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What's next in mission-critical intelligence for public safety?

Public safety has been in need of a technological upgrade to evolve along with the consumer technologies that rely on multimedia and the fast transfer of information and data

By Rishi Bhaskar, Motorola Solutions
PoliceOne Special Contributor

Situational awareness is a commonly used term when talking about a national broadband network for public safety. It may not be seen as the main point for establishing the network, but it has allowed for us to dream about the game-changing technologies and potential effects that fourth generation (4G)/Long Term Evolution (LTE) broadband would have on an officer’s situational awareness.

It should be of no surprise that data transmissions will be exponentially faster when compared to legacy networks, but it is the use of this data by public safety officers that will change our current landscape.

Consider the real possibility of an officer responding to a hostage situation. With help from a nationwide broadband network, the officer would be able to view blueprints of the building, observe a live video feed of the area, and receive location details on additional officers responding to the scene.

The increased amount of information at an officer’s disposal could potentially save time and most importantly, save lives. Paired with a wireless broadband device, public safety officers could have real-time access to important scene details, along with access to clear audio and video communications from multiple perspectives throughout the area.

Understanding the Role of D-Block
It was eight years ago when the 9/11 Commission, as a matter of national security, identified the need for public safety officials to have a dedicated, interoperable broadband network to share data and have clear, reliable, real-time communications during mission-critical emergency situations.

Passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which included the allocation of the D-Block spectrum to a new federal authority within the National Technology Information Administration (NTIA), was a critical step in realizing the vision of an interoperable nationwide network for public safety and thankfully these dreams of increased situational awareness can become a reality.

Much time and resources have been put into the fight for a public safety broadband network and our first responders will finally be able to receive access to modern communications technologies when it is complete.

It seems fitting to start with an easy-to-understand definition of D-Block as there is a great amount of information available on the reallocated spectrum. D-Block can be described as the reallocated public safety spectrum located within the 700 megahertz (MHz) band.

Readers may remember the somewhat recent switch from analog to digital television signals and the 108 MHz of spectrum that was free for other uses.

The freed up 700 MHz band consists of the lower 700 MHz band and the upper 700 MHz band, with the D-Block being located in the upper band. This piece of spectrum was continually fought over, but the need for a national public safety system was always apparent to public safety officials wanting a foundation for a nationwide LTE network.

As part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, the “First Responder Network Authority” (FRNA) — commonly referred to as FirstNet — was formed and this independent authority was established within the NTIA.

It is set to ensure the eventual establishment of a national and interoperable public safety broadband network. Officials anticipate that the FirstNet broadband network will be built with standards-based 4G/LTE broadband technology, allowing for new technology and applications to provide streaming video in high-definition (HD), among other things.

There is no doubt that the creation of FirstNet is a large step forward for a national public safety network, but there is still much work to be done.

As the first step, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) appointed a 15-member interoperability board which will file a technical requirement plan with the FCC who will accept or modify the provided plan.

Concurrently, federal users and utilities must qualify to join FirstNet. While utilities may be eligible as secondary users on the network, federal agencies that qualify as ‘emergency response providers’ will be able to join as primary users.

It is intended that the FirstNet network will be used to serve the data needs of public safety agencies, as opposed to the needs of mission-critical voice. With that said, there will be no impact on the majority of existing Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems, with the exception of some “T-band” users.

Also part of this law, the governor of each state has the option to decide if he or she will deploy a statewide broadband Radio Access Network (RAN). Once FirstNet is officially established and the Request for Proposal (RFP) process has been completed, states will have three months to notify FirstNet, the NTIA and the FCC if they want to “opt-in” or “opt-out” of the FirstNet RAN.

For those states that decide to “opt-out,” they will have six months to complete their own RFP process for a broadband RAN with eligibility to apply for a construction grant through the NTIA.

For those seeking planning grants, a total of $7 billion has been allocated for the construction of a public safety network. This Public Safety Trust Fund will be managed by FirstNet with an initial phase of funding totaling $2 billion, which will require funding from an auction to award additional grants once it has been depleted. 

The State and Local Implementation program is another source of planning grants with the Assistant Secretary of the NTIA being authorized to borrow up to $135 million from the Treasury. This program will make it possible for states, regions and local jurisdictions to receive grants for their efforts in implementing and utilizing the public safety broadband network. 

What does this mean for current agencies already working on their own private broadband network? One key concern is the compatibility with the nationwide network. However, any state or local public safety network that is deployed today will utilize the same best practices for modern, mobile network technology as the future national system.

There is also the added benefit of gaining invaluable lessons learned from the deployment of local networks in making the build-out of the national system more efficient and cost effective.

In speaking of learning from local LTE deployments, the recent suspension of deployments funded by the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) must be discussed. Current 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards based LTE deployments have the ability to integrate with FirstNet, advancing the technology and providing important details as FirstNet continues to build and test the system.

These deployments were suspended by FirstNet to preserve the spectrum, but they should be able to interoperate with the FirstNet network as they are all 3GPP standards based.  With the speculated timeline for deployment of the FirstNet LTE infrastructure being three to five years, it is important that our BTOP funded early adopter projects be allowed to proceed as potential proving grounds for Public Safety features and requirements.

Where Do We Go From Here?
There is no question that our ability to communicate across great distances and access information quickly has improved our lives in multiple ways, but criminals are also taking advantage of commercial wireless communications to instantly access social networks, videos, mobile phones and online tools to better coordinate their crimes.

Public safety has been in need of a technological upgrade to evolve along with the consumer technologies that rely on multimedia and the fast transfer of information and data.

The new 700 MHz spectrum allocation has the capability to transform public safety with a system that can be managed for mission-critical purposes.

Now first responders will have the tools to deal with these increasingly complex threats effectively and efficiently with a new kind of collective intelligence made possible by collaboration over a public safety broadband network and with more capable crime-fighting tools that provide powerful situational awareness and better protection of citizens and property.

Aside from increased efficiency and effectiveness, first responders will no longer need to rely on overwhelmed carrier networks when disasters strike.

Now local jurisdictions will possibly be given full control over their networks without being affected by commercial usage spikes that can hinder first responder communications in emergency situations.

If enough states engage with FirstNet on the possibility, networks could be prioritized for administrators to dedicate resources to specific incidents. This allows the key first responders in a critical situation to have unhindered access to deal with the incident at hand – whether it is the on-site firefighters dealing with a large wildfire or the police officers addressing a school lockdown.

While usage models must be developed for times of heavy use, the option to control and prioritize communications will have an immediate and beneficial effect on our first responders. 

Prioritization and other mission critical features are not currently part of the minimum technical requirements for FirstNet and the need for dynamic prioritization is apparent when considering secondary users on the network.

As was previously mentioned, commercial networks can fail when overwhelmed with increased traffic during events and/or situations. When these networks fail, the local first responders are always there to manage and respond to incidents, as they have been doing for over a century.

When it comes to defining mission critical needs for a specific jurisdiction, only local first responders truly understand their needs from an application and integration perspective. An example of this would be the drastic differences in local application integration requirements for New York City when compared to those of Indianapolis.

The difference between the two cities demonstrates the large importance of local control and local operations when it comes to successfully operating in a mission critical world.

With the eventual nationwide broadband network for public safety comes a plethora of data that was not previously available to agencies. From cameras, sensors, Smartphones and alarms, agencies can operationalize the data to make more intelligent predications and targeted counteractions.

With the help of companies like Motorola Solutions, agencies can collect their data and securely distribute it across their networks and mission-critical devices. The networks can be managed to connect regions and departments across a single platform, turning information into intelligence to connect the dots.

This may not be apparent right now, but the implementation of the public safety broadband network has the potential to foster new technologies and system advancements that are currently not in existence.

The proposed nationwide network will truly be “next-generation” with the capabilities to change how our officers respond and react to situations. From increased situational awareness to a possible boost in efficiency, our public safety officers will be better prepared as a technological example to the rest of the world. 

It is hard to guess exactly what is next in regards to the nationwide broadband network, but that does not mean that we can’t dream. We envision an environment of wireless broadband devices that give officers immediate and vital information for making smarter decisions with the assistance of smarter technology.

A place where mission-critical situations are handled with the utmost caution thanks to real-time data and collaborative intelligence.  The ability to give our first responders numerous perspectives and vital data on a situation will benefit their safety and response as well as the very communities that they protect. This is not just a critical step forward for public safety, but also for our country and its citizens. 

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