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Motorola rolls out first standards-based LTE technology

We might someday have true communications interoperability for public safety in the United States

A milestone was quietly passed last November when Motorola — working in alliance with Ericsson and Verizon — shipped its first products for standards-based Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless products for public safety. Unless you work in an area that has both cutting-edge communications gear and access to a working LTE network, you won’t notice much of a change. However, this portends a shift in the public safety communications paradigm that may take many years to complete.

You have probably seen ads or articles about “4G” or “LTE” cellular networks offered by the major wireless carriers. These networks are possible by a combination of re-assignment of some of the radio spectrum by the FCC and other international regulators, and the always-increasing capabilities of consumer electronics. On a true LTE network, wireless users have bandwidth that equals or exceeds that available to most subscribers of cable internet services. That translates to, among other things, the ability to send and receive high-def video from portable cameras and Smartphones. This is the most demanding application for most broadband providers (streaming of movies from Netflix accounts for as much as 30 percent of U.S. internet traffic at peak times), so everything else is pretty easy to do by comparison.

A portion of the 700 MHz spectrum — Band 14 — is allocated for the exclusive use of public safety users. Wireless carriers intend to convince police, fire and EMS agencies to switch some or all of their communications traffic to this pipeline, so the carriers can sell them hardware, support, and space on their radio towers and hardwired backhauls. In areas where the LTE network is available and supported, some agencies have already shifted some or all of their data traffic to the commercial carriers, while others are holding back. This is a huge change in the communications model we’ve had for the last 75 years or so, and we all know how people feel about change.

Tough Nut to Crack
Traditionally, public safety agencies have owned their own communications networks. That meant buying the radios, staffing the dispatch center, and building the towers for the antennas, transmitters and repeaters. While it’s common for multiple private and public organizations to share space on a particularly well-located radio tower, there is still a lot of duplication of resources and extra expense associated with keeping these networks running. It’s also tough to get an agency to abandon a legacy network for one with greater capabilities, because they have invested so much in building the existing one and keeping it running. This is an especially tough nut to crack with local government officials. It’s one thing to replace threadbare uniforms or cars that no longer run, but as long as you can still talk to each other, why do you need a new radio system? If the network functions at all, it’s often regarded as being good enough to keep for another year.

These dissimilar networks also pose a problem for achieving what FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security have championed for many years: communications interoperability. You don’t have to travel far to find a city police department that can’t converse with the sheriff’s office in their county, or with the fire department or ambulance service in their own town. There are some expensive gadgets that bridge the gaps between radio systems on different bands and different frequencies with some analog other digital, but those aren’t around when you have a multi-city pursuit and need to talk to the state trooper on the interstate.

A communications network based on a commercial LTE system would provide all the bandwidth anyone would ever need, and allow for instant communications between any two users in adjacent beats or separate states. You could stream the output from a patrol car dash-cam to any unit or Comm Center in the country, as easily as you can call up a YouTube video. Your radio — which would also be your cell phone, more than likely — would work as well in your own town as in downtown New York City. The infrastructure would be maintained by Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint, which would keep building towers to serve their regular customers.

But managers get nervous about no longer owning and controlling the equipment, and placing themselves at the tender mercies of a commercial carrier. What would happen if one of the carriers decided they wanted to double their rates? Once the locally-owned network is gone, the provider of the commercial network can put you at their mercy.

This is an extremely complex issue that won’t be resolved this year or next. I believe we will see more public safety communications moving to commercial carriers because of the capabilities that option offers. We know from experience that the barriers to progress tend to be centered more on politics than technology, and this situation won’t be any different.

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