BIG DECISIONS LOOM FOR PUBLIC SAFETY

To some extent, 2009 proved to be a year in which the public-safety communications sector tried to catch its collective breath amid a change in presidential administration and a severe economic decline. In 2010, public safety likely will learn whether its efforts to regroup during the past year will pay dividends as several key decisions loom.

Arguably the highest-profile of these decisions will address the future of public-safety broadband. Public safety certainly will be included in the FCC's national broadband plan that is due to Congress in mid-February, but that may not be the first instance that the issue is debated at a federal level.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has vowed to approve a new plan for the 700 MHz D Block — the commercial spectrum that several public-safety organizations want reallocated for first-response services, which was the subject of a failed auction in early 2008 — by the time the national broadband plan is delivered.

In addition, FCC officials have insisted that the agency is willing to make decisions prior to the release of the national broadband plan regarding the several requests by public-safety entities to gain immediate access to the 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). However, many believe that none of this will matter unless a viable, sustainable funding model is found to build, operate and maintain this network — no easy task.

Of course, most public-safety agencies rely primarily on mission-critical voice systems, most of which operate on UHF and VHF frequencies, and which must be reconfigured, aka “narrowbanded,” to 12.5 kHz channel efficiencies by 2013. While public-safety organizations generally have supported the 2013 deadline — although many still would like the FCC to rule on a petition filed more than a year ago by the Land Mobile Communications Council (LMCC) that sought several clarifications regarding the order, chief among them being the consequences of failure to comply — the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) has filed a petition asking the FCC to stay its Jan. 1, 2011, narrowbanding deadline.

The commission would prohibit the manufacture or importation of 25 kHz-capable equipment that operates below 512 MHz after this date. However, NPSTC believes that could create difficulties for entities that need to expand their systems after 2011, but which do not plan to narrowband until close to the 2013 deadline. Reply comments to the FCC are due this month, and public-safety officials hope the FCC rules on the matter in an expedited manner, so entities have time to plan and execute their narrowbanding strategies.

Public-safety systems not affected by narrowbanding generally operate at 800 MHz, which continues to be reconfigured, aka “rebanded,” more than five years after the FCC issued that order, and a year and a half after the original 2008 deadline for completing the massive project. As of Nov. 1, Sprint Nextel reported that more than 40% of non-border public-safety licensees had completed rebanding, but more than 10% still had not signed an agreement with the carrier to begin frequency-relocation work.

Meanwhile, negotiations with 800 MHz licensees along the Canadian border are proceeding, but the United States and Mexico still have not signed a treaty that would allow reconfiguration of the frequency band along that border. Although the state department is heading these negotiations, FCC officials have expressed hope that the pieces now are in place to enable significant progress in the upcoming months towards an agreement that would allow public-safety entities located near the Mexican border to begin the rebanding process.

On the 911 front, technical standards for the next-generation architecture remain a priority, including the first cyber-security standards that are due to be finalized next year. Meanwhile, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and other public-safety organizations hope to convince Congress to provide federal funding for technology upgrades to public-safety answering points (PSAPs).

In 2004, Congress authorized $1.25 billion for PSAP upgrades, but less than $45 million was appropriated. NENA officials have expressed hope that lawmakers would be more inclined to budget federal dollars toward upgrading the 911 system to the next-generation architecture — something that has not been done in any state — as opposed to focusing funding on Phase II wireless upgrades, which have been completed in many states.

— Donny Jackson, donald.jackson@penton.com

THE ELECTRICAL GRID GETS SMARTER

Anyone who's driven through Colorado or Wyoming has seen the landscape evolve. Where once there was nothing but wilderness across much of the terrain, now turbines capture wind energy like gentle giants on the horizon. It's just more evidence that alternative energy is an industry that's about to explode.

However, a smart grid is needed to maximize the benefits of alternative energy. So, to further the United States' commitment to the smart-grid sector, the American Recover and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided $3.4 billion in federal grant money that will be made available by the Department of Energy for investment in the technology. The $3.4 billion is on top of $4.7 billion in private-sector spending, raising the total amount of smart-grid spending for 2009 to $8.1 billion.

“[The funding] will help overhaul the U.S. electric grid and move us more towards energy independence and efficiency in the long run,” said Cynthia Brumfield, director of research for the United Telecom Council (UTC).

A recent UTC-sponsored study calculated the economic impact of a comprehensive smart-grid deployment for a typical electrical utility that installs 1 million smart-grid meters. The study found that such a utility would generate an additional $110 million in economic benefit per year through a wide range of advantages, from increased rate of return to lower carbon emissions — nearly 300,000 tons of carbon emissions would be eliminated on an annual basis — to new jobs creation. In addition, system reliability would be increased from 99.48% to 99.75%, reducing outages by 16.8 million customer minutes.

One crucial factor that will determine the viability of a nationwide smart grid is interoperability. The smart grid is built on advanced communications platforms involving a plethora of disparate devices — e.g., sensors, controls, meters, radios and gateways — all of which must be able to communicate with each other. Consequently, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was mandated under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act to develop interoperability standards for wireless and wired devices used on the smart grid, said David Wollman, a team leader with NIST's smart-grid program.

Last summer, NIST held three workshops that attracted about 1,500 participants from both private and public entities. Wollman said it was an opportunity to get industry experts together to identify the priorities as they relate to the smart grid and ensure interoperability between all the technologies to be used.

The group is just at the beginning of the standards process and often it takes from three to five years to develop them, Wollman said. He added that there is no doubt that alternative energy is the future, but said that the only way to harness it is to upgrade the grid to respond automatically to changes in usage and demand.

“The new energy sources are more intermittent, more variable, and so they need to have a grid that can respond and that is aware of all the different sectors of the grids,” Wollman said. “We are going to be moving electricity around from wherever it's generated to where it is needed — and we also will be doing it in a distributed fashion.”

Wollman said his team will work with the utility industry to nail down standards as quickly as possible and that it already has coordinated the development of a framework to support smart-grid interoperability for devices and systems.

“What NIST has done in response to this mandate from Congress is put into place an accelerated three-phase plan at the end of March in order to make rapid progress,” he said.

However, for a nationwide smart-grid to come to fruition, federal policy makers will need to adequately support the utility sector's communications infrastructure needs, particularly those related to spectrum allocation, Brumfield said. (The UTC long has maintained that utilities need another 30 MHz of dedicated spectrum.)

“We are very much in favor of, and have long advocated for, utilities to have greater access to spectrum so they can deploy these kinds of communication technologies that makes things run a lot better,” she said. “We still maintain that utilities need more infrastructure and access to wireless spectrum to make the smart grid a reality.”

NIST also is focusing on another factor that potentially could have a significant impact on the viability of a nationwide smart grid: cyber security. It is well documented that critical infrastructure already is a potential terrorist target, and an interconnected smart grid that stretches from coast to coast would rise to the top of the list. Consequently, researchers have organized a cyber security coordination task group, which has more than 250 members who are creating a broad, end-to-end security requirement document for the smart grid.

“This will form a very good basis for the requirements for the smart grid from a security point of view, that's one thing,” Wollman said. “One of the action plans we have is to look at the wireless communication standards in IEEE and provide guidance as to where they can be best applied to support the smart grid.”

Spectrum, standards and security are the crucial ingredients to making the smart grid a reality. But as researchers and bureaucrats sort it all out, energy-generation continues to grow in the heartland — waiting to be harvested.

— Mary Rose Roberts, maryrose.roberts@penton.com

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

It seems as if every organization from coast to coast is trying, in these vexing economic times, to find new revenue streams, attract new customers or — at the very least — hang onto the customers they have. Public transportation agencies are no different in this regard. Many of them are turning to advanced communications platforms and applications in order to provide better service to their constituents.

One of the more progressive in this regard is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Two years ago, the MBTA announced an initiative to bring Wi-Fi service to riders of its commuter rail service. To date, 258 coaches are now equipped with wireless Internet. At least two coaches in every train set on all 13 commuter rail lines have Wi-Fi. Large, highly visible Wi-Fi logos have been posted on the exterior of each coach that has the capability, according to Joe Pesaturo, a spokesman for the agency.

He said that customers are quite happy with the arrangement. “Customer feedback has been tremendous, with many passengers e-mailing positive comments right from the trains to our customer service department,” he said.

The MBTA also sends wireless text alerts regarding service delays and outages to patrons who subscribe to the free service, and tracks its 1,040 buses in real-time via GPS. In August of this year, the agency announced that it would make its scheduling and geographic data for its bus, train and ferry routes available for use in the Google Transit Trip Planner application.

The MBTA isn't the only agency working harder to keep its customers happy. Both the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District and the Chicago Transit Authority are leasing their underground communications networks to commercial wireless operators to provide cellular service on subway trains. The added benefit is that both initiatives are generating significant revenues for the agencies. BART generates about $1.7 million annually from its leasing agreements, while the CTA expects to realize at least $15 million over the life of its contracts. Each agency is working with five wireless operators.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has agreements with four wireless operators to provide cellular service to patrons. But instead of leasing infrastructure from the agency, the operators have formed a consortium to build and operate the transit network. Nevertheless, the arrangement should be a big money-maker for Metro; the initial 15-year contract alone is expected to generate $25 million for the agency, with the potential for another $27 million more over five, two-year renewal periods.

It is likely that more and more transit agencies will follow this path, but the desire to better serve customers probably will take a back seat to the need to generate more revenue. The severe economic downturn has decimated municipal budgets from one end of the country to the other, and transit agencies are feeling the pinch in a big way. For instance, BART is projecting a $128.9 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year. Meanwhile, the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees the CTA, recently announced it would borrow $166 million to prevent fare hikes. The CTA is anticipating a $300 million budget shortfall over the next two years due to sharply declining sales and property tax revenues, a direct correlation to the economic downturn. But while fares won't go up, service will be cut.

Currently, the MBTA isn't charging its customers to use its Wi-Fi service. That's something it, and the rest of its brethren, might have to consider one day soon.

— Glenn Bischoff, glenn.bischoff@penton.com, with reporting by Lynnette Luna

GOODBYE LAPTOP

The hottest trend in the enterprise space in 2009 was what analysts call the “consumerization” of the enterprise. Thanks to hot smartphones like Apple's iPhone, enterprises no longer can keep a stranglehold on their employees when it comes to the types of devices they are going to use to conduct business.

“You can't separate the enterprise from the consumer anymore,” declared Jason Mackenzie, president of smartphone vendor HTC America, during the CTIA IT conference in San Diego last fall. “IT is changing. The days of the IT department buying 5,000 phones are over. There are lots of individual buyers.”

During the company's third-quarter conference call, Apple Chief Operating Officer Timothy Cook said employee demand for the iPhone in the corporate market “is very strong.” He indicated that the iPhone is being deployed or piloted in more than 50% of the Fortune 100 companies in the United States. In Europe, the same trend is occurring, with about half of the Financial Times 100 deploying or piloting the devices, Cook said.

Of course, this trend generates havoc for IT managers. Historically, chief information officers (CIOs) have decided that if an employee needed a mobile device, the enterprise would control e-mail, applications and security features. Today, as workers bring their own devices into the work place, CIOs must find the right balance of control and freedom to ensure that corporate information remains safe and secure at all times while giving their employees the necessary tools to stay productive and meet their personal preferences.

There is no easy answer, but a number of solutions providers are trying. Sybase, for instance, recently introduced a solution for the iPhone designed to handle provisioning, management, security and application enablement.

The consumerization of the enterprise also has an upside. Willie Jow, vice president of mobility product marketing with Sybase, credits the iPhone with finally encouraging consumers and, hence, enterprise workers, to consider their smartphones as mini-computers, rather than just as e-mail devices. There always has been a subset of devices that perform certain, more-complex, functions, such as the creation of purchase orders, but that hasn't been a widespread application in the enterprise. Now, Jow believes the enterprise is not far from enabling mobile devices to replace the laptop.

— Lynnette Luna

MARCHING INTO THE FUTURE

For several decades, the military has been a proving ground for next-generation communications technology, from wireless portable radios that emerged during World War II and Internet Protocol (IP) technology that was developed in the late 1960s.

Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing ad-hoc networking technologies that not only have significant tactical applications in mission-critical environments, but which promise to be much more affordable — and, thereby, more easily adapted for the domestic public-safety, enterprise and consumer markets — than many military-focused projects in the past.

In October, DARPA conducted a field experiment of its Wireless Network after Next (WNaN) project for the U.S. Army. WNaN features ad-hoc networking between cognitive radios — projected to cost manufacturers $500 when built in quantities of 100,000 or more — that automatically find usable spectrum and act as nodes to route voice and data information to each other via multiple hops with sub-100-millisecond latency. Another feature of the WNaN project demonstrated during the event was disruption tolerant networking (DTN), which is designed to ensure that packets are not lost.

During the October event, a 10-node network using handheld WNaN radios — integrated with voice, data and positioning capabilities — worked without disruption while avoiding non-cooperative signals, despite the absence of preplanned frequencies, time slots or routes, according to Bruce Fette, program manager in DARPA's strategic technology office.

DARPA officials have expressed hope that the $500 WNaN radios could be mass produced by the end of 2010 or early in 2011.

Another technology being pursued in the military is DARPA Interference Multiple Access (DIMA) — a set of algorithms that enables multiple users to occupy the same time slot and frequency slot — which would result in interference in traditional systems — in order to increase data throughput while reducing the time currently needed to coordinate spectral assets and deploy fixed antennas.

This year, DARPA has focused on proving the ability of DIMA to work in a mobile environment. A preliminary test conducted during the spring demonstrated that mobility is possible, as a receiver in a vehicle moving at 15 miles per hour was able to receive information from five transmitters simultaneously while maintaining the desired data throughput, although the packet-error rate crept to 3%, said Brian Pierce, DIMA program manager.

In March, 2010, a key DIMA test will be conducted to determine the readiness of the technology. The test will include all radio nodes moving at speeds as high as 30 mph, Pierce said.

— Donny Jackson, donald.jackson@penton.com

Things we want to see next year

  • FCC clarification of the rules and consequences surrounding its 2011 and 2013 narrowbanding deadlines.
  • More PSAPs begin to receive text, photo and video information from 911 callers.
  • More first responders able to take full advantage of personnel-monitoring and location technologies designed to keep them safer.
  • A solution to the voice intelligibility problem that afflicts digital radios in noisy environments, e.g., the fireground.
  • A decision made on how to best leverage television white-spaces spectrum.
  • Congress realize that the only way to bring the proposed national broadband network for first responders to fruition is to fund it.

Things we don't want to see next year

  • Data sharing between EMTs and medical facilities being retarded by the politics.
  • Critical infrastructure being left behind in terms of security for both facilities and data.
  • Julius Genachowski fail in his mission to make the FCC more transparent.
  • Telecommunicators being overwhelmed by a flood of texts, photo and video information from 911 callers.
  • The future of 700 MHz spectrum and the proposed nationwide broadband network for first responders still unresolved at this time next year
  • The U.S. and Mexico fail to reach an agreement on 800 MHz rebanding in border regions.

Key questions for 2010

  • Will FCC honcho Blair Levin's threat to force licensees to justify how they use their airwaves turn the spectrum-allocation world upside down?
  • What will the National Broadband Plan have in store for public-safety, -utility, -transportation and enterprise communications?
  • Will the military actually use the $500 cognitive radio being developed by DARPA?
  • Will work begin on a voice standard for LTE that could one day provide mission-critical voice to first-responders?
  • Will the smart-grid movement within the electrical-utility community gain momentum?
  • Will Harris's acquisition of Tyco Wireless Systems finally result in a worthy adversary for Motorola, the longtime leader in the public-safety LMR market?
  • Will next-generation technology allow the satellite sector to become more than a niche player in the communications game?

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