Monthly Archives: August 2009

– Fibering, UnFibering America

Broadband-America as Second Class - click for moreOn August 25th I had a chance to participate in a workshop at the Federal Communications Commission discussing what should be in the National Broadband Plan. The FCC is charged by the President and Congress to create that plan by February, 2010. To that end, they are conducting a series of workshops to gather input.

The workshops are the standard fare of a government sausage-making machine. The usual vaudeville performers with their usual songs-and-dances protecting their usual patches of the stage and their seats in the theater called the telecommunications market. There are very few representatives of city and county governments, but lots of representatives of “industry”.

On the other hand, I’m heartened by the Obama administration’s choices to lead the FCC. Julius Genachowski is the new FCC chair and is one of the primary authors of the broadband portion of the “stimulus act” (ARRA). Admiral Jamie Barnett is the new Chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He listened intently during the workshop, and the staff of that Bureau appears to be genuinely engaged and interested in this task.

These are all good signs that, with the National Broadband Plan, we’ll not get the usual lowest-common-denominator beaurcratized pabulum, but something truly visionary – a roadmap to take the United States from its present second-world Internet infrastructure to an electronic network suitable for the remainder of the century.

In my mind – and this was the essence of my talk – that roadmap is simple: build a fiber optic network to every home and business in America. As that network is built, create a fourth-generation wireless network on top of it by placing radio towers at key points throughout the network. I’m sold on fiber optics because of its virtually limitless capacity. As electronics improve, new switches and routers can be replaced on a fiber network, driving it to ever higher speeds. Signals from multiple different competing service providers (Internet, television, video, music, security, telephone etc.) can ride this network, just like anyone’s car or trucking company can ride the public highways.

Telephone and cable companies will oppose this vision tooth-and-nail. They have immense investments in existing copper-cable networks and will want to wring every last dollar of profit from those networks. But those copper cable networks are old and slow, literally dinosaurs in the world of fiber optics. South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Paris, Sweden, Amsterdam, see the value of fiber and are investing in both municipal and national networks. If we listen to the copper-wire-dinosaurs, the United States will continue to fall behind.

A fiber network has numerous advantages. I’ve already mentioned the potential to break the telephone and cable monopolies which grip our present electronic infrastructure. By fostering competition, we’re not only going to be improving service, consumer choice and reducing prices, but we’re being “capitalist” in the most fundamental meaning of the word.

Really high speed fiber networks have the potential to transform our world – literally. Homes and businesses will increasingly have high-definition television sets. By adding high-definition television cameras to them, along with a fiber network, every home becomes a video studio. Telecommuting, tele-education, tele-medicine, video telephony all become possible. Virtual classrooms from home, routine visits to the doctor, and video-calls with family all could improve our quality of life.

Furthermore, with true two-way, high-definition video a possibility, perhaps we can coax people out of their automobiles, to attend classes via video, to telecommute and conduct business at home, traveling less. This, in turn, means greater productivity, less time wasted in traffic jams, less consumption of precious gasoline, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and less dependence on foreign oil. And that means improved homeland security.

This transformation simply echoes previous transformations in our history, where the telegraph allowed long-distance communications between cities or continents, the telephone allowed homes across the nation to be interconnected for voice, and the internet brought the web, e-mail and social networking into the lives of almost every American. We’ve done this before – and it has always changed America for the better, serving as an engine of economic development as well as making us more safe and secure. We’ve built national telegraph and telephone networks, and, more recently, the Internet. We’ve built national broadcasting networks for radio and television and cable television. We’ve constructed cellular telephone networks and public safety radio networks. We’ve built the national highway network and then the Interstate highway network. Sometimes we’ve built these networks with entirely public investment, sometimes with entirely private investment, and sometimes a combination of the two. Wise regulation and spectrum management by the FCC has often paved the way. And we can do it again, if the National Broadband Plan is innovative and visionary.

Will the FCC and the Obama administration have the vision, the innovation, the leadership and the guts to be this bold?

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Filed under broadband, Fedgov

– Higher Tech Policing

Dubuque Police Department
Dubuque Police Department

Updated:  18 June 2011
Original Post:  2 August 2009

A long time ago in a city far far away I was a street cop. A police officer working the beat. It wasn’t a large city – Dubuque, Iowa – 65,000 people and probably 60 or 70 policemen. Yes “policeMEN”. The first women were hired into the Dubuque PD while I was there, and I – at 5′ 9″ and 170 pounds – was one of the smallest cops on the force.

In those days, technology was not really part of an officer’s life. Times have changed, they REALLY have changed. The Seattle Police Department has just implemented a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system which is fundamentally altering policing at the City of Seattle – the “SPIDER” project. Technology is now – literally – at the right and left hand of virtually every cop – and firefighter and emergency medical tech.

When I was on the street, my primary technology was the radio in my police cruiser. The voice radio was (and still is) the lifeline for public safety officers on the street. But, in the 1970s, when I walked out of the car, I also walked away from that lifeline. We didn’t have handheld or portable radios, nor did cell phones exist. If there was a problem when we were away from the car, we depended upon each other to “drive by” and check on us (and cops still do that), or on a citizen to use a land-line telephone to notify dispatch. That was scary.

Now police officers carry a handheld radio, and a lapel mike, and every Seattle radio has an emergency button which, when pressed, alerts dispatch center that the officer is in trouble. The emergency alert triggers a display of badge number on the dispatch console. The radios can communicate with officers throughout the region. And automatic vehicle location (AVL) shows the location of every police and fire apparatus in the City. All of this tech doesn’t mean policing is easier or safer than it was in the 1970s – on the contrary, there are new issues and dangers, which I’ll mention a little later.

We did reports by hand, on paper. We filled out index cards for car stops. And every call to police/fire emergency was logged on a card with a timestamp. When we wanted to get information about a license plate or driver’s license, the dispatcher looked up the info in a set of file cards or – this was really high tech in the 1970s – typed the request into a teletype machine for someone in some far city (like Des Moines) to look up on their index cards.

Now, things are much more high tech. First, people call 911 for emergencies. 911 is virtually ubiquitous in the United States, but barely existed in the 1970s. The police call-taker immediately sees the ANI/ALI (automatic number identification / automatic location identification) associated with your number. The call taker immediately enters all the information about the call into the Seattle Police Department’s new CAD (software written by Versaterm). [Fires or emergency medical calls are “hot transferred” from a police call-taker to a fire dispatcher, who enters the information into a Seattle Fire CAD, and you can actually view some real-time information about Fire 911 calls online here].

Dispatchers then dispatch the 911 call to an available police unit. An electronic map shows the location of every 911 call which is in-progress or waiting, the locations of police units and their status (free, working a call, etc.). A double click on a map icon brings up information about the call or the unit. Records management (also by Versaterm) is similarly automated, with reports now written electronically on laptop or in-vehicle computers directly by officers. A wide variety of information (e.g. address) is automatically verified, and the report is uploaded wirelessly.

The state-of-the-art in Seattle Police is even more high tech. Every patrol car has a digital video camera; every car stop is recorded, including the audio of the conversation from a wireless mic carried by the officer. Special license-plate-recognition vehicles (wirelessly connected to national databases) cruise the streets looking for parking scofflaws and stolen cars. Officers with BlackBerrys or their in-car vehicles can easily search for online information – a far cry from that teletype machine.

We are actively working on even higher speed wireless networking in the 700 MHz spectrum, which should allow two-way high-quality video transmissions to/from field units, including video from private security cameras in banks and stores. Fire units already carry electronic versions certain sorts of building plans, but in the future those building plans could be quickly updated to show the locations of hazardous materials or the detailed configuration of a school.

I’m certain high-tech has increased public safety through more rapid sharing of information, and has improved communications and therefore officer safety. This comes at a price, of course, and not just in dollars.   I’m not quite sure how dispatchers and police officers and firefighters stay current with the skills required to dispatch, provide policing, fight fires and provide emergency medical, AND also learn all this technology.  It is a challenge!

And officers today face dangers on the street which I never dreamed of in the 1970s – significant drug use, gangs, potential terrorists, and criminals who specialize themselves in using technology for identity theft, stalking, and crimes against children. I’m glad my experience as a police officer is behind me – I’m not smart enough or quick enough on my feet to face the challenges of the street today. But I hope – by continued wise application of technology – we can make cops, firefighters and the people they serve a bit safer.

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Filed under 911, Iowa, radio, Seattle Police