A corner turned in nation’s capital
Amid all of the rhetoric, speculation and hand-wringing in Washington these days over the feasibility of a nationwide wireless broadband network built by a public/private partnership using 700 MHz spectrum to be vacated by broadcasters in 2009, local governments around the nation’s capital have joined to deploy the country’s first public-safety broadband network using such airwaves.
Based on off-the-shelf cellular technology, the Regional Wireless Broadband Network (RWBN) will provide first responders in the National Capital Region — which consists of Washington; Alexandria, Va.; Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties in Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland — with high-speed wireless connectivity. The effort also is laying the groundwork for national public-safety broadband interoperability and roaming capability onto commercial 3G networks.
Chief information officers in the region led the effort to ensure agencies would be able to seamlessly communicate with each other from day one, according to Robert LeGrande, interim chief technology officer for the District of Columbia.
“If we did this separately, we would end up with the interoperability problems like we have in land mobile [radio] today,” LeGrande said. “We all agreed to do the same technology and same frequency at the same time in a network-of-networks design. It gives us seamless roaming, seamless interoperability.”
While LeGrande makes it sound as if getting everyone on board was a fairly simple task, in reality it was anything but, according to Rick Burke, managing partner for McLean, Va.-based system integrator Televate, which consulted on the engineering of the network.
“He did a lot of politicking. It was challenging to … get these folks into the hot tub, so to speak,” Burke said. “Getting people to agree often is more difficult than the technology part.”
On the technology side, RWBN uses 1xEV-DO Revision A technology and ultimately will consist of 106 transceiver sites across the District of Columbia and 18 other jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland. Federal agencies also will have access to the network, which will support a minimum of 35,000 local first responders but can be scaled to do “quite a bit more,” LeGrande said. Users will experience downstream data rates of 3.1 Mb/s and upstream data rates of up to 1.8 Mb/s.
Because 700 MHz signals exhibit high penetration characteristics, use of the band lets system designers selectively deploy mobile picocells to enhance broadband coverage into a building on a case-by-case basis, without having to install expensive in-building repeaters and cabling. First responders also have the option of increasing in-building coverage through the use of vehicle-mounted equipment.
About the only technical question at this point concerns RWBN’s ability to work in airborne applications, such as delivering real-time video. “There are some physics involved that may not make it the best for use in helicopters,” LeGrande said, adding that there is some testing to be done. “It may make sense to use our legacy microwave, then use the broadband network to get out.”
Alcatel-Lucent’s LGS subsidiary — which was created by joining the companies’ government solutions business units after the two giants merged last year — is deploying the network under a $110 million five-year Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract, which allows regional agencies to purchase both equipment and services as funds are available. Included in the contract are core networking equipment, base stations, microcells to selectively extend in-building coverage, personal digital assistants with voice-over-IP capability, automatic vehicle location modems and network operations services.
Funds for building RWBN are coming from the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative grants, with the participating jurisdictions expected to cover the ongoing operational costs.
Device chipsets initially will support both 700 MHz as well as commercial cellular 1900 MHz frequencies, providing the capability to roam between the public-safety network and commercial EV-DO Rev A networks operated by Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless. The ability to roam between such networks will let RWBN users leverage “the economies of scale that exist in the world today with commercial wireless infrastructure at 700 MHz,” said Andy Smith, LGS’ director of public safety. Future chipsets also might incorporate support for 850 MHz, enabling a single device to use a range of public-safety and commercial networks.
LeGrande sees another significant advantage in the ability to roam onto commercial networks when needed: “It creates redundancy in networks, if our network goes out,” he said.
According to Smith, roaming services will be secured through a competitive bid process, which will save users money. “The technology is the same that the CDMA [cellular] providers use today,” he said. “It’s simply a matter of setting up roaming agreements, the same as any new operator coming on today.”
However, some in the local law enforcement community believe there are disadvantages associated with commercial EV-DO networks. “We’re relying on more capabilities of broadband in our missions and don’t have priority in commercial networks,” said Robert Mosbley, who advises the Fraternal Order of Police on communications issues. “As we rely more and more on them for data, will they be there when we need them the most? Most commercial networks are not hardened for damage during a disaster; they aren’t redundant.”
Nevertheless, EV-DO Rev A technology provides compelling advan-tages, including a clearly defined technology growth path, a commercially proven technology and compatibility with future builds that could take place in the neighboring cities of Richmond, Annapolis and Baltimore, LeGrande said. “That’s the beauty of broadband right there. We’re compatible so long as we’re using the same technology and frequencies.”
Another plus is that EV-DO Rev A is backward-compatible. “If Richmond decides to buy Rev B and Maryland [buys] Rev C, [the devices] would both work on Rev C,” LeGrande said. “Depending on the timeframes, we want to choose the latest and greatest [technology] available. [Because] it’s backward-compatible, you don’t have to go to a prior [version] to be interoperable.”
Although the National Capital Region’s RWBN is the country’s first 700 MHz public-safety broadband network, it won’t be the last. The city of San Diego, the Silicon Valley region, and the city of Phoenix already are preparing to tap into the technology and structure of RWBN, to enable compatible public-safety networks that could eventually proliferate nationwide. And other cities are taking note: Officials in Indianapolis and Seattle reportedly have approached the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Project (SVRIP) for more information.
“We looking to build a pilot national network between ourselves, the National Capital Region, and potentially Phoenix,” said Sheryl Contois, director of police technical services at the Palo Alto (Calif.) Police Department “We’re like minds pursuing like technologies.”
Just as important, the contract vehicle for RWBN is designed for other municipalities to quickly pick up services and equipment for their own 700 MHz broadband networks. “The IDIQ allows for other cities to procure systems off this contract, gaining speed and efficiency in the process,” LGS’ Smith said.
Indeed, the ability of other jurisdictions to leverage the IDIQ contract was planned from the beginning, according to Televate’s Burke.
“Writing our procurement so that other jurisdictions could buy off it was something unique that we did on the front end,” he said.
The SVRIP likely will be the first region to adopt the RWBN model. Consisting of 30 law enforcement, fire and medical services agencies south of San Francisco, SVRIP plans to tap into Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program funding available through the Department of Commerce, and has set an aggressive network deployment timetable that will begin as soon as it receives the money.
“[RWBN] is a pilot model that can work across the country for technology, business practices and procedures,” Contois said. “We would start deployment later this year and complete construction in 2009.”
Once SVRIP’s network is on line, interoperability becomes an issue of implementing a formalized agreement for roaming between its 700 MHz EV-DO network and the National Capital Region’s — as well as any other city that follows the same template. “We have a vision of our [D.C.] chief of police being able to get off a plane in San Jose and be able to roam right onto their network,” LeGrande said.
With reporting by Glenn Bischoff.