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Capital Region Forges Wireless Way

July 2007
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 
District of Columbia emergency personnel have been using the Wireless Accelerated Responder Network, a pilot program, for three years. The equipment comprises a PC card inserted in a laptop computer and antennas.
Area’s public safety personnel exhibit unprecedented cooperation to set system in motion.

The U.S. seat of power will be home to the country’s first regional communications network of networks to link police, firefighters and first responders. Working with its geographic neighbors, Washington, D.C., begins acceptance testing of the network within the district next month. Once fully in place, the system will enable emergency personnel throughout the National Capital Region to communicate and share information seamlessly with each other.

Circumventing interoperability problems has been as much a part of emergency response procedure in the District of Columbia as it has throughout the country. However, the city’s clear status as a prime target for terrorists intensifies the need for smooth communications at the flip of a switch. Exacerbating the challenge is the interwoven nature of the National Capital Region, which encompasses the district, five municipalities and 12 cities in two neighboring states, comprising nearly 10 million people. When tragedy strikes in one area, emergency personnel in the region spring into action regardless of the location of their home base. While the sentiment is admirable, the feat can be thwarted by devices that do not talk to each other.

The district’s first project to fix the problem was unveiled in September 2004. Called the Wireless Accelerated Responder Network (WARN), it was the first citywide broadband wireless public safety network in the United States. A pilot network with an experimental license in the 700 megahertz (MHz) band, WARN’s first deployment into the field was the presidential inauguration in January 2005.

WARN comprises 12 radio sites and approximately 200 network devices in the form of PC cards and portable access devices. This equipment facilitates wireless connectivity between local and federal personnel using public safety mobile devices in the District of Columbia. In addition, the cards enable users to access computer applications that in the past were accessible only at their desktop computers.

Including the Metro public transit rail tunnels, the network covers 95 percent of the district. The peak data uplink rate is 900 kilobits per second, with an average uplink rate of 300 kilobits per second. The peak and average data downlink rates are 3 megabits per second and 900 kilobits per second, respectively.

This dedicated public safety network, which does not compete with cellular or commercial equipment users in the area, provides law enforcement personnel with sustained communications on the move throughout the city. As an all-Internet-protocol (IP) network, it features static IP addresses. Applications include video, chemical and biological sensor monitoring, vehicle tracking, traffic camera access and e-mail.

But as impressive as these capabilities are, the district’s technology leaders are coordinating an effort that will make the communications in the region even more comprehensive: the Regional Wireless Broadband Network (RWBN). Robert LeGrande II, deputy chief technology officer, District of Columbia, explains that the first step toward making the network a reality was establishing a user group of representatives from law enforcement and emergency services. This team helped district personnel better understand the public safety and emergency response working environments. In addition, group members described the kinds of applications that first responders need to do their jobs. The district then shared this insight with jurisdictions in the region.

With this information in mind, the lead regional communicators determined that it would be better to design a network of networks rather than to build network silos. “We decided that it would be great if we had the same technology and same frequency and did this at the same time. We leveraged our regional investment to accomplish it, and that’s what we’ve been working on for the past two years,” LeGrande explains. And ensuring interoperability right from the start is a good idea, he emphasizes. “It’s harder, but it’s smarter. You can quote me on that.”

In February, the National Capital Region chose Alcatel-Lucent as its equipment infrastructure vendor for the RWBN. The network will have the capacity to transmit video, data and voice communications with peak speeds of nearly 5 megabits per second using only a paired 1.25-MHz channel. Police officers will have PCs in their cars with a broadband connection that will allow them to download information in real time. They also will have real-time access to all of their desktop applications. If the squad car has a camera in it, officers will be able to stream video into the vehicle at any location. Global positioning systems installed in the cars will enable headquarters personnel to locate officers who need help.

 
Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology performed experiments to determine how to improve emergency radio communications at the former Washington Convention Center before, during and after its demolition. The work explored the communication problems first responders run into when operating within buildings.
“Those are just some of the out-of-the-box basics. Imagine having a huge broadband wireless network pipe to potentially every vehicle in the city, which is private to our core networks. This is not only within the city; the goal is to roam from place to place and provide mutual aid to the region. The good news about these networks is that they can scale to include voice. So imagine that several years from now you’ll have integrated video, voice and data devices. That sounds like a leap of faith, but I’d say my daughter has a phone that does that right now. It is a little more complex than that, I’ll admit, but the reality of it is that the commercial carriers are investing billions on innovation so we can bring that innovation to the first responders,” LeGrande explains. Ruggedized well-tested commercial solutions could be the foundation of the communications capabilities the National Capital Region emergency personnel need, he adds.

In this network-of-networks design, each jurisdiction maintains and retains control over its own assets and determines who is allowed to communicate using these state-of-the-art technologies. However, the RWBN will provide seamless roaming for users between the jurisdictions without the need to switch channels. “It roams just like the cellular networks roam from base station to base station,” LeGrande relates.

To provide this capability, the district chose Evolution-Data Only Revision A (EV-DO Rev. A), a wireless radio broadband data standard that code division multiple access, or CDMA, cellular service providers such as Sprint and Verizon use worldwide. “In a perfect world—and that’s what we’re going for—we’ll be able to compete a roaming agreement between one of those major carriers. Once we roam out of our network, and even if it’s a redundant network, we’ll be able to roam onto the commercial networks so our first responders will continue to have broadband wireless access,” he notes.

Ten base stations already are in place in the district. The network will be extended throughout the region during the next several years; the installation time line depends on National Capital Region government leaders as well as decision makers in the federal government and the resources they choose to commit to the effort. The goal is to install seven base stations in the remaining sectors of the region, and LeGrande’s team currently is determining where those stations should be located.

The RWBN team has been very satisfied with its decision to use EV-DO. “Its technology evolution path is solid. The early testing of the EV-DO Rev. A product is outstanding, so we’re really excited about that,” he notes.

Unlike other technology rollouts where new systems are brought into established organizations, cultural hurdles are not likely to surface, LeGrande predicts. “Keep in mind that this is not different from the land mobile radio environment. It’s traditionally been the first responders who have been developing the network and maintaining it. They are the ones who, by and large throughout the country, are responsible for building and procuring a network.

“This project is being sponsored by the information technology folks within the region, and it’s not something they have right now, but it’s something that we’re going to introduce to them,” he explains. “We’re planning on having our acceptance test of the network in August 2007, meaning that it will then be ready for operational use. We won’t just throw it out there into the field. We’ll introduce it through training and deployment in a responsible way that is consistent with what the leaders of the first responder forces agree it should be. Once law enforcement and emergency response personnel see the benefit of the RWBN, such as being able to see video of a fire taken with infrared cameras from a helicopter hovering above a burning building, the network’s value will be evident.”

While cultural issues may not be as challenging as they are in many other environments, other problems have surfaced as the district coordinated the setup of the RWBN. Any proposals that involve the 700-MHz band are controversial, as these airwaves may serve as the last opportunity for new organizations to enter the wireless market when it is auctioned later this year, LeGrande notes.

In April the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Report and Order and a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that address the rules governing wireless licenses in the 698-to 806-MHz spectrum band. Television broadcasters currently occupy this part of the spectrum, but the transition to digital television in February 2009 will free it for other uses.

FCC proceedings have been ongoing in three areas related to this topic, one of which specifically addresses the public safety communications issue. This spring the commissioners tentatively concluded that the current public safety wideband allocation should be revised so that only broadband applications consistent with a nationwide interoperability standard will be deployed. In addition, the FCC provisionally decided that it should consolidate the 700-MHz public safety spectrum by merging the narrowband spectrum at the upper portion of the public safety allocation and the broadband spectrum at the lower portion. These moves, combined with the FCC’s proposal to establish a national public safety licensee, support the commission’s goal to establish a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband capability for public safety.

Given this nationwide objective, the National Capital Region’s RWBN puts the area ahead of the pack. But LeGrande points out that this does not mean that plans have proceeded without a hitch. Wrangling among the private sector, the FCC and Congress threatened to delay work as the three groups made decisions that could have taken the spectrum away from the public safety sector.

Some organizations have proposed that the commercial sector be the primary users of the 700-MHz band (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2007). Public safety personnel would have priority in emergencies, during which the spectrum would be turned over to them. LeGrande notes several problems with this approach. “First of all, priority of service has not been something that has been well tested. So we’re talking about something that we need to build. Second, it would have to be built on the fly. Although there is priority of pre-emptive service, it doesn’t exist yet. That’s one concern we would have with the public/private-only approach. You’re really talking about capacity. We’re in a major urban area, and we have a high volume of users—first responders and public services and different folks—who would be on a potential private network. Rural areas don’t have the capacity challenges that we would have, so prioritization is actually easier,” he states.

The broadband world is very dynamic, LeGrande adds. “We have users who are streaming video, collecting high-value information. They’re just doing all types of things that really eat up the bandwidth and that require management at a much more granular level. That’s why we have a strong belief that we need our private networks to manage our resources. Otherwise, we’ll be in jeopardy of not being able to get the right person the right capacity at the critical time,” he says.

LeGrande credits the first responders in the region for the progress that has been accomplished on this project. “None of this can be done without an outstanding partnership in the region and without our first responders saying, ‘We will do this together; we will set up mutual aid agreements.’ We’re taking advantage of things that they’ve done years before the technology was built. They shook hands after the [Air Florida Flight 90] plane wreck in 1982 and said, ‘We’re going to communicate better in the region,’ and that’s why technology can work. Where first responders say they’re going to work together, technology is an enabler. It’s not the thing, but it’s an enabling aspect of it that makes it finally possible; it’s impossible without that collaboration,” he states.

Web Resources
District of Columbia: www.dc.gov
D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer: http://octo.dc.gov