Recent moves by some European public-safety agencies to study commercial wireless technology as an alternative to the TETRA (terrestrial trunked radio) standard is fueling discussion in the U.S. on whether a future role for such technologies exists.

Specifically, they wonder whether commercial technologies could be used to ensure that first responders and other public-safety personnel have access to interoperable communications networks, as well as other critical features such as high-speed data services.

Sweden is considering upgrading its public-safety network to CDMA technology at the 450 MHz band as an alternative to the TETRA standard, which is used throughout the region for public-safety radio networks. Norway also is said to be studying a similar path for its public-safety communications.

Dismayed by a lack of capacity and channels on its current analog system, Swedish officials are attracted to the CDMA technology's vendor support, coverage advantages and high-speed data capabilities, said Joe Nordgaard, managing director of Spectral Advantage, a wireless consulting firm specializing in CDMA 450 deployments.

“TETRA is very expensive, capacity is limited and it doesn't handle broadband data,” said Nordgaard. “You're dealing with a technology that is out of date and expensive to deploy.”

Those criticisms also are being tossed at Project 25 technology in the U.S., which is backed by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), International. This 15-year-old effort to create interoperable gear for police, fire and other emergency responders has resulted in expensive technology supported by few vendors with little innovation, according to critics. Though P25 networks currently represent the best technology suited for first responders in terms of reliability, security and encryption, they may never solve giant problems facing first responders today: interoperability and the need for critical high-speed data applications.

Public-safety experts agree that a P25 network — or any land mobile radio (LMR) system — is not sufficient to satisfy all requirements of an emergency management community, particularly when a plethora of agencies and individuals respond to a major emergency. Commercial technology may be what the public-safety sector needs to bridge interoperability gaps, as it also provides valuable applications such as high-speed data services and location-tracking capabilities not offered by P25 systems.

Mike Iandolo, vice president of CDMA product management with Lucent Technologies, said CDMA technology today is not positioned to replace LMR standards, because it lacks features critical for public safety, such as robust walkie-talkie capabilities and the ability to communicate without a base station. Ultimately, Sweden, Norway and other European countries are likely to decide that CDMA isn't ready to serve as a public-safety network, he said.

However, Lucent has been marketing CDMA to U.S. government agencies on the state and federal levels, conducting demonstrations of the technology's high-speed data capabilities and touting the low costs associated with off-loading non-critical communications onto a CDMA-based network. New CDMA-based 1X EV-DO (Evolution Data Only) technology, already introduced by commercial operators, offers peak data rates of 2.4 Mb/s in a 1.25 MHz channel — a compelling proposition for agencies squeezed by spectrum shortages. Future enhancements include higher encryption standards, priority access and GPS location-tracking capabilities coupled with real-time two-way radio capabilities, Nordgaard said.

“CDMA allows you to set up a wireless infrastructure that provides interoperability, so that different agencies can speak with each other,” said Iandolo. “The benefits include economies of scale and capacity advantages. We believe it is a more cost-effective way to provide high-speed data and voice to a lot of subscribers not available with any other system.”

The tricky question is: How could public-safety organizations utilize commercial technology? Crowded spectrum bands are the biggest problem. Public safety is gaining access to 24 MHz of spectrum for P25 networks, but it is lobbying for an additional 10 MHz in the same band for dedicated wide-area broadband applications at the city, county and state levels.

Public-safety agencies are calling on Congress to allocate the 10 MHz to public safety and stop the auction of the upper portion of the 700 MHz band to commercial operators. Their vision centers on flash-OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing) or 1X EV-DO deployments utilizing 1.25 MHz channels to provide services such as video monitoring and critical data transmission. Recognizing the benefits of off-the-shelf technology, public-safety organizations already embrace the use of 802.11 technology in the 4.9 GHz band.

Another problem is that deployment of a network dedicated to augmenting an existing public-safety network is an expensive proposition during a time when state and local governments are struggling just to fund education.

Nevertheless, the District of Columbia last month announced a pilot high-speed wireless broadband contract for public safety with Motorola and Flarion Technologies, using Flarion's proprietary Flash-OFDM technology, which edged out other offerings, including Lucent's CDMA2000 1X EV-DO service. The district's Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) is deploying the $2.7 million network with the help of federal grants. OCTO is making the case for a nationwide flash-OFDM network in the 700 MHz band to provide critical high-speed data services (see related story on page 22).

With an uncertain spectrum position, a case also can be made for leveraging networks owned by commercial operators. All commercial operators are moving toward more efficient packet data networks such as CDMA 1X EV-DO and EDGE (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution), and many are beginning to market high-speed data capabilities to public-safety agencies. The move to packet networks also creates greater capacity advantages for the off-loading of voice communications.

Nextel Communications has become the poster child for this concept, with federal, state and local agencies now accounting for more than 20% of Nextel's new sales. Since winning its first government contract in 1999, Nextel has helped public-safety agencies achieve interoperability and has assisted in emergency situations such as the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the space shuttle Columbia disaster and the sniper attacks in the Washington D.C., area.

“We feel we can work complementary with APCO systems,” said Leon Frazier, vice president for Nextel's public sector division. “Many cities' emergency-management departments are using Nextel as a component of their emergency-response plan.”

Nextel has developed a number of features designed for public-safety use, including Direct Connect Priority Access, which provides two-way radio communications that operate when base stations lose power and specialized GPS capabilities such as vehicle tracking. Nextel also is creating directories to allow various agencies to opt in and out of calling groups, enabling an EMS worker to quickly find the number of a police officer, for instance.

Public-safety agencies in Charlottesville, Va., recently received a $6 million FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Interoperable Equipment Grant to implement an interoperable radio network. One of the requirements was the use of innovative technology to create new solutions to achieve interoperability. Nextel fit into that strategy.

“What Nextel offers is essentially an 800 MHz trunked radio system that can work in parallel with our existing system and enhance our communications for public safety,” said Charles Werner, the Charlottesville deputy fire chief responsible for lobbying for the FEMA grant. “I can expand to virtually any agency I need by handing them a Nextel phone.”

While voice service is the primary application, Charlottesville's public-safety workers are quickly taking advantage of the more advanced services Nextel offers. For example, computer-aided dispatch allows users to receive text messages describing the type of call and address.

Staffs already are issuing weather notifications via text messaging, and the city is experimenting with GPS-based automatic vehicle location capabilities, which would be too expensive for the city to deploy on its own, Werner said.

Nextel announced it will deploy WiDEN technology, a software upgrade to its existing iDEN network that could quadruple current packet data speeds. The carrier also is trialing Flarion's flash-OFDM technology with select business customers in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

“We have features we couldn't otherwise afford,” said Werner. “Getting data on the phones and accessing the Web would otherwise cost millions. Most localities don't have that money. Grants are falling, and a lot of the federal money is focused on the Office of Domestic Preparedness. We're all competing for [fewer] funds.”

Still, a fine line exists between how much commercial technology and networks can help and how much they could hurt. Critics caution that public safety should carefully weigh the pros and cons of moving more communications and capabilities onto commercial networks and technologies that are not optimized for reliability and security.

The industry is still developing priority access features for many of the commercial standards, and while commercial networks are generally more reliable in terms of coverage, they are often overwhelmed during crises.

“Commercial technology use for some non-mission critical communications can have some value, but there are significant limitations to what degree it can meet public-safety needs,” said Bob Gurss, APCO's director of legal and government affairs. Coverage, security and reliability remain major drawbacks to wider use of commercial technology, he said.

In its quest to secure additional spectrum for public safety, APCO continually battles the notion Capitol Hill policymakers hold that public-safety needs can be met by using mobile phones, Gurss said.

“You can get interoperability if someone carries a cell phone,” said Gurss. “But that doesn't provide the functionality that public safety needs for critical communications.”

But APCO recognizes public safety can benefit from certain applications only available through commercial technology and networks. “APCO doesn't advocate nor discourage use of commercial systems,” Gurss said. “Those decisions should be made individually on the local level.”

At any rate, with federal funding for interoperability dwindling and commercial vendors and operators looking for more places to sell their services, commercial technology likely will play a larger role in emergency response and the nation's defense. No one technology can offer both interoperability and broadband data capabilities, public-safety experts say.

“Unless I find the end of the rainbow, commercial networks will continue to augment an important part of what we do,” Werner said.

Public Safety's Triple Play

Overview

Current 700 MHz Plan

Current 4.9 GHz Plan

Spectrum Coalition (Upper 700 Mhz Block C)

Technology P25 & SAM 802.11 a/j/g Flash-OFDM or 1xEVDO
Channel Bandwith 150 kHz 20 MHz 1.25 MHz
Total Public Safety Bandwith 24 MHz 50 MHz 10 MHz
Uses P25:

voice and narrowband (text-based) data SAM: text, web and images

Hot spot local incident broadband

(video, GIS, high-resolution imagery)

City/county/state wide-area broadband

(video, GIS, high-resolution imagery)

Source: Spectrum Coalition for Public Safety

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