1 Crunch time for public-safety broadband at 700 MHz

Early this year, the FCC attempted to auction 10 MHz of 700 MHz commercial spectrum — known as the D Block — that would be paired with 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum to provide the foundation of a shared public/private network for first responders. That auction failed, and now the FCC is trying to revamp the rules to attract commercial bidders to the table.

While the proposed new rules certainly should be more attractive to the private sector, they have been criticized by many cities with large public-safety agencies. (See news story, page 7.) Without participation from these large entities, the notion of this shared network being a key pathway to nationwide interoperability could be lost. Furthermore, if a commercial operator turns out to be the only user of spectrum earmarked for public safety, Congress could object.

Proponents of the shared-network plan note that it offers the best chance for non-metropolitan public-safety agencies to leverage a wireless broadband network designed by public safety. Critics of the plan opine that the latest FCC proposal does not ensure that the shared network would be built to the coverage or reliability standards that the first-responder community needs.

Complicating matters is the fact that the public-safety licensee, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), has been the subject of considerable criticism for accepting financing from its adviser, Cyren Call Communications. Without the money from Cyren Call, the PSST — an entity with no assets other than its spectrum license — would have no revenue source to support its operations.

With the closure of the comment period on the FCC's proposal last month, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has expressed a desire for the commission to pass new D Block rules before the end of this year, which would allow for the spectrum to be auctioned in the middle of 2009. However, given the disagreements within public safety about the plan, the difficulty that potential commercial partners would have accessing capital in a tight market, and the pending change in power in the FCC, some industry observers believe the 700 MHz issue will be debated well into 2009.

2 Transition time for the FCC

Only those with the best crystal balls can hope to see the future direction of the FCC, but one thing is certain: There will be changes.

The first change will occur early in January, when Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate steps down as her term expires. A more significant change is expected when Republican Kevin Martin is replaced as chairman by an appointee of President-elect Barack Obama, giving Democrats control of the FCC for the first time in eight years.

Theoretically, Martin could stay on the FCC as a commissioner — something some media outlets have indicated could happen, at least until the digital-television transition occurs in mid-February. Historically, however, FCC chairmen have not stayed at the agency after being removed from the top position, where they can control the commission's agenda.

Inside the Beltway, the rumor mill already has started churning out names regarding possible Democrats to succeed Martin as FCC chairman. Among the names being discussed are two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.

Copps has been on the FCC longer and has been considered a strong advocate for public-safety communications, but some observers question whether his skeptical attitude toward large incumbent broadband players would make him a good choice politically. Some also note that Adelstein and other Democrats were more closely tied to the Obama campaign effort and therefore may be better-positioned to be named chairman.

One factor in the Obama decision may be the opposition that Republicans try to mount in opposing Democratic appointments — a strategy Democrats employed successfully four years ago against President George W. Bush. Many Beltway officials question whether the Republicans have enough voting strength in the Senate to try such a maneuver; however, if their opposition is successful, Copps or Adelstein more likely would be named as chairman, even if only on an interim basis.

3 Emergency alerts gain ground

Ever since the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007, universities have flocked to emergency alert systems, and municipalities have followed suit. However, studies have shown that even with the increased use of the technology, few people know how to access it.

Yet emergency alerts may be the only reliable way to contact people. Research firm CDW-G recently released a report on the state of emergency alerts in the U.S. In it, the authors note that as society becomes even more dependent on mobile communications, governments have to change how they contact their constituents during emergencies.

The report made several important discoveries. It found city, state and local governments primarily rely on television and radio to communicate emergency information to the public. Such a strategy requires that alert-recipients are tuned into the radio at that time or watching their favorite TV show. In addition, one-third of respondents had no knowledge of — or experience with — their local emergency notification system or how to enroll in the national Wireless AMBER Alerts Initiative, a voluntary partnership between the wireless industry, the Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The system distributes emergency alerts when a child goes missing to wireless subscribers who opt in to receive the messages.

As well, U.S. trade group 3G Americas notes that short-message service (SMS) and third-party emergency alert systems (EAS) posed limitations. The trade group recently released a report that said SMS emergency alerts simply aren't feasible because current cellular networks are not designed to delivery emergency-scale traffic loads. Targeting users in a specific location is extremely difficult, and often there is no way to authenticate the source of messages, making fraudulent alerts easy to send. In addition, SMS is not a real-time service, and message delivery order is not always predictable.

In an emergency, information needs to be disseminated to as many people as quickly as possible. The better the quality of information and the faster it is delivered, the better the potential outcome. The challenge for the coming year is to evaluate existing emergency notification systems to determine if they are reaching citizens with accurate information within an acceptable time frame. Without educating users, it's just another technology that will sit on the shelf or be deployed ineffectively.

4 Next-gen 911 takes a step toward reality

Optimized to handle calls from traditional wireline telephones, the 911 system needs to be revamped to accept emergency communications — including data, text and video — from the plethora of IP-based devices already in the market, as well as those not invented yet.

While the notion of next-generation 911 (NG-911) has been discussed for years, the vision is expected to become much clearer next year. A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) NG-911 initiative has been completed, with a proof-of-concept report released last month, and another report — detailing the all-important transition issues and cost-benefit information — should be unveiled by the end of this year.

In 2009, significant NG-911 standards are expected to be unveiled, beginning with the core IP and software-services standard — often referenced as the i3 standard — that is slated to be finished early in the first quarter of 2009, said Roger Hixson, director of technical issues for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Database and security standards could be completed by the third quarter of 2009.

NENA officials had hoped that a handful of public-safety answering points (PSAPs) could be established as NG-911 beta sites fielding live 911 calls — something not done in the DOT initiative — during 2009, but Hixson said he believes that step is at least another year away.

“We're planning to do a full beta test and a first application test, but that won't happen next year at this point — there's too much work we have to do,” Hixson said. “We're limited by the whole volunteer process [used to establish standards].”

As the technical hurdles to NG-911 are cleared, public-safety organizations and government entities will continue to wrestle with an age-old question regarding the best way to fund PSAP upgrades. Congress has passed legislation allowing previously authorized federal funds to be used, but lawmakers have yet to make any significant appropriations.

5 Narrowbanding plans get serious

Four years ago, the FCC mandated that licensees operating at 512 MHz and lower frequencies — including the popular UHF and VHF bands used by many public-safety agencies — must move from technologies that use 25 kHz channels to those using 12.5 kHz channels by Jan. 1, 2013. With this narrowbanding deadline now just four years away, licensees need to solidify their migration strategies so they have time to secure the necessary resources.

“The problem is that people in public safety have very long planning cycles,” said Alan Tilles, who represents many public-safety agencies as a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker.

In addition, the commission repeatedly has expressed its intention to slice this spectrum into 6.25 kHz-equivalent channels, but it has not established a timeframe for such a requirement.

Licensees operating in the affected spectrum are faced with a decision — migrate to 12.5 kHz technology as mandated or opt for a 6.25 kHz-equivalent technology that could save the need for an additional migration down the road. However, 6.25 kHz gear is just beginning to hit the market.

In fact, FCC rules stipulate that vendors only are required to begin manufacturing 6.25 kHz-capable products by 2011. For many public-safety agencies that require long lead times to secure funding for capital upgrades, waiting for such equipment could make it difficult to get through the procurement process and still meet the 2013 deadline.

Public-safety agencies affected by narrowbanding still have time to determine a strategy, but Tilles said that “probably within the next year, folks ought to be getting their programs together.”

6 Power options multiply

One of the great ironies of wireless systems is that, more often than not, users are tied to an electrical outlet to power devices. With the advent of solar, wind and fuel-cell technologies, this incongruity may be a thing of the past. For example, this year Motorola teamed with a third party to develop a pocket-size fuel-cell charger for two-way radios. Solar panels already are packaged with access points to support mesh networks in rural areas. And in the coming years, more technologies will focus on harnessing the sun's power to support earthbound communications.

In fact, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a way to mimic a plant's energy storage system, which the university claims could transform solar power into a mainstream power source. According to Daniel Nocera, harnessing the sun's energy is the challenge. Nocera's team studied photosynthesis, the process in green plants by which carbohydrates are synthesized from carbon dioxide and water, using light as an energy source. Plants' natural ability to absorb light for energy production led researchers to a process where the sun's energy was used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water-splitting reaction that occurs during photosynthesis, according to Nocera. When electricity — whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source — runs through the electrode, cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced, according to MIT. Later, the oxygen and hydrogen may be recombined inside a fuel cell, creating carbon-free electricity.

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Chesonis Family Foundation, which gave MIT $10 million earlier this year to launch the Solar Revolution Project, the goal of which is the large-scale deployment of solar energy within 10 years.

7 Road to intelligent radio gets paved

Unveiled this year by three vendors, multiband public-safety radios are scheduled to be in users' hands in 2009, providing first responders with their first real-world opportunity to assess the benefits of frequency agility.

The trend toward frequency-agile, multimode devices also is expected to hit the commercial market, as BitWave Semiconductor hopes to see its low-cost, wide-ranging programmable transceiver included in commercial devices during the latter half of 2009. Public-safety officials are hopeful that commercial-sector advances can help lower the cost of the technology.

Meanwhile, many are looking beyond today's software-defined radio technology to cognitive radio, which promises to automatically find open spectrum for a user — or a group of users — to leverage for communications. Such a technology could be particularly beneficial to public safety, which has spectrum in a variety of disparate bands.

In its XG program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency demonstrated the viability and reliability of cognitive radio. DARPA has begun testing a cognitive radio design being manufactured by Tyco Electronics M/A-COM that would allow a handset to be built for $500 or less — resulting in a price point that should be palatable to public-safety agencies. If testing goes well during 2009, such radios could be manufactured in 2010.

Meanwhile, many of the interference-avoidance techniques used in the DARPA project also may be leveraged in the TV “white spaces” that the FCC recently designated for unlicensed operations.

While public-safety officials will monitor closely the advances of intelligent radio throughout 2009, it's doubtful that the first-responder community will be among the first adopters of the technology, said John Powell, chairman of National Public Safety Telecommunications Council's software-defined radio working group. “It's really, really new technology, and I think it's going to take years for public safety to accept it because of the way it works,” Powell said.

8 Sensor systems get tougher

Remote transponders have been used for decades to track people and objects. In the last year, the technology has been applied to monitor electrical grids, anticipate roadside hazards, and record environmental changes from snow-pack levels in the western U.S. to volcanic eruptions in Central America. The next step is to ensure sensors are reliable and rugged enough to perform in any condition, whether on land or 250 miles above the earth.

Transponders carry data from remote locations to off-site command centers through mesh, satellite or meteor-burst network technologies. However, these essential components are prone to failure in rugged environments. NASA is working on the issue with the launch of SansEC, a beta-phase wireless sensor technology that is damage-tolerant and requires no electrical connections.

The technology was developed by Stanley Woodard of NASA's Langley Research Center and Bryant Taylor of ATK Space Division. Unlike traditional closed-circuit sensors, which use electrical connections that can be degraded or damaged and have the potential for electrical arcing, the SansEC open-circuit sensor has no conventional electrical connections, making it highly resilient to damage, according to a NASA spokesperson. Each sensor operates as a single component that can monitor independent factors, such as fluid level or temperature. SansEC is considered nearly fail-proof because its sensors have no point of entry for damage that could render the circuit inoperable. In fact, NASA has tested the sensors for continuity and found they were still operable when ripped, punctured or badly torn.

The development is one of many expected in the coming years for sensor technology. With added ruggedness, the technology offers an opportunity for more extreme environments to be monitored with a reliably housed transponder system, whether in the Arctic, on state electrical grids, or even in space.

9 Satellite tries to become more mainstream

Satellite communications have long been a resource used by mission-critical entities, especially as an alternative when terrestrial networks are unavailable, such as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For many public-safety agencies, such circumstances are the only time satellite communications are used.

Indeed, the high costs associated with service and equipment discourage more regular use of satellite technology, and the radios and antennas associated with the services seem increasingly out of place during an era of ever-shrinking communications devices.

Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) hopes to change this mindset with the launch of its next-gen satellites, the first of which could be launched in late 2009. The unprecedentedly large size of these satellites means the antennas on the earth don't have to be as big. MSV's prototype next-generation handsets and PDAs boast form factors similar to today's cellular devices.

“The cigar antenna of the typical satellite phone [today] will be gone,” said Tom Surface, MSV spokesman.

In fact, MSV has finalized an agreement with Qualcomm to ensure that chips built for the next generation of cell phones also will enable satellite communication from the same device — the kind of dual modality the FCC hopes will be achieved for public-safety entities using the proposed 700 MHz shared network.

While the technical hurdles are being cleared for cellular/satellite cooperation, considerable work remains on the business side for MSV, which has yet to announce any deals with wireless carriers. However, AT&T Mobility this year announced a roaming agreement with satellite provider TerreStar, so other cellular providers may well be interested in partnering with satellite companies.

The next 9

  1. P25 assessment program: Vendors should flock to it because their ability to access grant money may depend on it.
  2. Industry consolidation: In bad economies, financially weak companies with promising technologies tend to get bought by companies with stronger balance sheets — sometimes for pennies on the dollar.
  3. Tyco Electronics in New York: Outcome of $2 billion network deployment deal could have huge impact on the company's future.
  4. 800 MHz rebanding: Most public-safety agencies are supposed to be operating on new channels by the end of the year. Meanwhile, will a border agreement with Mexico ever become a reality?
  5. xG Technology: Company's controversial xMAX technology is supposed to be deployed commercially in 2009. Will it happen? If so, the low-power, long-range system could provide another option for public safety in the future.
  6. Digital radio: A source of controversy after fireground issues were raised this year — a solution to the problem is needed or digital deployments could be curbed.
  7. Sprint Nextel's iDEN network: Company continues to express support for the push-to-talk network, but can the troubled carrier keep service quality at a level that retains public-safety users?
  8. AT&T Mobility: Planned satellite service with TerreStar, slated for fall 2009, could make it a bigger player in the public-safety sector.
  9. Motorola: How will planned spinoff of struggling mobile handset unit affect the rest of the company — particularly its iDEN technology relied upon by millions in the public-safety, utility and transportation sectors?

9 things we'd like to see

  1. Congress fulfill its promise — made more than four years ago — to fund PSAP upgrades.

  2. Congress realize the importance of a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders and provide the funding necessary to support it.

  3. Alternative power technologies continue to get more robust and cheaper, allowing for better remote communications and backup options.

  4. An end to the provincial thinking and infighting that retard progress in public-safety communications.

  5. An 800 MHz rebanding border agreement with Mexico.

  6. Delivery of an affordable cognitive radio.

  7. Sprint Nextel stop the hemorrhage of defectors from its iDEN network.

  8. While best practices are nice, a technology solution to the digital-radio woes on the fireground.

  9. Alarm companies and in-vehicle systems gain the ability to transmit telemetry data directly to 911 centers.

9 things we don't want to see

  1. FCC approve rules that ultimately result in commercial entities — not public safety — using 700 MHz broadband spectrum earmarked for public-safety use.

  2. Major cities keep their promise to take a pass on the network, which also could kill it.

  3. Regional players win D Block licenses but don't have the resources to build out their portion of the network.

  4. Non-terrestrial options such as satellite overlooked when designing comprehensive public-safety communications solutions.

  5. Sprint Nextel pull the plug on its push-to-talk network.

  6. Vendor failures as a result of severe cutbacks in public-safety spending in a very tough economy.

  7. Someone die needlessly because a PSAP wasn't able to process location data due to the lack of funding for technology upgrades.

  8. A firefighter suffer an injury — or worse — because of digital-radio failures in certain fireground situations.

  9. Procrastination by public-safety licensees regarding the FCC-mandated transition to narrowband operations.

9 People To Watch

  1. Dan Hesse, Sprint Nextel CEO: Can charismatic leader right a ship that has been floundering?
  2. FCC Chairman: Whoever takes on this task will inherit major headaches, including the completion of rebanding and what to do about the D Block.
  3. Harlin McEwen, PSST Chairman: Will he be able to unify a public-safety sector that's showing signs of cracks regarding the proposed 700 MHz nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders — before proposed FCC rules force him to leave his post?
  4. Charles Dowd, NYPD Deputy Chief: The most outspoken proponent of major cities eschewing said network — and one of the most influential.
  5. Charles Werner, Fire Chief of Charlottesville, Va.: Already one of the most influential people in public-safety communications, his work with SAFECOM and the digital-radio issues will be watched closely.
  6. John Powell, NPSTC Chairman: He's the leader of an organization that arguably is the most influential in public-safety communications.
  7. Preston Marshall, DARPA Program Manager: He's leading an effort that's on the cusp of delivering the prototype for the first affordable cognitive radio
  8. Brian Fontes, NENA CEO: He was hired for his lobbying acumen, but it might take a miracle to get Congress to open the funding spigot to upgrade 911 systems in a very tough economy.
  9. Jon Peha, FCC Chief Technologist: He assumes a role that some on the FCC have been clamoring for years to be filled.