From Radio to Revolution

Converged wireless radio networking for government

Since World War II, wireless radio networking has given the government and military a flexible and efficient mobile communications option. Unfortunately, more than half a century later, many of the same wartime technologies are still being used by U.S. public agencies, despite major advances in real-time voice, video and data wireless transfer applications.

Other than a recent barrage of research studies, planning commissions and symposia on how to make use of wireless, only about 5 percent of government organizations have so far made the jump to modern networking. It is time for agencies to begin assessing, planning and preparing for the future of wireless in security and public safety.

Going Nowhere Fast

Today's government use of wireless radio networking remains dangerously stagnated. For example, a major problem is interagency collaboration, which is too often addressed by a series of cross-patched solutions or through multimillion dollar regional and state infrastructures that support only a portion of standard mission requirements. This can understandably be bad news when fighting a multi-jurisdictional wildfire or solving an interstate narcotics case, for example.

Personal communications also are hampered as first responders juggle multiple devices to accomplish a variety of tasks, such as portable radios, mobile data terminals and cell phones limited to voice and text-based information transmission—and most of these systems rely on slower network speeds that lag well behind industry standards. Only a few agencies use modern-day video applications despite their proven value, and these are usually limited to in-car video stored for post-shift retrieval.

By contrast, some governments are far ahead in wireless networking. For example, Seoul, South Korea, has one of the world's fastest high-speed wireless broadband networks. Based on this capability, television is available via cell phones from any location (including the subway); users may engage in real-time video calls from mobile devices; and citizens use touchscreen public services at bus stops and other public areas. A separate government agency has even been set up to help conquer the country's digital divide by further expanding broadband networking.

Today, we have a "perfect storm" of networking opportunity for public safety agencies, with new sources of funding— such as the economic stimulus package—and the introduction of 3G and 4G wireless technologies, new radio frequencies in the 700 MHz spectrum and the availability of robust, dedicated service from commercial wireless carriers. Now is the time when agencies can and should start planning to leverage a converged network as the platform for voice, data, video, resource tracking and other mission-critical applications.

Planning for a Wireless Future

Government agencies often have a love/hate relationship with their wireless radio networks. Most of today's implementations are privately deployed by the individual agency, jurisdiction or region. Even the newest of these systems only support voice, and those that offer data service run at speeds incapable of supporting today's media-rich applications. Known as land mobile radio systems, these wireless networks are primarily designed to support push-to-talk, two-way portable walkie-talkies and vehicle-mounted radios.

In the past, LMR systems were based on closed proprietary technologies that prevented implementations of mixedvendor products, greatly limited choice and hampered interoperability for government agencies. Today, developed under government guidance and in conjunction with the Telecommunications Industry Association governance, the Mobile and Personal Private Radio Standards Committee has established the Project 25 standard suite of capabilities for public safety, security, public service and commercial applications. Outside the United States, the terrestrial trunked radio protocol is accomplishing similar standardization of wireless radio networking products.

The P25 standardization process has resulted in significant benefits over the years, but it still has a long way to go. While P25 provides for the common air interface standard—enabling interoperable radio networking—the ability to interlink and roam across LMR systems remains a work in progress. The Inter RF Subsystem Interface is an attempt to address this problem. By contrast, most commercial wireless radio networks are already capable of addressing such issues—any national cellular phone carrier provides roaming as well as a variety of portable devices for voice, text, e-mail, video and Internet browsing. In fact, with the exception of government-grade encryption and system availability, the average high school student has greater communications capability than most public safety officials. The question is: When and where will government agencies and commercial service offerings meet?

Build or Buy?

This decision is on the minds of many agencies. Until recently, government agencies have often assumed that building private wireless radio networks is the only option to ensure coverage, reliability and security. This is not only expensive, but it creates communication silos between adjacent agencies.

Cutting costs with a regional implementation spreads the burden of ownership and increases interoperability. However, this generally results in a fork-lift upgrade of associated agency infrastructures and radio systems. Such a model has limited scalability depending on the number of participating agencies.

On the other hand, commercial wireless radio networks offered by a service provider are a more flexible alternative. 3G and the emerging 4G wireless networks allow agencies to leverage an existing wireless footprint, run highspeed multi-megabit applications such as video surveillance and enable advanced encryption technologies. Efforts also are underway to enable priority access for authorized government users. In this model, the implementation cost is generally reduced to a monthly subscriber access fee and the cost of the end-user device, which is typically 10 times less than the traditional LMR device. All system maintenance and upgrade costs are outsourced to the wireless service provider.

While commercial wireless is still working to optimize providing priority access, availability and coverage, and non-line-of-sight communications, some organizations have begun to deploy 3G wireless network options that coexist with today's LMRs. For example, a number of law enforcement and public safety agencies are now using in-vehicle 3G wireless data services to achieve secure IP-based access to network applications.

Licensed vs. Unlicensed

Another important consideration is the wireless spectrum. Government organizations have shown a strong preference for the use of licensed wireless solutions to help achieve building penetration with lower interference, better range and security, and fewer outages. However, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and other unlicensed wireless technologies may be used for some select applications.

3G wireless technologies support mobile wide-area wireless voice, video and data, and allow simultaneous use of speech and data services at much higher speeds. The national 3G coverage footprint is highly wireless carrier-dependent and rapidly growing, with EVDO-based providers currently covering a much larger area than GSM-based providers. Major metropolitan areas are likely to already have coverage from both technologies.

4G wireless technologies are the next logical step in high-speed wireless networking, and they are designed to stream voice and data at much higher rates and greater range. Mobile WiMAX (actually a 3.5G technology) provides transmission of data to the Internet and is based on the 802.16e standard, also called broadband wireless access. Long-term evolution is another 4G wireless technology, but it will have limited availability in many areas for some years to come.

The most eagerly awaited development is the proposed 700 MHz public safety networks, which provide a spectrum of frequencies dedicated to public safety. Combined with 4G wireless technologies, 700 MHz networks will provide increased data rates and expanded coverage that allow agencies to deploy all their bandwidth-hungry applications directly to the field.

New York City's Win

New York City employees are helping keep the city safe by using the New York City wireless network, which was built more than two years ago at a cost of $500 million. It is designed to allow first responders to wirelessly transmit large amounts of data, such as fingerprints, mug shots, city maps, automatic vehicle location and streaming real-time video to multiple city departments. It is used for license plate reading and chemical detection. Wireless modems also are being installed in 1,800 patrol fleet vehicles, allowing officers in the field to remotely access desktop applications.

Unlike many of the citywide Wi-Fi networks proposed in the past, NYCWiN is powered by a UMTS-technology- based wireless network, with just 380 radio towers connecting city staff throughout the city's 300 square miles. (As a comparison, Wi-Fi would have required installing 20,000 transmitters.)

While the system integrator continues to handle the daily operation and maintenance of NYCWiN, municipal IT staff is responsible for securing the network. After having it installed in May 2009, city inspectors have already begun using the network for mobile applications, enabling them, for example, to submit inspection data directly from the field. Eliminating the need to bring such information back to the office in person has already quadrupled productivity, according to city officials.

The Future of Wireless Radio Communications

The ability to communicate from any location, at any time, is clearly of prime importance to security personnel. Sept. 11, 2001, taught New York City that the ability to instantly share voice, video and data information is crucial in times of emergency. Other organizations are beginning to follow suit by deploying applications based on IP wireless networking, such as wireless data transmission for first responders and emergency personnel, remote access to desktop applications from agency or patrol vehicles, video surveillance and analytics, and airport/ transportation hub security and safety support.

Besides supporting daily operations more quickly and conveniently, wireless networking also allows governments to consider how to address larger concerns for the first time.

Increased speed, better security, expanded coverage and support for increasingly sophisticated applications have set the stage for a revolution in radio wireless networking. Agencies have a powerful new weapon for fighting crime, saving lives and protecting the homeland— if they will use it. Now is the time for government organizations to shake off their stagnation and begin planning for the future.

About the Author

Terry Schmidt is the business development manager of the global government solutions group at Cisco.

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