Better days ahead
There have been a variety of reasons why the public-safety space has yet to widely adopt the 4.9 GHz licensed wireless spectrum that the federal government has been giving away for the last five years. Born of the need for improved communications, the licensed spectrum is designed to support new broadband applications such as high-speed digital technologies and wireless LANs for incident management, dispatch, and vehicular or personal communications.
Of course, no community in the nation has the money to build a public-safety-only wireless network, no matter how inexpensive the spectrum is, so there is a need to fund such build-outs. That angle initially hinged on the unreachable dream of free municipal wireless, whether supported by advertising or corporate buy-in.
There also was a period during the past year when first responders paused to consider the benefits of the 700 MHz broadband spectrum the FCC reclaimed, some of which was earmarked for public safety under a public/private partnership model that remains in limbo. While this spectrum may eventually benefit public safety, first responders are not mortgaging their stations on that prospect and again are focusing on the 4.9 GHz band.
Unfortunately, there just hasn’t been a great selection of 4.9 GHz equipment, as only a handful of vendors have offerings. Vendors instead have focused on building gear that they think they can sell to the larger commercial markets: 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz and even some 700 MHz.
The technology hype curve is at work here,” said Stephen Rayment, chief technology officer and co-founder of BelAir Networks, one of a handful of vendors moving aggressively into the 4.9 GHz public-safety space. “Everybody was talking about 700 MHz, and I think it’s well down in the trough of disillusionment at this time. I’m not sure if it’s going to climb back out or not.”
Under the FCC’s plan, some enterprising service provider would spend billions of dollars for the 700 MHz spectrum and then build a national wireless network hardened for public safety. Conceptually, this would allow cash-strapped public-safety agencies to avoid paying the up-front capital costs associated with a broadband network, but no commercial operators made a qualifying bid. “There is no free lunch,” Rayment said.
Not that there’s anything wrong with 700 MHz spectrum.
“[It] is important … but you look at the infrastructure and the cost … basically 700 MHz is just the next generation of what’s out there with 800 and 900 … but it’s going to take 16 years to get it out,” said Mike Wons, vice president and general manager of public-safety systems for Federal Signal, a systems integrator for multiple public-safety agencies’ 4.9 GHz systems.
A big problem regarding the development of wide-scale 4.9 GHz is the lack of equipment. Municipalities and service providers were trying to monetize 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi systems, and the vendors were building corresponding gear to accommodate them, effectively pushing 4.9 GHz to the back burner.
“The theory was that municipalities were going to get Wi-Fi networks put up for free by commercial companies, commercial customers were going to sign up and it was somehow going to be an alternative to cable and DSL. That model failed — everybody knows that,” said Martin Levetin, vice president of sales and marketing for Strix Systems, another 4.9 GHz vendor.
As a result, municipalities have rearranged their priorities. They’re now anchor tenants for service providers and they’re tacking on a 4.9 GHz requirement for their public-safety needs.
Minneapolis is a community that made the strategic decision to ignore 700 MHz and plow ahead with a 2.4/4.9 GHz model, said Lynn Willenbring, the city’s chief information officer. The city assigned U.S. Internet to build and run a for-profit citywide wireless system using BelAir Networks’ multiband equipment.
The city serves as an anchor tenant for its municipal services but also branches out a public-safety-only 4.9 GHz network for first responders. Every squad car, every fire rig and every ambulance will be equipped with 4.9 GHz gear to support mobile data computers as well as in-squad car video that can be loaded to central servers and distributed to other vehicles, if necessary, she said.
The network is being installed at a slower pace than Willenbring would like, but that has nothing to do with technology or funding — it’s an aesthetic issue.
“We have some areas of the city that we lovingly call ‘challenge areas,’ where we utilize decorative poles in some of our upscale neighborhoods,” Willenbring said.
Those poles, while attractive, are fiberglass and too weak to support a dual-mode radio, so city officials are “in the process of replacing those poles and are using temporary poles until we can get new poles from the manufacturers,” she said. “We’re not going to migrate our public-safety folks over to the network until we really have the ubiquitous coverage that we need.”
Once that coverage is available, wireless broadband will augment land mobile radios with an “expectation to maintain connectivity at 80 miles per hour,” she said.
Willenbring tapped the person she calls the biggest skeptic in the police department to monitor things and tell her what, if anything, was going wrong.
“He just loves it and what the increased bandwidth is going to enable public safety to do,” she said. “He’s been thrilled.”
The residents of Riverside, Calif., have been similarly thrilled with a combo 2.4/4.9 GHz network that includes streaming video and notebook computers in police and fire vehicles, all using 4.9 spectrum, said Steve Reneker, the city’s CIO.
“It’s almost an extension of their desktops in their offices. They can search the Internet, and they can get their Outlook e-mail in their vehicles,” he said.
The 160 equipped police and fire units also can view city-maintained video security cameras over the network, he said.
Like Minneapolis, Riverside is an anchor client for a service provider — AT&T — that operates the BelAir-equipped network and sells the 2.4 GHz services to residential and customer customers.
“The 4.9 is an extension of the mobile work force/public-safety work force in the field back to the city’s network,” Reneker said. “It interconnects into the city’s network, so it looks and functions like a desktop in the police or fire department.”
Meanwhile, Riverside County is proceeding with a wider-scale 700 MHz deployment using Motorola equipment that’s “probably three years off,” Reneker said. “We look at [4.9 GHz] as our stopgap measure, and we think what we’ve deployed here will likely end up being faster than their 700 MHz deployment.”
The two spectra serve two entirely different purposes, according to Stu Overby, senior director of global spectrum strategy for Motorola.
“4.9 GHz was directed primarily to on-scene, where you need very high bandwidth but smaller coverage areas — a hotspot or something like that — not so much ubiquitous high-site, wide-area coverage. 700 is targeted more at wide-area coverage,” Overby said.
Motorola provides systems for both bands, as well as 2.4 GHz and other commercial wireless spectrum. Like other vendor representatives, Overby acknowledged that equipment development has taken a while to move from 2.4 GHz to the public-safety-specific 4.9 GHz because that spectrum, “compared to some of the other bands, is relatively new,” he said. “It takes a little while for people to be aware of it and understand and get the license and get the funding and determine how they’re going to do it.”
Some of the municipal use is not as advanced as the full-scale rollouts in Minneapolis or Riverside. Pittsburg, Calif., uses Strix Systems gear for video surveillance over the 4.9 GHz spectrum. Starting with five cameras four years ago, things have ballooned to where “we’re close to 50 cameras,” said William Zbacnik, a captain in the Pittsburg Police Department and the project’s coordinator. “From the start, it never has lost steam and we continue to add to the network itself.”
Pittsburg’s decision to go with wireless was easy to make, Zbacnik said. “It was too expensive to lay fiber throughout our city, and wireless seemed to be an ideal route to go,” he said. “We have relatively few hills or mountains or any kind of high-rise buildings to obstruct our signals.”
While Zbacnik is enthused about the wireless surveillance network, he won’t mimic the more advanced models of other communities because Pittsburg is in a joint powers agreement (JPA) with Contra Costa County, Calif., which is getting U.S Department of Homeland Security funding for an overarching public-safety network.
“We’re following the county’s lead. At this point, it would probably be a waste of time for us to build a second system over our camera system,” he said.
However, Zbacnik did not discount the possibility of Contra Costa doing it. “They’re completely familiar with our system because they’ve looked at it several times,” he said.
Everyone in the public-safety space, it seems, is getting more familiar with the benefits of 4.9 GHz broadband wireless while simultaneously becoming less enthralled with the potential for 700 MHz broadband, which likely will not reach most communities for several years, if at all.
“700 MHz solves some problems; it doesn’t solve every problem,” said Sandy Bendremer, vice president of Galaxy Internet Services, which runs combined 2.4/4.9 GHz municipal wireless networks. “I think municipalities are too anxious to do something in the short term, and they don’t want to wait for 700 MHz to settle out. That’s the reason why 4.9 GHz has some renewed interest at this point.”