The Obama administration’s public support to build a nationwide broadband network is encouraging news. Public safety has been lobbying for a dedicated network to support its needs, including transmitting quality voice, video and data. As the government begins to provide standards and funding for the project, it besets the administration to investigate which government-built networks currently are being deployed. One such network is the New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN) —a high-speed, mobile data network that stretches across 300 square miles and five boroughs.

Terrorism attacks on 9/11 and the northeast regional blackouts in 2003 highlighted shortcoming in first-responder communications. Such events made clear the need for dedicated first responders bandwidth and government control over a network, said Nick Sbordone, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. Sbordone said the network was established in 2009, and inevitably, new applications outside of public safety became apparent. As a result, the network now supports multiple agencies’ mobile applications, including wireless meter reading and automatic vehicle location systems.

Sbordone discussed the network in more detail with Associate Editor Mary Rose Roberts, including why it was needed and how it meets the needs of those public workers who use it.

What was the impetus for a government-only network?
The sheer number of people who access commercial networks during emergencies makes them unreliable for emergency service purposes. For instance, when multiple people converge upon the scene of an emergency, cellular service often becomes unavailable; and when power disrupts local areas, that same service is lost. In recent years, commercial carriers have experienced disruptions that make reliance on their networks unacceptable for public-safety purposes.

In order to support the city’s emergency services, the NYC built a government-only network. The city’s analysis of existing systems concluded that current public safety mobile data systems, with speeds of 19.2 kbps, required extensive upgrades, as they were barely fast enough to support basic applications. To support the kinds of next-generation public-safety needs, upgrades in excess of 1 Mbps are required.

What are the core elements of the network’s design?
This design incorporates multiple levels of safeguards and redundancies. The system allows for multiple levels of prioritization so that critical users are guaranteed access and bandwidth when they need it (for instance, during a fire, a first responder would have access and bandwidth priority over an inspector). It allows us to control bandwidth allocations so that groups of users can have extra bandwidth dedicated to them on demand. For instance, if we needed to transmit video from the scene of an incident, we could allocate additional bandwidth to allow for full-motion video. The network is built with multiple levels of redundancy including back-up battery and generator power, redundant 24-hour operations centers, diverse telecommunications capabilities, and microwave and ground-based backhaul connectivity.

Specifically, NYCWiN’s infrastructure consists of 377 network sites covering the city’s 300 square miles.

How is security addressed?
The system protects/encrypts data transmitted over the network from end to end. It also takes into account Department of Homeland Security considerations. In January 2006, DHS released its second report on next-generation public safety communications system requirements. The “Statement of Requirements for Public Safety Wireless Communications and Interoperability” provided a powerful post-9/11 public-safety communications model, consistent with the requirements of NYCWiN. The DHS document envisioned hundreds of next-generation public-safety communications capabilities, some of which included the ability to exchange data quickly and transparently on-scene at an incident and to exchange data within and between public-safety agencies. It also includes system administration and security that allows for user identification and authorization.

Which city departments use the network, and, in what capacity?
There are currently more than 40 applications serving 22 agencies running over the network, representing hundreds of thousands of wireless transactions every day.

  • New York City Police Department: The DoITT has worked with the NYPD to install more than 1,300 modems in police vehicles to enable access to a wide array of crucial information to officers on the move – including driver’s license scanning, mug shot downloads and license plate reader capabilities.
  • Department of Environmental Protection Automated Meter Reading Program: The system measures water consumption at consumer locations throughout the city via units transmitting data across NYCWiN. Today, 600,000—or 70% of the total planned — consumer meters are operational within the five boroughs. Nearly 835,000 meter-reading units will be installed across the city through 2012.
  • Department of Transportation Traffic Management Program: The city’s traffic management capability is enhanced with the ability to track, watch and analyze traffic flow at locations across the five boroughs, streaming real-time information back to central operations over NYCWiN. Approximately 2,400 intersections across the city are now covered by the program. When complete, 10,500 modems will enhance capabilities and intersections citywide.
  • Automatic Vehicle Location: NYCWiN also supports an enterprise automatic vehicle location capability. The capability enables the agency’s control center to more accurately dispatch its fleet resources and proactively monitor vehicle diagnostics. Currently, the network supports more than 400 fleet vehicles spanning 13 city agencies.