over-hyped technology then quiets as companies continue to experiment in order to understand the practical applications of the technology, until one day the more realistic benefits of said technology become broadly accepted.

    Both mobile WiMAX and ultrawideband (UWB) technologies are in the beginning stages of this infamous cycle. For mobile WiMAX, a handful of deployments have occurred internationally, but the world is waiting for the big one: Sprint Nextel's planned nationwide rollout in the 2.5 GHz band. Sprint has almost single-handedly influenced the pace of development for mobile WiMAX, pushing the ecosystem partners together to get WiMAX adopted into as many laptops, phones and consumer electronics devices as possible. The carrier, which plans to soft-launch the service in both Washington, D.C., and Chicago at the end of 2007, is not only launching a commercially unproven mobile IP technology, it's also rolling out a new business model centered on open access that allows any device and application to run over the network. Sprint is relying on third parties to help market its service because it won't be selling subsidized devices. Someday, anyone should be able to walk into Best Buy and purchase a WiMAX-capable laptop or gaming device.

    But has Sprint set itself up for over-inflated expectations? Certainly mobile WiMAX won't be ubiquitous or capable of hitting anywhere near its peak rate of 100 Mb/s. Moreover, Sprint can't control what the electronics industry does. What types of devices will adopt mobile WiMAX next year? Will consumers be disappointed when they don't find WiMAX embedded in their Gameboys? As Sprint rolls out more markets in 2008, it will be clear that the benefits Sprint talks about still will be some time away.

    When the FCC gave its blessing to unlicensed UWB technology in 2002, it envisioned a plethora of potential uses, ranging from broadband access to the Internet to radar imaging of objects buried underground or behind walls. Fast-forward to 2007, and UWB is still on the cusp of exploding into the commercial market. But there are signs the dam is cracking. In 2006, The Bluetooth special interest group (SIG) selected the multiband OFDM (M-OFDM) version of UWB for its next level of physical layer options, which will increase the transmission speed of Bluetooth significantly, from 3 Mb/s to 480 Mb/s. However, UWB products are only trickling in, and UWB-enabled handsets still aren't commercial reality. Silicon vendors also aren't delivering on their promises. As such, the technical committees of the Bluetooth SIG have decided to develop protocols to enable the use of Wi-Fi alongside UWB. With strong consumer interest in handsets that include Wi-Fi, it looks like Wi-Fi will fill the gap until UWB makes its debut in a meaningful way.

  4. Sprint Nextel: Is a turnaround coming?

    To say the least, 2007 was not a good year for Sprint Nextel. The carrier steadily lost subscribers throughout the year, faced investor pressure over its WiMAX investments, failed to create synergies or capital savings from its acquisition with Nextel, and is struggling with a capacity crunch on its iDEN network as it rebands the 800 MHz spectrum to avoid interference with public safety.

    Sprint simply has too many fingers in too many different pies. Its new CEO — still unnamed — will have to make some tough decisions about the direction in which Sprint needs to go. It must focus on its core mobile-phone business — both CDMA and iDEN — while looking to the future with WiMAX. Clearly its heavy investments and losses are putting investor pressure on the company to stop the bleeding.

    So how does Sprint climb out of the pit it's in? It must make some critical decisions about where its money goes. The company's push-to-talk (P2T) community, formerly the bread and butter for Nextel before its merger with Sprint, is disgruntled. The efforts to reband 800 MHz spectrum that Nextel undertook before the merger to alleviate radio interference for first responders have become more complicated for the operator. This has resulted in a capacity crunch for Sprint's high-value P2T users, who now complain about network quality and are defecting to competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Sprint is hoping to alleviate the pain by migrating users onto its CDMA 1xEV-DO Rev. A Q-Chat service, but that means pumping money into bolstering capacity and coverage. Indeed, the company spent more on CDMA and EV-DO improvements in the third quarter, and it didn't increase capex spending on WiMAX as was expected.

    In addition, Sprint and Clearwire called off their plans to share the costs to build a joint WiMAX network that would have reached at least 100 million people by the end of 2008. The move doesn't bode well for a rapid and widespread deployment of WiMAX in the U.S. Even though Sprint has re-affirmed its plans to soft-launch its Xohm WiMAX service later this year in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., with a commercial launch in 2008, it's still uncertain as to how aggressive it will be in 2008. The company says it is re-evaluating the business. But to meet FCC buildout requirements as part of its merger agreement with Nextel, Sprint has to launch the WiMAX network in the 2.5 GHz spectrum — so its WiMAX buildout likely will not be scrapped. Chances are that Sprint is now looking for strategic investors or considering a merger or spin-off of the business.

  5. Interoperability: How far can $1 billion go?

    Since Sept. 11, 2001, interoperable communications among first-responder organizations has been a priority for federal officials, leading to the establishment of a $1 billion grant program overseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

    To meet a legislative mandate, the funding technically was allocated to states a few months ago, but the real disbursement will be made by the states — assuming NTIA approval — for selected interoperability projects during the first part of 2008. Anticipated revenues from the 700 MHz auction are supporting the interoperability grants, which must be used to enhance interoperability while also interfacing with — but not necessarily operating on — the 700 MHz band.

    At one time, many industry observers would have predicted such an influx of interoperability money would be spent primarily on radio equipment using Project 25 technology, particularly with key portions of the Inter-RF Subsystem Interface portion of the standard having been finalized. Certainly P25 solutions will be a big part of state proposals, but the broad-based funding criteria means other options can be considered.

    The foundation for many of these alternatives is Internet Protocol, the most common platform for commercial communications today. Many public-safety officials have questioned the reliability and performance of IP technology, but vendors have developed IP-based solutions designed to be mission-critical that also leverage the economies of scale found in the information-technology sector to lower costs.

    From longtime public-safety manufacturers like M/A-COM to relative newcomers like CoCo Communications and Cisco Systems — a company that recently announced new business relationships with traditional first-responder solutions providers EFJohnson and Raytheon JPS — the practice of converting an RF signal to IP so it can be transmitted via numerous disparate networks has become a common theme in the interoperability solutions being demonstrated in high-profile trials throughout the U.S.

    Perhaps the most significant aspect of these IP-based interoperability solutions is that they typically do not require public-safety entities to forklift their considerable investments in embedded RF technologies that remain functional. With such an approach, a CoCo Communications official said his company's solution could provide interoperability for most of the nation for $300 million — a fraction of the $30 billion or more that many estimated would be necessary to build a nationwide P25 network.

    While the focus of the interoperability effort in 2008 likely will be on radio voice communications, the development of a nationwide 700 MHz data-centric network and next-generation 911 systems for public safety promises to provide improved access to increasingly critical information. As the data needs and capabilities of first responders mature, information-sharing standards pushed by organizations such as the IJIS Institute could be the subject of another high-profile interoperability effort over the next several years.

  6. E911: An uncertain future

    Established almost 40 years ago, 911 emergency calls long have been the starting point for most first-responder actions. However, the original system — built to work with telephony systems of the 1960s — is in need of an overhaul to work with the communications technologies that have flourished during the last decade.

    Commercial wireless is the most notable of the newer technologies, with cellular callers making the majority of 911 calls to many public-safety answering points (PSAPs). However, the location information associated with such calls has long been a concern for public safety — a notion legitimized by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) study that revealed that many PSAPs do not receive the location accuracy within the FCC's national standards.

    The FCC already has ruled that carriers will have to meet the location standard on a PSAP-by-PSAP basis, but an order detailing the technical requirements had not been released as of press time. Moreover, the pending rules also are expected to address whether providers of increasingly popular nomadic voice-over-IP (VoIP) offerings must meet similar criteria.

    While cellular and VoIP calls are the most pressing issues facing PSAPs, the technologies appear to be just the first of many communication methods — including text messaging, pictures and video — that were not fathomed when the 911 system was created. Given the expense of retrofitting the legacy 911 system, the time has come for a new emergency-calling platform, said David Jones, co-chair of the next-generation 911 transition planning committee for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

    “VoIP has taught us that there's no way we can put this square peg into that round hole any longer,” Jones said during NENA's annual convention in June. “We cannot do it. We cannot adapt the current 911 system anymore; it simply cannot be done.”

    To that end, NENA, APCO and organizations such as the U.S. Department of Transportation are developing guidelines for a next-generation 911 network that is expected to leverage IP technologies and open standards to allow public safety to receive communications from emergency callers using any device.

    This vision is expected to be solidified during 2008, but public-safety officials are quick to note that creating next-generation 911 standards is only part of the problem. At some point, an influx of money will be needed for PSAPs to make upgrades, but such funding efforts historically have been undermined by state legislatures raiding PSAP war chests or by promised federal appropriations never materializing.

    Nevertheless, public-safety representatives are hopeful that elected officials will be more eager to embrace the need for PSAPs to upgrade to the next-generation vision than they were with wireless E911.

  7. Video surveillance: Not just for criminals

    One of the goals of modern video-surveillance technologies is to capture criminal activity in real time. The truth is, these systems often fall short of public safety's hopes — let alone compare with the high-tech systems in blockbuster movies that are closer to science fiction than reality.

    The closest that video-surveillance technology has come to those Hollywood-imagined heights is the ability to decipher people from objects. For instance, Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition's software development kit, which is marketed to federal agencies, finds faces in photographs and tracks a person's movement throughout each video-surveillance footage frame. According to the company, there aren't enough personnel to sort through video files to determine whether a significant event has happened, so the software filters the video and isolates human faces.

    As video-surveillance technology continues to mature, more U.S. public-safety agencies are investing millions to deploy it throughout urban areas. Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street announced in October that the city contracted Unisys Corp. to install 250 video surveillance cameras across the city to reduce and prevent crime. The system will cost $8.9 million for the first year, including the cameras, network, software and hardware.

    In Los Angeles, the police department installed a video-surveillance system in May that can remotely monitor a high-crime area and transmit the data to a centralized location. The installation was paid for by $800,000 in funding from a variety of sources, including the Department of Justice, the city's housing authority and social services department, and in-kind donations. Motorola also donated to the project. The goal was to send real-time video to mobile computers in officers' squad cars. However, the system so far has failed to meet expectations and has yet to be turned on.

    Installing video surveillance cameras to combat crime is a global effort. Across the pond, France announced in October that it will triple its number of video surveillance cameras by 2009 as part of the fight against terrorism and street crime. The number of authorized cameras in France will be about 340,000, according to Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

    Surveillance solutions have come to Greece as well. The Athens suburb of Argyroupolis just installed its first municipal Wi-Fi network for real-time information transmission to municipal workers, video surveillance for public safety, and — because of the recent fires in the nearby mountainous regions — a fire-watch surveillance system.

    Indeed, tracking disastrous fires may be the next step for the technology, as it already has been field-tested to fight the wildfires that ravaged Southern California in October. The Air Force used the unmanned Predator and Global Hawk planes, as well as the U-2 and P-3 surveillance aircraft, to send video and photographs in real time to firefighters on the ground, which officials said prompted firefighters to adjust tactics to better fight the fires.

  8. Non-terrestrial communications: Bigger and better backup

    When natural disasters strike, communication towers often are either destroyed or overpowered by the sheer number of users tapping into the network. As a result, vendors are touting non-terrestrial systems as the ultimate backup plan to assist in public-safety communications.

    One company focused on this effort is Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV). The company recently entered into a three-year distribution agreement with the Sprint Emergency Response Team to provide wireless connectivity to public-safety agencies when the public switched telephone network is congested, damaged or nonexistent. In fact, Sprint offers the company's satellite products and services as part of its Rapid Deployment Solutions portfolio, which, according to MSV, supports interoperable communications as well as push-to-talk (P2T) and two-way radio service over satellite. In addition, MSV offers a satellite mutual aid radio talk group on its P2T satellite network, which is administered in conjunction with the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, so authorized law enforcement and public-safety officials can participate in a nationwide two-way satellite radio talk group.

    Non-terrestrial systems also are being used globally. In October, Applied Satellite Technology Australia, an Iridium reseller, won a contract from the Australian Department of Environment and Conservation's West Australian Fire Management Services to supply an Iridium-based satellite communication system, which includes remote asset tracking of 150 firefighting vehicles using Iridium's short-burst data service. The system also will provide voice and data communications using fixed and handheld Iridium satellite phones, according to the company.

    Companies continue to partner on this front, as seen with the recent collaboration between Aruba Networks and iDirect Inc., a division of Vision Technologies Systems. In late October, the companies announced the completion of wireless LAN-to-satellite integration testing. The test certified the interoperability of Aruba's solution with iDirect's satellite platform, which lets satellite customers provide a wide area network interface to adaptive wireless LANs that supports video surveillance, perimeter-security monitoring and disaster-recovery applications. According to iDirect, the collaboration lets the company guarantee compatibility with devices that can leverage wide area connections, such as Wi-Fi-enabled handsets, PDAs, cameras and sensors. Paired with other services, the interoperable system also lets mobile vehicles access converged data, video and voice, while first responders can deploy mobile Wi-Fi hotspots in disaster areas.

    Mobile command centers continue to tap into satellite technology, and this will be the trend for the foreseeable future. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showcased its mobile command post and integrated communications in October at the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. The satellite dish and two-way radios in the vehicle let EPA officials at an incident communicate with other emergency responders when traditional phone lines are inoperable.

the next 8

  1. Industry consolidation

    Motorola keeps getting stronger, more reason for others to join forces.

  2. Power consumption/generation

    First responders need devices that last longer, especially during major disasters.

  3. 800 MHz rebanding

    The project is well behind schedule, and the FCC is turning the screws.

  4. Municipal wireless

    A new economic model focused on government and public safety emerges.

  5. TV white space

    Will it ever be used for unlicensed wireless broadband devices?

  6. Voice over broadband

    Technology isn't the problem; public safety's fear is.

  7. Data interoperability

    Exciting applications are next-to-useless if the info they generate can't be shared.

  8. Biometrics

    It is an exciting tool for homeland security, but privacy fears abound.

entities to watch

  1. D Block winner

    Will it be able to get along with the Public Safety Spectrum Trust?

  2. Cisco Systems

    IP giant targets public safety; Motorola might get some competition yet.

  3. Motorola

    What will it buy next?

  4. LMR vendors

    How will they cope with a giant that keeps getting bigger and stronger?

  5. Congress

    Will it ever keep its promises regarding public safety answering point funding?

  6. NENA

    Unless funding is found, its intriguing next-generation 911 initiative will spin its wheels.

  7. xG Technology

    It's on the cusp of several ground-shaking deals that will validate its wireless VoIP technology

  8. BearingPoint

    It has been accumulating major public-safety talent — why?

People to watch

  1. Kevin Martin

    He's grabbed the reins on 800 MHz rebanding and 700 MHz spectrum allocation; his legacy will depend on what happens next year.

  2. Harlin McEwen & Morgan O'Brien

    They will lead public safety in crucial negotiations with the D Block winner.

  3. Hillary Clinton & Rudy Giuliani

    They have waved the flag for public safety in the past, which could bode well for first responder communications.

  4. Sprint's next CEO

    800 MHz rebanding, iDEN defections and WiMax uncertainty — who will want to take on this mess?

  5. Preston Marshall

    DARPA program manager will be a hero if affordable intelligent radios become reality.

  6. Chuck Jackson

    Meeting FCC's rebanding deadline looks more and more like a mission impossible for Motorola's engineering guru.

  7. Meredith Baker

    Acting NTIA chief will get more heat from Congress if interoperability remains stalled.

  8. Michael Bloomberg

    In a tough economic climate, will the mayor find the cash for NYC's futuristic 911 system?

Things we want to see

  1. Sprint Nextel allowed to use Channel 1-120 spectrum until public safety is ready to reband.
  2. Public safety embrace the new 700 MHz shared broadband wireless network.
  3. M/A-COM, Shared Spectrum build a $500 cognitive radio, as scheduled.
  4. States spend the $1 billion in interoperability grant money wisely.
  5. A provider with access to plenty of financial and spectral resources wins the 700 MHz D Block auction.
  6. True device and system interoperability for public safety.
  7. More public-safety vendor consolidation [to compete with Motorola].
  8. The federal government coordinate broadband initiatives for responder agencies, not build overlapping networks.

Things we don't want to see

  1. No commercial entity willing to bid on the 700 MHz D Block.
  2. The 700 MHz D Block winner failing to reach a network-sharing agreement with the Public-Safety Spectrum Trust.
  3. The FCC cave on its rebanding timelines.
  4. Nervous breakdowns by rebanding participants trying to meet the FCC's new timelines.
  5. The 15-member PSST board suffer from paralysis by analysis.
  6. More empty promises from Congress regarding funding for PSAP upgrades.
  7. Public-safety officials dismissing new technologies.
  8. The FCC fail to clarify its 6.25 KHz narrowbanding plans below 512 MHz.