From Radio to Revolution
Converged wireless radio networking for government
- By Terry Schmidt
- Oct 05, 2009
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Terry Schmidt is the
manager of the global
group at Cisco.