A Big Year for Homeland Security Datacasting
Public television donates spectrum for emergencies.
It may be only a matter of time before first responders using mobile devices can share emergency data by piggybacking on spectrum donated by public television broadcasters. The datacasting capability allows one person to broadly share video or other data without running out of bandwidth or clogging traditional communication channels.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T’s) datacasting project has made major strides and will engage in two pilot demonstrations in the coming months before undergoing testing in the next fiscal year, which could lead to widespread deployment.
In an emergency, first responders need access to timely and relevant data to make informed decisions. Traditional networks are meant for voice communication and do not have the capacity to transmit large amounts of data, particularly video, according to an S&T website. Although voice communication is important, videos and images enhance situational awareness. Furthermore, if the public saturates traditional networks and they become overloaded or fail, public safety agencies will compete for the same network resources as the general public to send mission-critical information. Datacasting provides a solution for public safety users to quickly share secure data, including voice, text, files, images and videos. It offers first responders a reliable means to stay connected and know what is going on around them.
Emergency personnel can receive datacast videos using a commercially available smartphone app known as Wowza, which is described as a streaming engine.
“We have not tried to reinvent the wheel. The app is pretty much a [graphical user] interface on a smartphone that allows you to access your back-end server,” says Cuong Luu, program manager for S&T’s Voice, Video and Data Programs for Public Safety. The datacasting effort falls under this group of programs. He adds that S&T’s cybersecurity team vetted the app to ensure it is safe for emergency personnel to use.
Luu predicts a big year for the datacasting project. “The project has been ongoing for two years already. This year will be the transition year for datacasting,” he reports. The technology is mature and will transition from pilot projects to test its feasibility. Feedback from real-world usage will determine whether it is deployed on a larger scale. The first pilot demonstration will be in partnership with Salt Lake City’s Emergency Management office. It will likely take place in October. The office will be conducting its annual training event, during which datacasting will augment the city’s communications. Officials will test the functionality of the datacasting technology in a large citywide emergency response situation focused on a terror attack and a mass shooting at a big venue. The event will require first responders, including police officers and firefighters, to coordinate with local hospitals and state officials.
The second pilot will be with a public school in Adams County, Indiana. It will focus on an active shooter scenario. While the timing has yet to be determined, Luu says he is aiming for a day when faculty and staff will be on location, but students will not. “On the one hand, you want a lot of people participating, but on the other hand, you don’t want to create a public panic,” he explains.
During a school shooting, emergency personnel could share evacuation routes, building blueprints, situational awareness videos or other critical files. “Because datacasting is one-way communication, you can send it to an unlimited number of recipients,” Luu says.
S&T has conducted similar pilots. For example, the city of Houston used datacasting for a number of events in 2016, including a Republican presidential candidates’ debate and the NCAA men’s Final Four basketball tournament, and for last year’s Super Bowl.
During the political debate, response agencies shared their display screens so that each group’s camera views benefited the others. Responders in the field and in emergency operations centers also received live footage from on-scene helicopters, showing areas where crowds congregated, according to an S&T fact sheet.
At the NCAA Tournament, agencies communicated by securely sending and streaming videos, text messages and other files. Officials viewed livestreaming footage from security cameras located throughout the stadium and surrounding areas. Officers in the field also captured and uploaded live footage as they monitored their locations to share with nearby officers and the emergency operations center, the fact sheet adds.
Finally, during the Super Bowl, datacasting provided security coverage in areas that fixed cameras could not. Oftentimes, if officials are unable to view territory from stationed cameras, they must send large teams to scope it out, the fact sheet explains. Datacasting allowed smaller teams to dispatch and stream footage from these zones for all other units to gain situational awareness, make quick decisions and respond appropriately. “Having the datacasting technology in the hands of first responders today is a key accomplishment DHS S&T is proud of,” Luu says.
The directorate also has tested datacasting capabilities with the Coast Guard in Chicago. “We were able to transmit video up to 8 miles offshore. This might be an important data point for another agency that has to engage offshore,” Luu says.
An additional benefit of datacasting is that public broadcasters can pretty easily increase the amount of spectrum as necessary. “The beauty of this network is that they can give you more bandwidth when needed. If you need more, they are willing to work with us and give us more bandwidth. No other network out there would be able to utilize that capability,” Luu declares. “For the Houston Super Bowl, we went from 1 megabyte to 2.”
S&T officials signed a memorandum of agreement in 2016 with America’s Public Television Stations, a nonprofit member organization for public television stations, to gain access to bandwidth no longer being used following TV’s transition from analog to digital signals. “We’re working with them on a plan and a cost estimation to implement this capability nationwide,” Luu reveals.
Technologically, providing the capability countrywide would be easy. Perhaps not surprisingly, funding is the primary challenge, even though the costs only involve placing a transceiver at each TV station. Luu indicates that the expense is minor, but it may still pose a problem. “The stations have different funding. Some say it will be easy for them; others say it is tough for them. Some stations are funded by donations, some are owned by private companies, and some are partially funded by the state,” he notes.
Ideally, Luu says, the datacasting project would partner with the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet. FirstNet is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Authorized by Congress in 2012, FirstNet is charged with developing, building and operating a national broadband network for first responders.
The system is expected to provide emergency personnel the advanced communication and collaboration technologies they need to conduct their missions. Intended capabilities include end-to-end encryption, continuous monitoring by a security operations center, nearly 100 percent reliability and the ability for incident commanders or other eligible first responders to prioritize network traffic.
Luu says datacasting will complement FirstNet’s video streaming capabilities by allowing those videos to reach an unlimited number of personnel. He adds that he has not yet held any formal discussions with the FirstNet team.
Luu’s group has, however, worked with FirstNet on another project that also falls under the Voice, Video and Data Programs for Public Safety. The Chicago Long Term Evolution (LTE) project helped that city’s police department and Office of Emergency Management and Communications better understand the network environment they will have when FirstNet comes to fruition. The pilot tested the viability and efficacy of using the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network to transmit video to law enforcement vehicles, enhancing response and increasing real-time situational awareness. “This type of field testing allows public safety to be better informed in terms of critical issues like network capacity and congestion,” Luu says.