There’s a great deal of excitement about the future of public-safety communications, and for very good reason, as broadband technology ultimately will give first responders capabilities that today are the stuff of dreams. But a plethora of speed bumps stand in the way of realizing that future. One of the big ones concerns how to get the enormous amount of data that such systems will generate where it needs to go in a timely manner. This is particularly important as it relates to mission-critical communications.

Don Denning, the city of Boston’s chief information officer for public safety, characterized broadband as “a much different animal,” during a webinar last month that was presented in conjunction with the inaugural IWCE/Urgent Communications virtual trade show.

According to Denning, the city typically is able to backhaul traffic generated by its land-mobile-radio systems — even a large 16-channel system — over a single T1 line. But implementation of a broadband network will result in “exponentially larger backhaul costs,” he said.

Boston and Seattle — two cities that were among the 23 municipalities that received initial waivers from the FCC to start deploying 700 MHz broadband networks — are leveraging fiber to provide the backhaul capacity that they will need. Boston’s fiber initiative is aided by a local ordinance that requires telecommunications providers to lay “shadow conduit” for municipal use any time they tear up the street for their own purposes.

But not every burg will have the political and financial resources to do what Boston and Seattle are doing. This is particularly true of rural entities. Their only recourse will be to pool their resources, suggested Seattle CIO Bill Schrier, who also spoke during the webinar. As an example, he cited Pierce County, Wash., in which the city of Tacoma is located. The county had secured taxpayer funding to upgrade its public-safety communications radio system. Part of its strategy is to piggyback onto a 700 MHz LMR switch that was installed for a transit agency in the county.

“So, in that case, you have two public entities — transit agency and public safety — cooperating to build out sites and a network. … There are lots of assets — fiber assets and sites — that can be used to build out these [broadband] networks, but we have to cooperate and collaborate together. You can’t stand alone in the silo.”

The concept of collaboration was explored in depth by Senior Writer Donny Jackson in the cover story that appears in the current issue of UC, entitled “Interdependence Day.” Indeed, the overarching theme of the article is that public-safety agencies will need to collaborate in ways that likely will seem quite foreign at first, but ultimately will clear the path to the broadband future they have been dreaming about.

However, the idea of local or regional collaboration might not seem as odd as it would have a decade ago. The emphasis on interoperable communications that rose out of the ashes of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks forced public-safety agencies to think regionally, if for no other reason than that was the only way to qualify for federal funding for such projects. Many public safety-agencies — particularly those in rural areas — will have to adopt a similar mindset if they want to realize the power of broadband.

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