Are we there yet?
CONGRESS FLEXES ITS MUSCLES
Although noted for its overarching discussions on the importance of public-safety communications, Congress typically has relatively little direct impact on the sector. By most accounts, that will change dramatically during the next year.
It all begins with the digital-television transition, which promises to free coveted 700 MHz spectrum for public safety and commercial operators. The commercial side of the equation is expected to result in new retail services and to generate at least $10 billion in new revenue for the U.S. Treasury.
In the wake of the public-safety communications problems exposed by Hurricane Katrina, as much as $2 billion of the 700 MHz auction proceeds could be earmarked for public safety in areas such as interoperability, 911 system upgrades and enhancements to emergency-alert systems (see news story on page 8).
Certainly public safety would welcome any additional funding, but it may not be as excited about some of the potential strings that could be attached. During hearings, some lawmakers have expressed interest in reviewing — and possibly changing — bid guidelines for local entities’ communications contracts, particularly those affecting interoperability.
On a broader scale, Congress almost certainly will revisit the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Not only will this legislation determine the rules by which various commercial service providers compete in the consumer and enterprise markets — affecting everything from wireless service to backhaul costs — it also could impact revenue models and broadband plans for local entities.
For instance, government entities have long depended on taxes and fees from regulated telecom carriers to generate substantial funds. If these carriers are deregulated, as many anticipate, expect significant debates on whether those taxes and fees should disappear or should be charged to all service providers, regardless of heritage or technology platform.
And one of the most notable “hot button” topics on Capitol Hill is whether government entities should be allowed to provide retail broadband access to constituents. Opponents claim government should not compete with private industry, while proponents note that such efforts can help bridge the “digital divide” and/or provide the local government entity with another source of revenue to offset the largely fixed costs of building a network (see “New ways to pay the piper”).
— Donny Jackson
NEW WAYS TO PAY THE PIPER
It may sound trite to talk about the convergence of technologies, but it is a reality that is increasingly evident every day. But the convergence is not just affecting technology; it also is impacting budgetary considerations that have gone virtually unquestioned for decades.
Traditionally, if a city police department wanted to upgrade its communications network, it studied various flavors of proprietary voice solutions from public-safety-specific vendors for years before asking voters to approve a bond referendum to pay for it. Then, the department effectively was forced to live with the system for 15 years to justify the financial investment, even if it was technologically obsolete. After all, the city had to pay for upgrades to the networks for the fire, EMS and information-technology departments as well.
But this silo approach to communication could become extinct in the near future. In an IP-based world, it makes little fiscal sense to build a separate network for each department, when the government entity can build a universal network that serves all departments cost effectively.
Such a network should offer numerous advantages. Economies of scale mean the network can be more robust. It also should be more affordable and able to establish the redundancies that are so critical to mission-critical operations. Putting all departments on a single network inherently makes interoperability within the agency easier.
Furthermore, utilizing all department budgets increases funding flexibility, both from within the governmental agency’s budget and in terms of applying for state and federal grants. Some governments are even considering selling network services to constituents as another source of revenue generation — a notion more vendor solutions seem to be embracing even as the topic is the subject of hot debate on Capitol Hill (see “Congress flexes its muscles”).
Although logical in theory, the converged-network concept promises to be much more complex in practice. Government chief information officers must be careful to ensure the individual needs of each department are met while achieving the efficiencies realized from a converged network. Appropriate security, virtual segregation and prioritization seem to be vital factors to a successful deployment.
If designed correctly, converged networks could result in better performance, lower prices and significantly shorter upgrade cycles. In fact, where open IP standards from the commercial enterprise arena can be utilized, increasingly more network upgrades may be included in a government entity’s annual operating budget instead of as a capital expenditure that requires voter approval.
— Donny Jackson
VENDOR GIANTS WILL SHAKE THINGS UP
Throughout history, certain names have meant a great deal more than others in their peer group. For instance, it is safe to say that Paul Revere rates over Alexander Hamilton in the eyes of Americans, as does George Washington over James Madison, Abraham Lincoln over Stephen Douglas, Martin Luther King Jr., over Ralph Abernathy and the New York Yankees over the rest of the American League.
Within the ranks of technology vendors, Cisco Systems enjoys similar cachet. Long a major player in the telecommunications and enterprise sectors, Cisco, over the past 18 months, has not only dipped its toe into public safety, it has begun to make a splash that promises to send ripples through the sector.
In August of last year, Cisco introduced a Web-conferencing solution for first responders, adapted from a product developed for the enterprise sector. The networking behemoth followed that with several announcements this year, including the certification of CML Emergency Services’ IP-based public-safety answering point solution and the availability of Cisco’s own interoperability offering that lets disparate radio systems communicate with one another, as well as other voice, video and data devices.
Cisco isn’t the only telecom giant to target the public-safety sector in recent months. Nortel Networks announced in April of this year the acquisition of information-technology solutions vendor PEC Solutions, which counts among its clients the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Defense. In August 2004, Nortel entered into a co-marketing agreement with wireless mesh networking software vendor PacketHop, the primary purpose of which was to enable Nortel to gain a foothold in the $11 billion homeland-security sector.
In addition, Qualcomm is expected to get more involved in Project Mesa — the collaborative effort launched five years ago by the U.S. and Europe to create common specifications for next-generation public-safety wireless communications systems — now that it has acquired Flarion Technologies. Flarion developed Flash-OFDM, a spread-spectrum technology that delivers data transmission speeds up to 50 MB/s. Some believe the platform will provide the basis of any Project Mesa system once the standard is ratified.
What does all of this mean to public safety? Plenty. The emergence of major players such as Cisco, Nortel and Qualcomm validates a sector that long has been overlooked in favor of the consumer and enterprise telecommunications markets. That should draw interest from other non-traditional players — companies of Cisco’s ilk don’t make significant commitments to markets unless there’s money to be made. That, in turn, should generate increased investment spending that will fund the research and development of technologies targeted to first responders.
The arrival of Cisco, et al, also means more competition in the public-safety sector for the incumbents, particularly Motorola and M/A-COM. Increased competition eventually should result in long-awaited price decreases, particularly where vendors can leverage technologies already used in the larger commercial markets — assuming these newcomers’ solutions provide the reliability, survivability and security the sector demands.
While Cisco and Qualcomm would be formidable adversaries for Motorola, Nortel is particularly intriguing. Despite the turmoil that has afflicted it in recent years, it still enjoys a solid engineering reputation. And the company has a new CEO, who has more than a few insights regarding how to compete with Motorola — Mike Zafirovski, Motorola’s former chief operating officer who left the company after Ed Zander was brought in from Sun Microsystems to succeed Christopher Galvin as CEO.
All of this should add up to good things for first responders, who long for interoperable communications, new feature sets and better pricing. To paraphrase a popular online banking service, when vendors compete, public safety wins.
— Glenn Bischoff
CONSENSUS IS A MOVING TARGET
Police officers know all too well just how difficult it is to hit a moving target. Marksmanship when on the firing range is one thing, but achieving it on the streets when a perpetrator is in flight — dodging and juking like the nimblest running back — is quite another.
Consequently, those officers should be able to empathize with those mired in the process of creating standards for emerging mobile wireless technologies, some of which have been in development for more than a decade.
Given the self-serving nature of any standards process — the companies trying to agree on the standard also are trying to make sure that their proprietary solution forms the basis of the standard, or at the very least is well-represented — which slows the effort considerably, expect the sloth-like progress demonstrated in the Project 25 and software-defined radio arenas to continue.
To get a sense of just how volatile the topsy-turvy process can be, one merely needs to look at what has transpired since last summer in the effort to achieve consensus on a standard for 802.11n, which promises to provide data rates in excess of 100 MB/s.
Two industry groups — WwiSE and TGn Sync — engaged in a lengthy battle over the standard through the summer, only to be usurped, apparently, by the Enhanced Wireless Consortium, an industry-led splinter group that now claims 27 member companies.
With heavyweights Cisco Systems and Intel in its stable, the EWC now appears to be the front runner in this race, so much so that some vendors — anticipating a quick resolution — are expected to accelerate the development of pre-standard 802.11n products, which began about a year ago when Belkin introduced a series of “Pre-N” routers and adapters. (The company followed with the introduction in August of its Wireless G Plus MIMO system, which consists of a router, notebook card and USB adapter.) The risk, of course, is that such products might not be compatible with the final version of the standard, which could leave vendors scrambling and customers in the lurch.
Other standards efforts similarly are spinning their wheels, including P25 (see story on page 18). On the RFID front, the UHF Generation 2 standard ratified by international standards group EPCglobal a year ago is still waiting for certification by the International Organization for Standards, expected sometime next year.
Those who are working on the standard for software-defined radio — a process that has moved into its second decade — still are trying to determine which elements it can adopt from the military’s Joint Tactical Radio Systems program, as well as how to contain all of SDR’s functionality in a form factor and at a price point that public safety will accept.
There is danger in taking a sloth-like pace to standards ratification. In the case of SDR, the technology could lose some of its relevancy by the time consensus is achieved. One of the platform’s selling points is interoperability, but IP-based solutions continue to rapidly emerge. For example, in August, Codespear introduced IP-based software that lets disparate devices — including land mobile radios, wireless and wireline phones, and personal digital assistants — communicate with each other (MRT, October, page 46). In October, Cisco unveiled a solution that translates radio signals into voice packets at the network layer, letting disparate radio devices talk to each other.
The old adage says that slow and steady wins the race, but move slowly enough, and you get left behind.
— Glenn Bischoff
SOFTWARE MIGRATION IS EXCITING, SCARY
In the 1995 film “Apollo 13,” which dramatized NASA’s ill-fated mission to the moon, the actor Ed Harris, portraying lead flight commander Gene Kranz, uttered the immortal phrase, “Failure is not an option.”
It’s a sentiment shared by first responders worldwide regarding their communications equipment, with good reason. No one wants to be trapped in a burning building or pinned down by gunfire without being able to talk to colleagues and incident commanders to determine the next step.
Consequently, public-safety officials traditionally have viewed with wariness any technology that purports to deviate from tried-and-true land mobile radio systems. When radio-over-IP systems first emerged, first responders wanted no part of them, fearing delay and connectivity problems associated with packet loss. But the technology eventually improved, and public-safety officials began to realize there is a big difference between voice communications that travel over the public Internet and systems that utilize private intranets and prioritize voice traffic over data transmissions. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find an official at any major agency in the U.S. who doesn’t believe that IP-based systems represent the future of first-responder communications.
Now, public safety is encountering another migration that is eerily similar, as vendors are beginning to develop software-based solutions to challenges that traditionally have been met by hardware-based technology. A case in point is the recent introduction of software by Codespear (see “Consensus is a moving target”) that achieves interoperability across a wide range of wireless devices. In addition, Microsoft and Motorola announced an initiative through which the companies will jointly develop a series of software applications that would let first responders improve their handling and storage of incident information.
There are myriad advantages to software-based solutions for both public-safety and enterprise users, from remote configuration of equipment to the ability to leverage existing hardware — protecting the investment made in the equipment, while introducing new capabilities — and often lower operational costs. In addition, it is far easier to upgrade software than it is hardware, so next generations of software-based solutions should develop more quickly.
Of course, software, especially in its earliest versions, generally has bugs that require patches, and public-safety officials justifiably fret about the consequences should such systems crash. But bugs nearly always are worked out, and the value proposition of software-based systems in time will be too large for first responders (and the elected officials to whom they answer) to ignore.
— Glenn Bischoff
A NOD TO DISRUPTIVE FORCES
While the aforementioned policy items are significant, most represent developments that have been anticipated to some extent. But it is the unanticipated emergence of disruptive technologies that can cause even the largest companies to change business models and policymakers to alter long-held positions.
We’ve heard it before, but 2006 could be the year when software-defined radio finally becomes a serious consideration, as fabless semiconductor company Bitwave says it will have mass-production chips ready for wireless devices by the end of the year. Or SDR could continue its long malaise, depending on the progress made in developing industry standards.
Being able to change radio frequencies used by a radio via software is a powerful notion that could alter the way the FCC and wireless operators view spectrum. But this impact pales in comparison to the dramatic changes that would come about if tiny Florida firm xG Technology can realize the remarkable promises associated with its Flash Signaling” solution (MRT, September, page 40).
Just beginning to be demonstrated (see story on page 6), xG’s technology offers unprecedented combination of performance and range at remarkably low power levels, according to the company. And, as a physical-layer technology, Flash Signaling can improve all communications — wireless and wired — inventor Joe Bobier says.
In the wireless local area network arena, xG has demonstrated it can transmit a data stream that would support video while using more than 100 times less power than bandwidth-constrained ZigBee solutions. For long-range wireless applications, xG has demonstrated transmission of a 3.57 MB/s data stream 18 miles using just 35 mW of power.
The implications are mind-boggling. Such low-power emissions would let sources other than the traditional power grid fuel the system. More important, the power levels are so low that current FCC rules would let an xG system operate on any frequency.
This would mean the traditionally high price of spectrum would no longer be a barrier to entry for new players — they could enter the broadband arena without paying a dime for airwaves. Long-held truisms regarding a “spectrum crunch” in the U.S. could be shattered almost overnight.
Such a scenario would have its own ramifications. If xG’s system works as promised, it’s difficult to imagine that bidders in a 2008 auction of 700 MHz spectrum could be willing to pay $10 billion or more for airwaves that effectively were commoditized by a technological advance. That would be a serious blow to lawmakers’ plans to balance the budget and fund public-safety communications (see “Congress flexes its muscles”).
Of course, we’re not at that point yet. As promising as xMAX is, xG still has a lot to prove. Technically, challenges inherent in making any wireless system work in a mobile or in-building environment could cause xG to stumble. If not, be assured that perceived competitors would take every step necessary to protect their interests — in the business market, in the court system and in front of policymakers.
Or, xG could manage to avoid these potential land mines and fundamentally change the communications landscape.
Either way, it will be worth watching.
— Donny Jackson
~ GIANT STEPS
NON-TRADITIONAL VENDORS MADE SOME BIG ANNOUNCEMENTS IN 2005:
NETWORKS TARGETS THE HOMELAND-SECURITY MARKET BY ACQUIRING PEC SOLUTIONS FOR $448 MILLION; LG AGREES TO DEVELOP PUSH-TO-TALK HANDSETS BASED ON QUALCOMM’S BREWCHAT SOLUTION; NEXTEL TESTS QUALCOMM’S Q-CHAT P2T-OVER- CELLULAR SOLUTION.
COLLABORATES WITH CML EMERGENCY SERVICES ON ANIP-BASED PSAP SOLUTION; NORTEL AGREES TO USE PACKETHOP’S MESH-NETWORK SOFTWARE TO ENHANCE ITS NEW FIXED WIRELESS MESH NETWORK OFFERING; QUALCOMM AGREES TO PURCHASE FLASH-OFDM DEVELOPER FLARION TECHNOLOGIES FOR $600 MILLION.
UNVEILS AN IP-BASED SOLUTION DESIGNED TO ACHIEVE INTEROPERABLE COMMUNICATION BETWEEN DISPARATE RADIO SYSTEMS AND WITH VARIOUS VOICE, DATA AND VIDEO DEVICES.
INTRODUCES A DUAL-RADIO WIRELESS MESH SOLUTION DESIGNED TO LET MUNICIPALITIES PROVIDE WI-FI BROADBAND SERVICES.
WHERE ARE THEY?
STANDARDS EFFORTS ARE IN VARIOUS STAGES OF COMPLETION:
PROJECT 25: APCO’S P25 STANDARDS COMMITTEE CURRENTLY IS MULLING COMPETING PROPOSALS FROM MOTOROLA AND EADS CONCERNING PHASE 2, WHICH PRIMARILY DEALS WITH MORE EFFICIENT SPECTRUM USAGE.
RFID: WAITING FOR THE INTERNATIONAL STANDARDS ORGANIZATION TO CERTIFY THE GEN 2 STANDARD RATIFIED BY EPCGLOBAL IN DECEMBER 2004.
SDR: PUBLIC-SAFETY SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP IS ASSESSING WHAT ELEMENTS DEVELOPED BY THE MILITARY ARE RELEVANT FOR PUBLIC SAFETY AND HOW TO DECREASE FORM FACTOR.
WI-FI: A BATTLE IS BEING WAGED BETWEEN THREE COMPETING FACTIONS OVER THE 802.11N STANDARD, WHICH COULD PUSH COMPLETION BACK TO 2007.
~ TECHNOLOGY’S SOFTER SIDE
SOFTWARE-BASED SOLUTIONS OFFER SEVERAL ADVANTAGES OVER HARDWARE-BASED SOLUTIONS:
LOWER DEPLOYMENT COSTS
FASTER DEPLOYMENT TIMES
ABILITY TO QUICKLY DEPLOY AT EMERGENCY INCIDENTS
FASTER AND QUICKER TO UPGRADE
REMOTE CONFIGURATION POSSIBLE
PROVIDES MIGRATION PATH TO NEXT-GEN NETWORKS
AVOIDS FORKLIFT REPLACEMENT OF LEGACY SYSTEMS
AND A FEW DRAWBACKS:
SOFTWARE BUGS CAN CRASH SYSTEMS
REQUIRES INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY CAPABILITIES THAT MANY AGENCIES DON’T CURRENTLY POSSESS.