HF offering could be valuable in the post-disaster toolbox
There has been a great deal of talk in the public-safety industry about the small-cell, broadband functionality that exists in the commercial LTE networks that cellular carriers are deploying today, and will exist in the network that FirstNet plans to build for first responders. So, it has been interesting to see the level of interest that has emerged about a recent proposal to deploy an older technology — HF radio.
Last month, 911 solutions provider Intrado announced plans that it will provide a new service to critical-infrastructure entities on high-frequency (HF) spectrum from 3 MHz to 30 MHz that once was reserved for maritime use. After a 2010 FCC ruling, this spectrum can be used by public-safety and critical-infrastructure entities during times when other communications are down — something that happens in the aftermath of disasters.
That HF is useful during these times is not news, as amateur-radio operators have a long history of providing communications when everything else has been wiped out, such as in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The propagation characteristics in HF and other nearby bands are remarkable, allowing communications at distances that may not be as awe-inspiring as they were in the days before the Internet, but which still are extremely impressive — especially when the relatively small amount of infrastructure is considered.
This reality is what attracted Stephen Meer — co-founder and chief technology officer for Intrado — to the HF spectrum when it became available via an exclusive agreement between his company and ShipCom, the licensee for the airwaves.
"The beauty of HF is that you need a radio on this end and a radio on the other end, and that's it — there's no intervening infrastructure … and you can talk pretty much to whoever you need to talk to," he said.
But, as amateur-radio operators are quick to note, HF radio can be very tricky, something Meer understands well. The significant challenge for Meer and Intrado is to develop an automated offering that can be used by anyone, not just people who have completed an extensive amateur-radio licensing process. And that's a great idea, because there's no way to predict who will be available to communicate when disaster strikes.
"We're going to use pretty sophisticated computerized front ends on these radios, so you just walk up and push the 'We're in trouble' button, and it goes from there," Meer said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "It's kind of patterned after the global maritime-distress system that they had gone to, where all these boats have these HF radios in them. These radios literally have a red button on them, and when you start to sink or need the Coast Guard for whatever reason, you push the button, and it squawks out your GPS location, the boat's name and other information."
In the Intrado vision, when other communications are down, someone in a public-safety or critical-infrastructure entity would go to the HF radio, hit the button, wait for the system to determine which frequency band will work best, and the radio would connect the user to an Intrado relay center, Meer said. The trained Intrado person would establish the desired connection for the HF user.
Of course, having all forms of communications go down is not something that should happen often, which is why it's difficult for critical-infrastructure entities to justify large outlays of capital for those rare times when it does. Meer said that Intrado hopes its offering will cost $10,000 to $20,000 for an installed radio, in addition to a yearly subscription fee at a "very small amount."
If Intrado can deliver on this vision, such an offering could be a very nice addition to the communication "toolbox" often referenced by first-response communications officials — not only for the public-safety entities, but also for the critical-infrastructure entities that must be restored quickly before a broader recovery can be realized.
Meanwhile, I think it's great that there's potential here to rejuvenate a technology like HF radio — basically voice, although Meer says some low-speed data could be implemented eventually — as a reliable backup to all the feature-rich broadband networks that are the focus of today's communications world. As the proverb goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
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