Big D’s magic bullet
Establishing interoperable communications for first responders has been a hot topic across the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, with powerful Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) recently calling it “the most serious problem in the country.”
Many proposals have been offered to address the situation, but most involve making difficult technology choices in a fast-evolving communications arena, astronomical costs — as much as $50 billion or $100 billion according to some estimates (see story on page 10) — and significant deployment time.
In Dallas, CoCo Communications has established a secure, software-driven interoperability service that links nine local, state and federal agencies — as well as a commercial airline carrier — and enables easy expansion to other agencies in the north central Texas region that may want to join. No agency needed to buy any new equipment or alter their existing communications systems to join the interoperable network — just subscribe to the service for $20,000 per year. And the deployment cost was covered in a $979,100 grant secured from the Department of Homeland Security for an interoperability pilot program in and around Love Field airport in Dallas.
In fact, the grant money was more than CoCo Communications required to address the interoperability piece of the puzzle, allowing the buildout of a wireless broadband network at the airport using less than 20% of the grant money, said Pete Erickson, CoCo Communications’ vice president of business development.
“Because we had a software solution, the $1 million was going to go a long, long way, so we designed a deluxe implementation that gave the airport — and responders around the airport — their own emergency broadband network,” Erickson said. “But, if we took the emergency-broadband-network component out, they would still have all their radio interoperability, and they could still have IP cameras on the network.”
Key to CoCo’s solution is its patented cryptographic overlay mesh protocol architecture that automates tricky routing, security and authenticity functions overlooked in a typical hardware-based tactical solution, Erickson said.
“You can bridge radios onto a network in a number of different ways; the big challenge is dealing with the networking-layer problems,” he said. “Once you bridge someone onto IP, you’ve got to manage that IP address from the standpoint of routing and manage that link. … We developed a way to automate that entire process in such a way that we maintain the security of the network, as well as the security of the data.”
And the CoCo system can handle any level of security, including Type 1 encryption used by the military, which should be attractive to other potential users of the network, said Terry Mitchell, assistant director of the department of aviation for the city of Dallas.
“There was a lot of reluctance [initially about joining the system by some agencies],” he said. “But once you get into it, the system’s fully encrypted, and it’s very tough to break into it. I think we’ve been able to address all the security concerns.”
Meanwhile, the aviation department is able to talk directly to the city’s fire and police departments for the first time, bypassing the need for relay systems or the exchange of radios between the entities, Mitchell said.
And users do not need to be located in Dallas to be on the network. With an Internet connection, the Dallas interoperable network can be accessed by any user with a device loaded with CoCo’s Communicator software.
Not only does this allow agencies like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to be linked to the network from its Atlanta headquarters, but it’s no longer necessary to be in the monitoring station to watch video from a surveillance camera — a capability that could be helpful on a regular basis if cameras in first responder vehicles are linked to the network, Mitchell said.
“Typically, you try to have first responders at an event in minutes and have the command staff arrive a little later,” he said. “The system provides us with the capability so that, with a handheld PDA or a laptop loaded with the software, [the command staff] could be viewing the events on the way in.”
Such capabilities compelled the city of Dallas to sign a long-term subscription contract linking its three agencies to the CoCo network in November, just a few months after the Love Field pilot was launched.
“For the city of Dallas, it was an easy decision for them to subscribe to the network for multiple years because they now have interoperability at their fingertips for their police, fire and aviation departments, as well as the ability to have direct access to any video information from any cameras that happen to be on the network,” Erickson said. “And they didn’t have to make any equipment changes at all.”
Eliminating the need to change legacy systems and find resources to maintain the interoperability network is critical to cities that often are facing budget crunches, Mitchell said.
In addition to letting agencies use existing equipment, CoCo’s interoperability service is designed so that it operates independent of the participating communications networks, meaning subscribing organizations are not constricted by the service when making future decisions, Erickson said.
“They don’t need to change any initiatives they’re working on,” he said. “This type of service is complementary to everything any agency happens to be working on … and we don’t require any spectrum.”
By addressing interoperability in one of the nation’s largest markets for less than $1 million and achieving it in a relatively short time, CoCo’s Dallas deployment has caught the attention of those on Capitol Hill.
“This is truly a model for other cities, states and the nation to follow, and I am proud that the city of Dallas and the state of Texas are leading the nation and paving the way to solving an important national problem,” Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Dallas) said in a statement after viewing the solution in September 2006.
Deploying the interoperability service nationwide is certainly a notion that CoCo officials have contemplated — and not just to bridge communications between first responders, which have been the primary focus of efforts to date, Erickson said. CoCo also wants to establish an interoperability service that would link organizations in the transportation, military/intelligence and critical-infrastructure sectors — groups representing a pool of about 25 million users nationwide.
“We can put in the kind of infrastructure we [deployed] in Dallas and cover about 85% of our nation’s responders in our most populated areas for about $350 million of investment — pennies on the dollar versus other approaches,” Erickson said.
And providing the interoperability service via a subscription model would make it easier for organizations to participate, whereas some capital-intensive solutions are not economically realistic, he said. “We also have developed a model that will allow any agency of any size — local, state, federal or private industry, like an airline or rail provider — to join this type of service at a price point that allows them to achieve a higher level of communication and start to move things in the right direction,” he said.
Such characteristics make the CoCo solution a compelling package for those who have struggled to find a way to address the nation’s interoperability woes, Mitchell said.
“I think the concept is absolutely marvelous,” he said. “It certainly looks like the magic bullet that everybody’s been talking about.”
REALIZING A VISION
Timeline for Dallas to subscribe to CoCo Communications’ interoperability network
Department of Homeland Security announces grant award for Love Field airport pilot program.
City of Dallas completes contract with CoCo Communications for Love Field pilot.
CoCo Communications completes installation of gateways and software for pilot.
Initial planning, exercises and training completed.
City of Dallas announces the live interoperability network at Love Field.
City of Dallas agrees to a long-term, citywide contract with CoCo Communications.
Source: CoCo Communications