When most people use the term "first responder," they typically think first about personnel in police, fire and emergency medical service (EMS) departments. As public-safety officials have lobbied vigorously in an effort to convince Congress to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to first responders, serving the broadband communications needs of these "Big 3" first-responder groups has been the focus.

Historically, public-safety representatives have been very protective of their licensed spectrum, which has been an extremely scarce resource in the past. However, many key leaders in the push for D Block reallocation now are advocating that the use of 700 MHz broadband spectrum dedicated to first responders not be limited to traditional public-safety users.

Two primary factors are driving this unprecedented sentiment. From an operational perspective, many response agencies are recognizing that their ability to make the best decisions at an incident often depends on information from outside the three primary public-safety groups, whether it be another governmental entity or critical-infrastructure enterprises such as hospitals or utilities.

Another reason revolves around money. The real value of the 700 MHz broadband spectrum — with or without the D Block — is only as great as the networks operated over those frequencies; where no networks are built, the spectrum has no real value. In today's harsh economic climate, public-safety entities are having trouble finding enough funding to maintain staffing levels and legacy LMR networks, much less to tackle a massive capital project based on wireless broadband technology that is not the expertise of most public-safety radio shops.

However, by building wireless broadband networks to meet public-safety standards and allowing other users — most notably, other government departments — to access the network, the financial dynamics of a wireless network can change drastically. Adding more users not only improves the economies of scale associated with the network on a per-user basis, but expanding the scope of the network beyond traditional first-responder organizations creates the potential for new revenue sources to help fund the buildout and maintenance of a broadband system.

Public safety first

One example of this is the New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN), a 2.5 GHz broadband system built, operated and maintained by Northrop Grumman that boasts 377 sites that provide coverage over a 300-square-mile area using T-CDMA technology from IPWireless. Today, multiple city departments are leveraging the network, but the initial deployment focus was on public safety, said Steve Harte, associate commissioner of wireless technologies for New York City's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

"From Sept. 11th to the blackout, the common thread is that commercial networks don't meet the demands of public safety for voice or data," Harte said, noting that commercial systems tend to get overloaded during large-scale incidents.

Meanwhile, several other departments in New York City also were expressing a desire for broadband wireless capabilities, and many of them were in the planning stages of deploying their own networks when funding was made available. Had all of these plans reached fruition, New York City would have had five broadband networks — likely using different vendors and technologies — that would have been complicated and expensive to deploy and maintain. In addition, the systems likely would not have been fully interoperable, Harte said.

Instead, city officials opted to build a single network to serve the needs of all New York City departments. The five-year, $500 million deal included $368 million for the deployment of the system, with the primary focus being public safety, Harte said. NYCWiN was developed with the redundancies, backup power and security features first responders demand, he said.

"If you can meet public safety's requirements, it's not hard to get a smaller agency on board," Harte said.

One of the most important groups identified for NYCWiN was the city's department of transportation, which was paying $4 million annually to the local phone company to lease copper-based connectivity to 2,400 traffic controllers that dictate traffic patterns in the city, Harte said. By leveraging NYCWiN, the city was able to save the $4 million payment to the carrier and was able to expand connectivity to an additional 8,100 controllers — a project that would not have been pursued otherwise, because the carrier-based solution would have added $13 million in expenses to the city's annual budget.

The notion of greatly enhancing New York City's ability to manage traffic while saving $4 million annually — or $17 million, if the cost of the expansion was considered — resonated with elected officials, Harte said.

"When you start to compare that with paying carriers money, the numbers start to add up and make sense," Harte said.

While the traffic-control savings were anticipated, the city soon discovered another notable cost savings from NYCWiN. Historically, the city has paid an outside firm at least $3.6 million annually to read each of the city's 800,000 water meters on a quarterly basis, Harte said. With NYCWiN, the city hopes to automate the meter-reading process, which promises to both save money and provide enhanced service to its residents by allowing them to monitor their water consumption on an regular basis.

"Where we used to pay an outside agency to read our water meters four times per year, now we can do it four times per day," Harte said.

In addition to providing billing information, connecting sensors along water mains to NYCWiN could help the city proactively identify usage irregularities and address small leaks before they develop into major water-main breaks. The ability to access such information on an almost real-time basis is proving to be valuable throughout the city, which is claiming its mobile work force has been 15-18% more efficient during the past year.

Some efficiencies may be considered mundane, such as the ability for mobile personnel to remotely "clock in" to start their day instead of having to travel to a department's headquarters to do it manually. But, broadband connectivity allows field personnel to file reports remotely, which saves time and reduces clerical errors, Harte said.

In addition, remote reporting allows personnel — be it police officers or building inspectors — to spend more time in the field. Not only does this help improve service levels, but other cost savings are being realized as well.

"We're hearing stories that they can halve the mileage on city vehicles," said Roger Quayle, CTO of IPWireless. Instead, personnel can spend their time traveling to job locations instead of to and from city hall to file reports.

The impact also is being felt in the public-safety arena, where the integration of NYCWiN and the police department's Real-Time Crime Center is changing the way the police department operates. With NYCWiN connectivity, detectives at a scene in minutes information [can process] that used to take hours or days to compile, said Charles Dowd, deputy chief with the New York Police Department

"Before, if you assigned four detectives to case, they would first go to the scene, and then you would have to send two of them back [to research information] — you would lose half your manpower at the scene," Dowd said.

NYCWiN project

  • $500 million citywide wireless broadband network
  • More than 400 cell sites, covering more than 95% of the five boroughs
  • Supporting 53 applications from 19 municipal and first-responder agencies
  • Fully mobile use cases
  • Economic business case

Source: IPWireless

Not just for N.Y.

Broadband's benefits are being realized outside New York City, as well. The city of Seattle is only in the initial planning stages, having recently applied for federal grants under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) to help pay for a proposed 700 MHz broadband network, but the financial realities of building a network that can be used by multiple agencies instead of just public-safety departments is readily apparent, said Seattle CTO Bill Schrier.

"The numbers do work for public safety, but … what we would spend over 10 years paying for month-to-month commercial service and what we would spend on a per-service basis for public safety are pretty much a wash," Schrier said. He noted, however, added value would be realized from greater reliability in a dedicated public-safety network.

"It pencils out a lot better in a regional situation [with other public-safety agencies], and it really pencils out well if we add second responders — our municipal electric utility, our municipal water utility and our transportation department."

In addition to the efficiency and interoperability benefits of a multiagency network, a major advantage of such networks is that they open multiple revenue streams to help build the system, Quayle said. For instance, by having a traffic department utilize the network, the department's normal funding sources and federal transportation grants can become part of the financial formula — a scenario that also applies to other departments.

Schrier said that such a model is much more realistic if Congress reallocates the D Block to public safety. One concern is that public-safety bandwidth needs in a given cell sector at an incident location could be so great — particularly if video is part of the equation — that first responders could use all of the capacity available over the 10 MHz of spectrum currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), he said.

However, if the D Block is combined with the PSST's spectrum, Schrier said that he would be much more comfortable having secondary users on the network, because public safety should be able to access the bandwidth it needs and secondary users would be able to count on quality performance from the network unless there is a significant emergency in the area.

"My gut feeling is that 20 MHz is going to be the minimum necessary to actually operate all of these first and second responders in a city like Seattle," he said.

And the case for multiagency networks is not limited to just major metropolitan areas, Quayle said. IPWireless has built a 2.5 GHz wireless system for $1 million in Gillette, Wyo. — a town with a population of 30,000 — that has few, if any, traffic lights controlled by the city. However, city officials still believe the system will pay for itself in three years by providing SCADA connectivity to sites on the outskirts of the city and by avoiding the ongoing monthly fees for wireless data connectivity for city personnel, he said.

"That's fairly typical of what we see for a multiagency network — a 3-year or 4-year return on investment," Quayle said.

Rules, rules, rules

As attractive as that kind of payout sounds, there is a very notable problem with the multiagency approach to a proposed 700 MHz broadband network — it would be illegal under current laws and regulations, which dictate that only first responders can access the PSST spectrum block.

"That requires a legislative or regulatory change to broaden the definition of a first responder," Quayle said. "A lot of them are going ahead, not realizing that the use of the 700 MHz spectrum is restricted [to first responders]. Some were totally surprised when we made them aware of that."

Most officials believe lawmakers and regulators are willing to alter rules to allow multiple government agencies to access the proposed nationwide broadband networks envisioned in the 700 MHz band. Schrier noted that many situations arise in which secondary users could be considered first responders, such as a utility needing to address a downed power line at an incident so that first responders can access the area safely.

From a technical perspective, the multiple layers of prioritization in broadband technologies such as LTE are ideal for such scenarios, because they can be configured dynamically to ensure that bandwidth is given to the users that need it most at a given time, Quayle said.

Conceptually, most sources believe lawmakers and regulators would embrace the notion of other government entities being allowed to access the proposed 700 MHz broadband network.

"There's no provision for other government agencies or utilities to use that," Schrier said. "From our discussions with the FCC, they do intend to change that."

However, exactly how far such privileges should extend could be a matter of considerable debate.

For instance, in Seattle, the city owns the electric utility, so having the utility on the network likely would be considered an extension of the government enterprise. However, if a utility or a hospital is privately owned, should different rules apply, even though the need to communicate with such entities over the 700 MHz network would still exist in a time of emergency? In addition, Schrier suggested that it is important that access to a proposed broadband network not be extended so far that it is perceived as government competing against private-sector carriers for commercial customers.

While such details still need to be addressed, Quayle said that he believes that enabling multiagency networks will be crucial to making the vision of nationwide interoperability via broadband wireless networks a reality, particularly for jurisdictions that are not able to secure federal funding such as large BTOP grants.

"[Most waiver jurisdictions'] mindset is not based on the multiagency model," Quayle said. "It's basically, 'There's government money out there. Let's get some.' But, ultimately, they're going to need to cost-justify a more substantial rollout. In our view, the only way they can make that economic is when they have a multiagency model."

U.S. city/county business cases for municipal/public-safety wireless networks

Traffic management

  • Local leased line rental avoidance
  • 1,100 traffic light controllers
  • 226 traffic cameras supported by traffic light controllers
  • $500,000 in benefits per year

Remote dBase access for first responders

  • Time and efficiency benefits
  • 600 police officers, 100 video cars
  • 100 fire officers
  • 70 transit authority vehicles
  • More than $1.5 million in benefits pay

Remote dBase access for public-administration users

  • OpEx reduction compared to commercial mobile services
  • More than 500 field workers
  • 5,000 general-purpose users
  • More than $5 million pay

Time and efficiency benefits

  • 1,000 buses
  • More than100 trains
  • 300 municipal vehicles
  • More than $1 million benefits pay

Meter reading services

  • Remote utility meter controller
  • 2,000 wireless meters
  • $600,000 benefits pay

Source: IPWireless