MTA police leverages P25, LTE to maximize interoperable communications throughout jurisdiction
New York State Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) police are communicating on a 700 MHz P25 Phase 2 system designed by L3Harris that has demonstrated automatic roaming with a Motorola Solutions P25 network in another state, as well as ongoing interoperability with LTE-based FirstNet users.
John Vallarelli, the MTA Police Department captain who led the multiyear Metropolitan Regional Radio System (MRRS) initiative, said the 65-site, 5-channel, multizone P25 network—contracted to L3Harris (then known as Harris, prior to the merger with L3) in 2015 and in operation since 2019—has proven to be robust, even in the face of recent hurricanes and tropical storms that have hit the area.
“Our network stayed up through the tropical storm; it has been resilient,” Vallarelli said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “When it comes to this network, we can’t be happier as an agency.”
This satisfaction extends beyond resilience, as the MRRS network has provided MTA police personnel with greater capacity, coverage and audio quality within its jurisdiction, which extends from downstate New York—including Long Island and the Hudson Valley area—to the state of Connecticut.
These capabilities also are leading to unprecedented levels of interoperability with a variety of entities, from other transit agencies to state police and federal agencies. A primary partner is the New York State Police, which received an upgrade to its Metro 21 system from P25 Phase 1 to P25 Phase 2 through its deal with MTA, while MTA was able to improve its coverage and use a Metro 21 facility to house half of the geo-redundant VIDA Premier core that supports both Metro 21 and MRRS, Vallarelli said.
Interoperability is not limited to LMR technology, as MTA police also can leverage LTE coverage from FirstNet—the nationwide public-safety broadband network being built by AT&T—to communicate on the MRRS network when outside of the P25 footprint, according to Vallarelli.
“The integration of AT&T FirstNet with our system was, I think, the untold story right here,” he said.
Providing an LTE option became a priority when MTA was required to add 500 officers to patrol the subway system—an underground area that had significant cellular coverage but did not support some officers’ LMR radios, Vallerelli said. Today, the MTA leverages LTE to augment coverage—particularly inside structures—and as an during when an LMR site is offline while construction or maintenance work is being done, he said.
Vallarelli said the solution works best for officers equipped with the L3Harris XL-200 portable device, which supports both P25 and LTE connectivity. If users know they are outside of the P25 coverage area—either from experience or from a “bonk” notification from the radio—they can make the switch to LTE manually and join a talkgroup via push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) technology, he said.
“We were able to get L3Harris to step up and bring resources to the table to take a pretty standard XL-200 and amp it up a bit, so that we’re to the point now that we actually can bridge LTE to LMR anywhere in the system, anywhere in the country—with one switch—in 10 seconds. It works like a charm for us.
“On the XL-200, the channel assignment has a choice of A, B, C, or D. Always under A is the LMR system; all the unit has to do is hit it. If you switch to B, C or D, and it will bring it to the adjoining LTE in 10 seconds. It still sees and pass through traffic to the dispatcher on a talk group on the LMR at the console … The dispatchers at our dispatch center in Long Island City don’t have any idea that they’re on LTE, because everything comes back as that radio.”
Vallarelli said the flexibility that the LTE coverage provides is proving attractive to other entities that have expressed interest in joining the MRRS system.
“We come in with our team and L3Harris and—using an Anritsu Site Master—we go in and test the RF coverage inside schools through the radio. We’ll also test the LTE capabilities,” Vallarelli said. “Where we don’t have coverage, I’ve already spoken to AT&T FirstNet and said, ‘You may need to contact that school district and the agency, because they need coverage.’ And AT&T is like, ‘Just tell us who we need to speak to, and we’ll come in.’ They have been really responsive to the needs of our partner agencies to plus-up [enhance] the coverage.
“And because that LTE works so great, it’s a no-brainer. We’ve tested in a hospital, in schools, an apartment complex, in a housing complex, in a garden-apartment complex, in government buildings and in train-station facilities. Wherever there’s LTE, it works great.”
With LTE-LMR interoperability in place, MRRS soon hopes to support interoperability with automatic roaming between P25 networks from different vendors, Vallarelli said. This is needed, because the MTA partner in Connecticut—where MTA is not allowed to build its own network—has a P25 system from Motorola Solutions, and personnel cross the state line frequently.
After working for three years with L3Harris and Motorola Solutions to get automatic roaming to perform properly in the field, the capability was demonstrated earlier during an informal test earlier this month, Vallarelli said.
“We had a test date and actually got the ISSI to automatically roam from Motorola in Connecticut to New York, and from the L3Harris in New York to Connecticut,” Vallarelli said. ” “I sat in my office in midtown Manhattan, next to Grand Central terminal, and I listened to my units on my system in Danbury, Connecticut. And their headquarters listened to their units running in Putnam County and Westchester County, New York.
“So, for purposes of the automatic roaming, it roamed across system to system. It took a little bit of work, but I give credit where credit is due—the team at Motorola in Connecticut and the team at MTA and L3Harris stepped up to get it done.”
And this automatic roaming across systems requires “no intervention” from the P25, according to Vallarelli
“It needs to get to that threshold where it loses its signal [to the P25 network the radio was on],” he said. “But because it’s going into its scan list and it’s looking for the control channel, if you populate it with your adjacent [channels]—bingo, it’s done.”
A formal test of automatic roaming is scheduled for Dec. 1, and MTA official hope the functionality will be available to its users in late December or early next year, Vallarelli said.
While the initial P25 buildout—awarded to Harris in 2015 as a $42 million contract that proved to be worth about $60 million, primarily because of site changes—is complete, the MRRS continues to evolve, as new entities are added as users of the network, Vallarelli said.
“We do have an $8.5 million modification under way to improve the cybersecurity, some other operational tools and add additional sites into the system that will get us from 65 [sites] to 67,” Vallarelli said. “They’re currently in the process of building, and we’ll be turning them on early next year to enhance our coverage.
“The coverage is good, and we want it great. We need a bit more [coverage] overlap in some of our more heavily populated areas and some others that we found during the testing.”
Vallarelli repeatedly acknowledged the work of the small team of people whose efforts have made the vision of the MRRS a reality.
“They’re just great people—they’ve got a work ethic that will just blow your doors in,” Vallarelli said. “The whole team—the Harris team, the consultants, the internal MTA team. In my 30 years, being part of this group has been the highlight of my career and my time on this earth. These guys are great. It’s just been lights-out phenomenal.”