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MHz Update: Top mobility issues affecting LE, March 2009

The PoliceOne MHz Update provides a quick look into what’s current in mobile communications and computing for LE.

The technology that supports critical public safety communications—everything from the radio calls cops answer thousands of times a day to the one-in-a-million transmission of a single word or phrase that alerts police to a possible terror threat—is evolving at an ever-increasing rate.

While every decade in the past century has seen dramatic advances in technology that facilities the free-flow of information to cops on the streets, the final year of this decade promises to be one of the busiest in history. From cellular broadband to municipal WiFi, from the 700MHz re-auction to 800MHz re-banding, from advances in devices and software to an economy that challenges agencies to pay for them... These are but a few of the critical issues facing public safety decision-makers and police officers across the country.

The PoliceOne MHz Update provides a quick look into what’s current in mobile communications and computing for law enforcement. Today we examine some of the latest news in mobile data networks as well as a handful of issues that have come to the fore lately, but what follows is far from a complete list. What do you think are the most important problems (or solutions) for mobility in Law Enforcement?

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D-Block Re-Auction—the debacle at the FCC 700MHz auction last year is far from over
Little more than a week ago, a panel of experts convened in Las Vegas for the International Wireless Communications Exposition (IWCE) Conference, and in one session sought to continue the discussion about the creation of a nationwide mobile broadband data system built in a 10MHz swath of the 700 MHz spectrum. When the FCC’s wireless spectrum auction came to a close this time last year, the plan to establish a public/private partnership through which a robust, multi-purpose, national, interoperable, wireless broadband public safety network would be built fell short of becoming a reality. At the FCC auction last year the so-called “D-Block” garnered just one bid ($472 million) in the opening round of the auction, and after that, the airwaves both literally and figuratively went dead.

The D-Block has since been left in a seemingly perpetual state of uncertainty. At a general session meeting of the IWCE, Harlin McEwen (chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust) reportedly said that a failure to take advantage of the current climate regarding the development of a national interoperability network would mean the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The FCC has reportedly devised a D-Block re-auction proposal that links the D-Block commercial spectrum with the existing public safety spectrum. Similar in some respects to the plan that was summarily ignored by investors last time around, this solution would be paid for by commercial carriers in a public-private partnership. The re-auction is allegedly set to take place in August 2009, but so much of the detail around what will ultimately be done here is likely to change before then. Stay tuned...

Mobile Data—adding new avenues to get the word out to the street officer
As departments increasingly push data (pictures, files, etc) to the police officer’s mobile display terminal in the squad car, administrators and city councils are faced with in ever-growing number of choices to get the data from point A to point B. Some agencies deliver mobile data to the car via UHF, but most have the MDT connected through an “Aircard” provided by a wireless carrier (read: Sprint, ATT, Verizon, etc). The “Aircard” itself is not expensive, but the fees to use them can pile up. The typical plan runs about $60 per month—this fact becomes important in a paragraph or two—so for example, an agency outfitting ten squad cars can figure the annual cost for the wireless Web to be around $7,200.  That's an excellent deal for always-on access to critical data. 

A small number of Federal agencies, whose agents frequently travel from one location dominated by one carrier network to another area with “coverage” provided by another carrier, have opted to use laptop computers enabled with the “Gobi” chip from Qualcomm. This technology lets the user seamlessly switch from one carrier network to another, as long as the agency subscribes to that particular wireless carrier network. Each user is then subscribed to pay more than one carrier a monthly fee for wireless broadband—in fact they’d have to subscribe to a host of carriers for the system to reach its full potential. Taking the abovementioned $60 per month average carrier cost, a department can quickly triple or quadruple that number for every Gobi-enabled device.

As interesting as the Gobi technology is—and it is very interesting to the mobile data users who travel coast-to-coast—its relatively limited applications and its comparatively high cost have kept Gobi from becoming pervasive in law enforcement.

While most mobile computers used by police are connected through cellular broadband, a lot of agencies are now connecting their officers to the network with other solutions. Some rural communities are experimenting with satellite Internet service, the prevalence of citywide “Muni WiFi” networks is increasing, and so-called “Mobile Mesh” networks are popping up in places. Satellite service can be costly, and the transceivers that make mobile mesh networks possible are typically more expensive than other data communications equipment that runs on the 802.11 standard, but the upside potential for information sharing for both technologies is interesting.

An intriguing new solution in the wireless data networking arena is something akin to Gobi, except it’s meant for local use and it can connect with more than just the carrier networks. A company called In Motion Technology recently announced that the Tempe Arizona Police Department has begun to use its technology to “put reliable, secure, real-time information at the fingertips of its officers in the field, enhance the Department's ability to manage assets in the field, and strengthen law enforcement efforts.”

The company’s “mobile gateway” creates a wireless mobile hotspot in and around each vehicle in which the device is installed. Similar to the way the Gobi chip switches back and forth between connects to any GSM and CDMA wireless network, the In Motion box can seamlessly switch back-and-forth between commercial cellular, 700 MHz, and a variety of WiFi networks to create a continuous, high-bandwidth pipeline of information to and from the vehicle.

The In Motion gateway is designed to let departments add the network connections and new software to what they call the “vehicle area network.” For example, as they become available, departments can deploy new mobile surveillance video technology, electronic ticketing, automated license plate recognition, and a host of other devices to enhance officer safety and effectiveness.  Speaking of devices...

Advances in Devices—small and sturdy is the new “sexy”
The emergence of new devices manufacturers are calling the ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) has begun to supplement (and in some cases supplant) PDAs as the handheld computing choice for law enforcement. While Blackberry PDAs and Palm Pilots are commonplace, they lack the ability to perform complex, custom-made applications designed for police work. These vital applications include but are not limited to “e-ticketing” and fingerprint scanning.

In response to the increasing demand for full-function handheld PCs for the police officer, Panasonic (maker of the Toughbook PC found mounted in thousands of squads across the country) has introduced a handheld called the “U1.” According to Panasonic, this is the first ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) to integrate the low-power “Intel Atom” processor in a rugged handheld computer, providing higher computing power at lower power, thus extending the battery life to as much as nine hours. Not bad for a computer you can drop four feet to the asphalt, pick up, and continue your work as if nothing ever happened. Because the Toughbook U1 touts a solid state drive with a gigabyte of memory and can run on the Windows Vista operating system (Windows XP is an available option), this sturdy little PC can perform lots of the features previously only available on a full size PC.

Presently being tested by the Deputies with the Oklahoma County (Okla.) Sheriff’s Office, the U1 features integrated WiFi and can connect with all major cellular wireless broadband networks.

While the U1 is new and has not yet had time to be widely deployed, some of the most interesting rugged solutions to ever be placed in the hands of law enforcement is the Motorola Mobile AFIS on the MC70 and MC75 rugged enterprise digital assistants (EDAs), which have been in use for several years across the country, and have been credited with helping to enable several high-profile arrests.

The Mobile AFIS on the MC70 and MC75 utilizes advanced wireless networks such as HSPDA (3G) and CDMA/EVDO Rev. A. This, in combination with Mobile AFIS support for NIST compliant packages, delivers rapid transmission of fingerprint images or templates, and facial images resulting in immediate identity verification in field operations.

The biometric attachment provides a rugged, mobile capability to capture fingerprints and high images within a variety of lighting conditions.

With optional ISO-compliant contact and “contactless card readers,” the Motorola Mobile AFIS can be used for identity verification against secure credentials such as ePassports, TWIC documents, PIV ID cards, and smart-card enabled employee ID badges. The MC70/75 EDAs data connectivity also make an excellent platform for applications such as eCitation, asset management, GPS location, and streaming video.

800MHz Re-Banding—the saga for Sprint and public safety entities goes on (and on)
In July 2004, the FCC sought to address the problem of “harmful interference to 800 MHz public safety communication systems caused by high-density commercial wireless systems” and began plans to develop a plan to reconfigure the 800MHz band. This process is ongoing, and for some communities has been a costly and complicated endeavor. This cost however, is not necessarily falling on the localities alone. When the FCC ruled Nextel Communications (which has now become Sprint Nextel) to vacate the 800MHz band to fix the interference problem for public safety communications, it demanded that the company foot the $2.8 billion bill. The FCC wisely did not place a cap on the cost the company could be responsible for, and earlier this month, Urgent Communications reported that “Sprint Nextel’s costs associated with 800 MHz re-banding almost certainly will exceed the $2.8 billion figure the carrier is required to pay for reconfiguration and that the amount could increase considerably.”

In a November 2008 press release the FCC said that “the 800 MHz Report and Order requires Sprint to vacate its channel holdings in the Interleaved Band as part of 800 MHz band reconfiguration. The Commission subsequently modified this requirement to permit Sprint to release the spectrum it must vacate in stages as band reconfiguration progresses in each NPSPAC Public Safety Region. As an initial step, Sprint has relinquished its channel holdings in the 809-809.5/854-854.5 MHz band segment in all non-border regions. As provided in the 800 MHz Report and Order, these channels will then be made available for licensing exclusively to public safety entities for a three year period, and exclusively to public safety and CII entities for an additional two years.”

The fact is that the process is taking a lot longer than originally intended, and the costs associated continue to rise.

Once again, stay tuned...

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