Last week, the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) and Northrop Grumman announced that the NYC Wireless Network (NYCWIN) — a high-speed, mobile data network announced in 2006 — is now citywide and serving multiple government agencies, from first responders to city workers needing email access.

The city deployed TD-CDMA technology from IPWireless. Northrop Grumman built and now operates the network on behalf of the city. It initially was designed and engineered to improve public-safety communications, but has evolved to serve multiple agencies and applications, supporting more than 19 municipal departments and more than 50 discrete applications.

First responders have the ability to access fingerprints, mug shots, city maps, automatic vehicle location information and full-motion streaming video in a mobile environment as the DoITT and the NYC Police Department are working to install wireless modems in 1,800 patrol vehicles. For instance, the network carried live video feeds after the US Airways plane landed in the Hudson River.

The transportation department is able to remotely manage traffic lights. The water department uses the network for automated water meter reading, while the sanitation department takes advantage of automated vehicle location and monitoring with alerts for sanitation and refuse agencies. This all happens without disadvantaging public-safety communications, said John Hambidge, chief marketing officer with IPWireless.

He said the quality-of-service mechanism incorporated in the network allows traffic to not only be prioritized by user but by type of application as well. For instance, a first responder's data traffic will always have priority over web traffic. And a video feed coming from an incident scene can be prioritized over other traffic.

Could this be the model for how other municipalities can build first-responder broadband networks?

Hambidge said IPWireless has spent a lot of time educating other cities about the multi-agency network approach and expects some cities to announce similar plans. Because so many agencies are impacted and can realize cost savings by automating city services like meter reading, the initial cost of such a network shouldn't be as frightening as one might think, Hambidge said. Moreover, there may be an opportunity for some federal stimulus money that is earmarked for broadband deployments in underserved areas to come their way.

"When the New York City announcement first came out (in 2006), the price tag scared a lot of cities," Hambidge said. "Half a billion dollars is a lot for smaller cities. But we've been convincing them that this can be built effectively."

I immediately thought of the governments that are now asking the FCC if they can build early on the 700 MHz airwaves that currently are licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). Tired of waiting for a new plan to emerge after the original public/private network operator plan didn't pan out — which would have paired public-safety's spectrum with the commercial D-block in the band to form the spectral foundation for a nationwide shared network — the city of Boston, the state of New Jersey and the Bay Area cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose are chomping at the bit to have mobile broadband services.

In an interview last week with Urgent Communications, PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen spelled out a number of hurdles to an early buildout. Namely, there aren't any technical requirements for 700 MHz public-safety broadband networks at the moment. Until technical standards are developed, early network buildouts would be risky for local and state organizations.

"You don't know what it's going to cost you, if you go down the wrong path," he said. "If they pick WiMAX, and the decision is that the national network is going to be based on LTE, they're going to have to change everything," McEwen said.

My bet is that the public-safety community follows the Long Term Evolution (LTE) path, which most of the world's major operators are deploying as their fourth-generation technology. While the technology is not ready today, TD-CDMA is. And the platform is fully upgradable to LTE, giving public safety the economies of scale it seeks for technology investment.

NYC's network operates on 10 MHz of licensed spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band obtained by the city via lease agreements with Sprint Nextel and Trans Video Communications, owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. But IPWireless has designed equipment for the 700 MHz band. In fact, it's already working in Germany, where T-Mobile has deployed the technology.

Hambidge said TD-CDMA can work in swathes of either 5 MHz or 10 MHz. It's likely that initial spectrum allocations in the 700 MHz band will come in the form of paired 5 MHz swathes. WiMAX can operate in that amount of spectrum, but the more significant broadband speeds come when it operates in at least 30 MHz of spectrum.

Interestingly, NYC's mobile broadband network already is an example of what Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility are proposing. Both companies want the D Block given to public safety, which then would pair it with its own airwaves in the band to give the sector 20 MHz of spectrum it could use to build broadband networks for first responders. Regional or local licensees in the public-safety sector could solicit commercial operators via a bid process to construct networks — built to a national standard to enable interoperability — that likely would try to leverage existing infrastructure, which would save enormous time and money.

As with anything this complex, the devil is in the details. But for those first responders that simply cannot wait for broadband — which is probably the majority — NYC's deployment deserves a close look.

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