Category Archives: disaster

Why would anyone buy FirstNet?

firstnet-rfpOn May 31st the First Responder Network Authority – FirstNet – accepted proposals from private companies to build its nationwide public safety wireless LTE network.   We don’t know how exactly many companies or groups of companies submitted proposals (although today Rivada announced a number of its partners who have together submitted one bid).   We do know FirstNet has been quite public in its process and wants a “vendor partner” who will develop and deploy its nationwide network with a lifespan of 25 years and an estimated value of $100 billion.

But why would any police department or fire department or transportation authority or electric utility or other agency which responds to public safety incidents ever “buy” and use FirstNet?

Almost every agency involved with the protection of the safety of the public – first responders but also utilities and transportation and public works and others – already uses a wireless LTE network for its field workers.   T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and others have robust networks which are getting better every day.

Why would an agency switch from a proven network provider to a network provided by an untested partner of a federal government agency?

Here are some good reasons, if FirstNet and its contracted vendor can make them happen:

  1. Public safety partners. FirstNet talks a lot about its industry or vendor partner.   FirstNet needs to speak about and model its partnership with public safety agencies too.  Responder agencies can and do buy services as a “customer” from many carriers.   And, frankly, the commercial services are quite good.   To be competitive FirstNet – and whoever gets its contract – need to build a model where its “partner” responder agencies have a lot of input and control over its products.
  2. A great vendor partner. Generally public safety agencies have a love-hate relationship with their telecommunications carrier.  Each agency can enumerate a set of concerns and issues with their provider.  FirstNet will almost completely rely upon the winner of its RFP to provide service to its public safety partners (customers).   Indeed, if it weren’t for item #1 – the need for a true “partnership” with public safety agencies – FirstNet might devolve into a simple contract administration bureau.    FirstNet must choose a vendor which can rapidly deploy the network, make it robust, and provide superior, turn-on-a-dime, service superior to the existing carriers.
  3. Public Safety users. FirstNet must be broad – embrace a “big tent” – in its definition of public safety responders.   Clearly many governmental and non-government agencies have public safety responsibilities and should be able to use FirstNet, at least part time:  transportation, transit, public works, elected officials, emergency management, water/electric/wastewater utilities and more.  Furthermore many individuals volunteer their time for search-and-rescue, firefighting, paramedic, and other public safety functions, and need some access to FirstNet.   Even the media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.) have a public safety/information responsibility during daily incidents and disasters.
  4. Commercial and consumer service conflicts. A broad definition of an allowable user as defined in paragraph 3 above would take customers away from the commercial carriers, which was not the intent of Congress.  So FirstNet and its vendor must devise some way of “deputizing” users.    For example, when a citizen transforms from a consumer to a volunteer firefighter, their personal device must be “deputizable” to become a FirstNet device, transitioning from the citizen’s commercial carrier to the FirstNet-authorized service befitting a public safety responder.    Indeed, when a teacher is in a classroom and her school goes into lockdown for any reason, that teacher can become a “first responder” and should become a FirstNet user able to communicate to responding law enforcement officers.

    Managing FirstNet Priority

    Managing FirstNet Priority

  5. Priority. Priority for first responders is often cited as THE significant advantage of FirstNet.  Traditionally priority service has not been available from commercial carriers.  However both Verizon and AT&T are offering or planning to offer such service.  FirstNet’s priority service must be clearly superior.
  6. Local control. In the past, “local control” has meant local control of priority – having an incident commander able to designate which users or devices or applications have network priority.  We’ve come to recognize that LTE has considerable inherent mechanisms for this, which do not need much manual intervention.  Most local control of priority can be handled during provisioning.  The federal Department of Commerce’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) group and FirstNet are well down the road of developing mechanisms for such local control and they need to be implemented.
  7. Local control of deployment and expansion. Public safety agencies have little control over the deployment and expansion plans of commercial carriers.   Occasionally an agency will say to a carrier “we really need another cell site here” or “please don’t do maintenance and bring the network down at 2:00 AM Sunday morning as the bars are closing”.  FirstNet, however should offer much better local control over network deployment and expansion.  FirstNet – or its state partners – might have public processes and even workshops and conferences where regions can specify their priorities for expanding coverage, or adding applications or improving capabilities such as those listed below.  Such “local control” will be the truest and best demonstration that this network is, indeed “public safety’s network”.
  8. Deployables.
    An LTE Site Deployable on a Trailer (Nokia Corporation)

    An LTE Site Deployable on a Trailer (Nokia Corporation)

    It is not feasible to deploy cell towers across an entire large state or geography, particularly if most of that geography is national forest or desert.  Yet communications are really important in the first hours of a disaster or emergency like a wildfire.   In 2014 three firefighters died during the initial attack on an emerging wildfire in the state of Washington. FirstNet could be much more dynamic than commercial carriers in rapid deployment of cell sites during such an event.  PSCR is researching small fleets of unhumaned aerial vehicles (UAV) containing such sites which could be quickly launched after a wildfire or landslide or other disaster occurs.  Other solutions might include cell sites on fire apparatus, back-packable sites, cell sites on trucks and so forth.   This demonstrated ability to rapidly deploy would hasten adoption of FirstNet by local agencies.

  9. Voice.    Any cellular network offers cellular telephone calling – one person calling another.  FirstNet needs to offer a wider range of voice calling apps for responders.   One such capability is push-to-talk – where a single user can push a single button and communicate with a whole police department or fire department, and dispatchers can use the same capability to broadcast to an entire precinct of patrol officers.  Another capability is “direct mode” where one device can talk to others nearby without the need to communicate through a cell phone tower (which may be destroyed by a natural disaster).  PSCR is actively working on such capabilities.
  10. Private “channels” for user groups. Channels would allow, for example, tribal police departments across a state or the nation to communicate (voice, video, text, email etc.) with each other privately.  There really no comparable communications mechanism available today, as each county or department has its own land-mobile radio network and it is hard to interoperate across large geographies.    Private channels could be used by elected officials across a region to communicate securely during a disaster, tribal gambling agents at multiple casinos to talk about emerging enforcement issues, or multiple fire departments from a wide region, all responding to a wildland fire, to communicate with each other and air support.

    PSCR's Mobile Architecture

    PSCR’s Mobile Architecture

  11. Provisioning. Every agency has people who buy stuff.   FirstNet and its contracted vendor need to make it easy to buy it stuff – tablet computers, smart phones, traffic ticketing devices, body-worn video cameras and more.   But FirstNet can also bring additional capability to this process.   A police department, for example, will want its Samsung S7 smartphones configured with a certain set of free commercial apps (Google maps), its own vendor apps (computer-aided dispatch), perhaps local apps (crisis intervention app or wanted/warrants app) and a mobile device management system (for example: Airwatch, Mobileiron, Intune).   A police department will also want encryption, VPN, advanced authentication (FBI CJIS policy).   If FirstNet and its vendor can offer a quick and simple configuration tool to ship devices to each department pre-configured, it would be a significant advantage to the using agency.  PSCR is actively working on a mobile device architecture which would enable these capabilities.
  12. Provisioning roles. FirstNet should be planning to allow responder agencies to specify certain roles for users, applications and devices.  For example a police officer might have a role of “patrol officer” and be carrying a device with the role “body-worn video camera” using an application such as “streaming video”.   Police departments should be able to define such roles for all their users, applications and devices.  This provisioning – and the ability to make rapid changes in provisioning (e.g. from police patrol officer to SWAT member) feeds right into the local control of priority specified above.
  13. Fusion center apps.   There are about 70 fusion centers nationwide who collect information to help detect and prevent terrorism, gang activities and other criminal issues.  Fusion centers have trained a cadre of liaisons who feed them information about suspicious activities.  But communications between fusion centers and such liaisons or other agencies can be hard.  A special app or a private channel could significantly improve the functioning of fusion centers be allowing law enforcement and other liaison officers to rapidly and securely send information to the fusion center, and the fusion center to rapidly disseminate intelligence to responders.
  14. Opt-in Plus. FirstNet and its contracted vendor could use (and pay for) sites already owned by local and state governments in order to improve coverage and capacity.   FirstNet could also allow local and state agencies to buy eNodeB’s (cell sites) and similar equipment for deployment on fire apparatus or other areas which need coverage.

    Amazon's Echo

    Amazon’s Echo

  15. Personal assistants, speech-to-text and similar leading edge capabilities. Consumers know and use Siri and Cortana and Amazon’s echo.   FirstNet should provide such capabilities – tailored to public safety’s unique lexicon and need – for using agencies.

There are a whole host of other potential capabilities which would give FirstNet a marketing and service edge on commercial carriers, helping to encourage public safety responder agencies to switch to the FirstNet service.   A few others are:

  • Robust, virtually unbreakable, cybersecurity.
  • ICAM – identity, credentialing and access management to identify the user of the device as well as the device.
  • “Public safety grade” – rock-solid sites, electronics, backhaul able to withstand disasters local and regional – earthquakes and hurricanes and terrorism.
  • High sites or “boomer” sites in rural and remote areas to cover wide swaths of area.
  • 911 calling for FirstNet users, plus also secondary users who are consumers and businesses.
  • Integration with public safety answering points (PSAPs), their emergency service internet protocol networks (ESI Nets).
  • Integration with Next Generation 911.
  • A robust applications store of curated, tested, cyber-secure applications.
  • Certain nationwide apps or capabilities deployed on every responder device, e.g. situational awareness.
  • IoPST – The Internet of Public Safety Things. This is a future network where sensors and cameras and intelligent transportation systems and fire detection and similar interconnected devices send information to responders quickly to help in mitigation of public safety incidents.
  • IoFRT – The Internet of First Responder Things. This is a future network which includes sensors and devices on First Responders or their vehicles or nearby to monitor them and keep them safe as they protect the public.

State and local responsibilities.   “Partnerships” are two-way.   Local and state responder agencies – governmental, non-governmental and private – need to be good partners with FirstNet and its contracted vendor too.   I’ll write more about this in the future, but these using agencies need to, for example:

  1. Standardized applications statewide, e.g. push-to-talk apps or situational awareness/mapping apps, which help to coordinate response from multiple agencies to a single incident or disaster.
  2. Designate knowledgeable officials to work with FirstNet and its contracted vendor to design and deploy the network locally.
  3. Work with FirstNet to help prioritize needs across a region or a state. Such needs might be expanded coverage, apps and app stores, in-building coverage and more.
  4. Insofar as possible, help remove or mitigate local permitting and regulatory processes thereby allowing rapid FirstNet deployment to occur.
  5. Step up and fund user fees and devices for those local and state responders – volunteer firefighters for example – who cannot afford them.
Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson, Chair of the FirstNet Board, laid down the challenge to FirstNet staff in a speech at the PSCR Annual Conference on June 7, 2016, in San Diego.   Over the next year, she said, FirstNet needs to plan for the “excellent operation of this network.”  FirstNet “has to be better than any other network in the world today.”

She went on to say FirstNet is “demanded by public safety, shaped by public safety, FirstNet is public safety’s network.”

Amen.

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Filed under deployables, disaster, drones, FirstNet, future of technology, Internet of Things, PSCR

Fearing Government, Fearing Technology: the Ying and Yang

America's Top Fears 2015Americans fear government corruption more than anything else.

More than terrorist attacks, identity theft, running out of money, economic collapse, drunk drivers, police brutality, insects and snakes.   Gee, we fear Government Corruption more than we are afraid of Obamacare and even more than Reptiles.

Government corruption?  In the United States of America?   Our greatest fear?

And that fear trumps any other by a wide margin – 13 percentage points.   Our second greatest fear – Cyberterrorism – isn’t even close.

Well, so says Chapman University’s Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences which recently completed a statistically valid survey of what Americans fear.

Chapman classified all the fears into 10 “fear domains” such as man-made disasters, technology, government, crime, daily life, and so forth.   As a group (or domain), Americans most feared man-made disasters, then technology, then government.  Lowest domains on the “fear scale” are Personal Anxieties, Daily Life and the Judgment of Others.

This makes some sense.  We believe we have much control our personal lives than we do over global issues such as war, disaster, or even the march of technology.  “Daily Life” we as individuals can conquer.  “Cyber terrorism” not so much.

Here are the respondents’ worst fears:

Fear Fear Domain Afraid or Very Afraid
Corruption of Government Officials Government 58.0%
Cyber-terrorism Technology 44.8%
Corporate Tracking of Personal Information Technology 44.6%
Terrorist Attacks Man-Made Disasters 44.4%
Government Tracking of Personal Information Technology 41.4%
Bio-Warfare Man-Made Disasters 40.9%
Identity Theft Crime 39.6%
Economic Collapse Man-Made Disasters 39.2%
Running out of Money in the Future Personal Future 37.4%
Credit Card Fraud Crime 36.9%

 

Many, if not most, of these concerns revolve around technology.  Even a couple of fears classified as “crime” are really technology-based:  identity theft and credit card fraud.

“Fear of technology” is a long-standing and even ancient human dread.   Such fears gave rise to the Luddite movement, when humans smashed power looms creating cloth in the early 19th Century, and many science fiction stories ranging from Frankenstein to the 1927 film Metropolis to the computerphobia of the 1980s (“you’ll never get one of those damned computers on my desk.  I have a secretary with a typewriter.”)

New waves of techno-phobia are now washing our shores, including the fear of robots taking over work and a significant new fear of artificial intelligence (AI).  Even tech heavyweight entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates have voiced the fear of AI, which, of course, might be the last fear humans ever have, as our future robot overloads decide to do away with the frail, short-lived, human beings who created them.   This concern about AI has caused the White House to hold four workshops around the United States to address the effects of artificial intelligence.  The first one, held in Seattle on May 24, 2016, focused, perhaps not surprisingly, on the effects of AI on government and the legal system.

Tracking Personal Information

Some of these fears interact with other.   Respondents to this survey clearly are concerned about tracking of their personal information by corporations and governments.   Yet many of us willingly “opt in” to this tracking, using store loyalty cards or tagging the faces of our friends and children on sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

Don’t we know that we are willingly building huge corporate databases every time we search for something online or make a credit card purchase?    Every time we tag a friend’s face online we are contributing to vast corporate data store which will be (or perhaps is) being used for facial recognition.  For these reasons, and the advent of apps like FindFace, the Observer recently recommended individuals pull all their photos off the Internet. (if you check out my Facebook page you will see very few photos of family.)

And access to these databases is sold to the highest bidder.   Soon we’ll walk into a restaurant or other store and be greeted by name, thanks to a database of faces and facial recognition software.  Perhaps the greeter will be a robot replacing the infamous elderly WalMart employees at the door.   The greeter will ask what we want for dinner or what we are shopping for, and even make suggestions based upon our previous purchase history of food and menu items, or our most recent online searches on Amazon.

Mobile phone companies are getting into the tracking game.  Verizon has tried it, and NTT Docomo launched its tracking software in May, 2016 (that link, if you click on it, has a tracking code embedded as well!).

Potentially even more disturbing uses exist.   Perhaps a store will match our face and identity with our history of unpaid parking tickets.  And some big data algorithm will identify that people with unpaid parking tickets who have few Facebook friends but are looking to buy camouflage clothes are at high potential for shoplifting.

Many private buildings and stores also use video surveillance.  These private videos were essential to capturing the Boston marathon bomber.   But how do corporations use their troves of video data?   Are they marrying facial recognition databases, online search/shopping data and video so they know and track who is on premise?  Certainly such data is useful in solving theft and other crimes, but how else might corporations use it?   It is possible that the whereabouts of individual human beings might be constantly tracked in the future, as soon as they leave their private homes.

Government Tracking and Corruption

Edward Snowden revealed new information about United States Federal Government tracking of data including a database of cell phone call data (although not, as far as we know, recording of domestic calls themselves).   We also know local and federal law enforcement has used “stingray” devices to simulate cell sites thereby capturing the identities of all cell phones in a geographical area.   Many jurisdictions have extensively deployed video surveillance cameras as well as dashboard cameras and now body-worn video.

Furthermore some police departments are monitoring social media including twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Much of this “monitoring” is really for criminal investigation.  Many crooks are notoriously vain and stupid, posting their hauls from home burglary on Facebook or fencing the goods on Craigslist.  Unfortunately domestic violence threats and threats toward teachers and schools are also often found on social media.

No police department, in my extensive personal experience, is building a giant database of facial images and personal information for tracking and spying on citizens.  Certainly such databases exist for people who have been booked into jail, and facial recognition apps exist for use by law enforcement, based upon mug shot databases.  But collection of information about individual law-abiding citizens is, I think, rare.

And this brings me full circle back to Americans’ Number 1 fear:  government corruption.

Again, in my personal experience, corruption simply does not exist in the work of the average government employee.  On the West Coast, at least, police officers don’t accept $20 bills when you hand over your driver’s license after being caught speeding, and building plans officials don’t expect cash to expedite a permit or overlook certain violations of the building code.   There certainly are individual cases of corruption such as one which recently occurred in Utah.

Politicians – elected officials – get in trouble all the time, to the point where Virginia and Illinois both seem to expect corruption from their Governors.

And, indeed, perhaps this is why Americans fear Government Corruption.   It is not the cop they meet on the street, or the building inspector, or the DMV license examiner.  It is the Governor, the assemblymen, who are on the take.   It is Hillary Clinton, who kept her State Department email on a server in the basement of her home, or Donald Trump, who lies publicly about Muslims rejoicing after 9/11, yet wins elections.

Perhaps government corruption should be our number 1 fear.

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Filed under corruption, cybersecurity, disaster, fear, government

A Lesson for FirstNet from the Forests of the Okanogan

FirstNet and OneNet

FirstNet and OneNet

As the Washington State Point of Contact (SPOC) for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) my team and I from the state capital, Olympia, visit first responders around Washington to inform them about and involve them with developing plans for the nationwide public safety wireless network.

As you might guess, “suits” from the distant state capital are often greeted with skepticism, especially when they arrive to talk about a federal government program.

FirstNet was created by Congress in 2012 and funded with $7 billion to construct a wireless network for responders, allowing them to securely use apps, smartphones and other mobile devices to protect the public safety.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015, we visited Okanogan County and the Colville Indian Tribes.   We spent several hours with sheriffs’ deputies, firefighters, emergency managers, mayors, tribal members and civilians from four counties and the tribal reservation.

We got an earful.

The Okanogan country has been through hell.

Okanogan Wild Fire

Okanogan Wild Fire

Two years running this area has seen successively larger wild fires.   They are the largest in the recorded history of Washington.   Hundreds of residents lost their homes.   Hundreds of people barely escaped with their lives.

Three firefighters lost their lives.   Radio communications were partly to blame.

The Okanogan country is rugged.   There are few towers for the land mobile radio networks used by deputies, police, firefighters, paramedics and utilities.  Fewer towers still for cellular services.   Most towns and areas, if they have cell service, have a single tower providing that service, with multiple carriers using it.  Backhaul (connection to the Internet) for these towers is often a single fiber optic cable line, or a single microwave link.

Fire burns through fiber optic cable, particularly if it is carried on poles.  In both of the last two years fiber melted in these fires knocked out 911 service to large parts of these counties, and terminated service on cell towers.  Heroic efforts by some of commercial cellular companies re-established service but often areas were without service for weeks.  At one point the entire government of the town of Pateros operated with just one cell phone for communications for several days.

Responders here, like those throughout the state, are skeptical of FirstNet.   Their story is illustrative of the problems FirstNet must solve in order to be successful in the 95% of the nation’s geography which is rural, remote or isolated.

The first problem is simply coverage.  Most towns have cell phone and wireless data service, and sometimes service from multiple commercial carriers.  But vast tracts of land have no service, or only service if a resident drives down the road a piece.   Many people move to these areas for the remoteness, for the beauty, for the isolation.  And, with lack of Internet or cell service, that’s exactly what they get.

Coverage affects public safety.  In many cases during these wildfires, deputies and police officers and firefighters drove from door-to-door to tell people to evacuate (such orders were often ignored, as explained below).

Cell coverage affects wild land firefighting.   When a significant fire erupts, and an incident command post is created, it is often located on a state highway with cellular service.   The highway location also allows for logistics – food and support services.  Having cell service enables not just incident command, but also allows firefighters to stay in touch with their families.

Cellular phone and data coverage is important, but too often coverage is non-existent over much of these areas in the Okanogan.

Microwave Tower

Microwave Tower

The next problem is something we call “public safety grade”.  As stated above, too often multiple commercial cellular carriers all use the same tower, and it will only have battery backup or a small generator on site as backup in case of an electrical power outage.  And it often has only one connection to the outside world via microwave or fiber optic cable.  Wildfires melt fiber, and when electrical power fails the batteries also are drained after a few hours.  Of course these failures always occur during a disaster, exacerbating communications problems.

Another problem is communications access for members of the public.  For example, the entire Colville Indian Reservation – homes, businesses, tribal government buildings – has only wireless microwave links on towers for Internet access.   But the tribal government uses Facebook pages for communicating with tribal members during emergencies, and that requires reliable Internet.  Incidentally, most non-tribal fire departments and emergency management officials also use Facebook pages for public updates.  When cell service is down, when microwave towers run out of power, communications with residents and tribal members also are eliminated.

Most other, non-tribal, communities in the Okanogan face similar challenges: single cell towers or single points of failure for connections to the Internet, and usually both.

Ing-moody-soo

Mayor Soo Ing-Moody

As a matter of fact, Mayor Soo Ing-Moody of Twisp, and other public officials in the region, have publicly complained that they often receive evacuation orders only from watching commercial television stations.

And FirstNet, wonderful as it might be, will be a responder network, with priority to first responders.   The public is left out in the cold (or, in the case of wildfires, in the hot seat).   FirstNet will provide no direct communications for the public.  When their cell service fails, when the power to microwave towers serving the Colville Tribe are gone, they are “in the dark” for communications.

Finally, there is great skepticism about FirstNet phased development plans.   Residents of the Okanogan are used to getting hand-me-downs.  Although this area has a significant second-home population and tourist trade, commercial cellular companies always build in urban areas first.  Service is the Okanogan is rarely – and slowly – improved.  And that is exactly FirstNet’s present plan – build in urban areas first.

There is great skepticism about FirstNet’s promises:   better coverage, public-safety-grade coverage, for equal or less cost.  All while having a user base 5% the size of Verizon or AT&T (perhaps 5 million subscribers to cover the network’s costs, rather than more than 100 million users).   What sort of business plan magic is this?  Exactly how does that work?

Given all these challenges, local public safety and elected officials are justifiably skeptical of a federal agency, FirstNet, which comes and promises a new wireless data network for responders.

But, as always, great problems spawn great opportunity.   How can FirstNet seize this opportunity to help the people living in these remote areas?

  1. Mobile Cell Site

    Mobile Cell Site

    Deployables. The only real solution to improving coverage – especially in unpopulated areas subject to wild fires – is a robust deployable strategy.  Deployables are cell sites which would be rapidly be set up and activated when needed.  These deployables might be cell-on-wheel (COW) trucks like the commercial carriers have, or they might be cell sites carried on existing police vehicles and fire apparatus, or they might be backpackable cell sites which can be carried or driven to mountaintop locations.   Perhaps there are yet-to-be-fully-developed deployable strategies like Google’s Project Loon (balloons), drone-based cell sites (although those potentially interfere with firefighting airplanes), or low-earth orbit satellites.

But people in the Okanogan are skeptical of fragile new technology which tends to fail when it is needed most.  Satellite is slow and expensive.  And again, who pays for all this, and maintains it?    Where is it based – locally or in some distant state?

FirstNet must have a robust plan for deployables.  Ideally, such a plan would include the ability for local firefighters and state agencies to rapidly pull out the equipment, set it up, and have wireless connectivity where they need it.

  1. Public safety grade. To be “public safety grade”, cell sites in remote areas must have at least two separate connections to the outside world, for example a fiber line and a microwave link, or two fiber lines running in separate directions.  Public safety grade sites must withstand potential earthquakes or fires.   Such sites must be able to operate for many days, if not weeks, disconnected from electric utilities by using generators or solar panels.

In most cases FirstNet could “beef up” existing commercial sites by adding those features, saving scarce dollars.

  1. Access for residents. In the law which created it, Congress expressly prohibited FirstNet from offering service to businesses or consumers.  However, in a disaster when lives are at stake, such niceties as that law are ludicrous.   But there are ways to stay within the law but also address the problems mentioned by Mayor Ing-Moody and the Colville Tribes for informing their residents and tribal members.  Here are specific ideas:

(1)  When constructing the additional backhaul links above, allow tribes and local communities to use the connections for their Internet access.  For example, let’s suppose there is a cell tower with one existing microwave link to the outside world.  FirstNet could add a fiber optic line to that tower, making it more resilient – public safety grade.  Installing 24 fibers is only a tiny bit more expensive than installing two fibers.   The additional fibers could be used by tribes and remote communities for high speed internet access for their residents and tribal members.

Sonim Phone - a Band 14 Device

Sonim Phone – a Band 14 Device

(2)  FirstNet spectrum in every device.  FirstNet will operate on a specific set of 700 Megahertz frequencies called “Band 14”.   Very few smart phones or tablet computers have Band 14 built into them today.  But let’s suppose every smart phone and tablet computer sold in the United States in the future had Band 14 built in.   If such a device was used by a first responder – a volunteer firefighter or search and rescue volunteer or other public safety professional – they would easily be able to use FirstNet.  But in real disasters, when commercial services are down, responders and elected officials could activate band 14 in every device, thereby alerting citizens to danger or to evacuate.   Indeed, in incidents like hostage-taking and school lockdowns, responders could use Band 14 to securely talk to victims and teachers to rapidly assess situations.

FirstNet holds great potential to improve public safety in the many disasters and daily incidents we face.  But elected officials and responders throughout the nation are skeptical of promises without concrete plans to address the real problems faced by our communities.   FirstNet, in developing its plans for each state, needs to address the concerns of these officials through innovative, realistic, strategies which make a real difference in the lives of people throughout each state.

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Filed under disaster, emergency operations, FirstNet, OneNet, radio

– Tech Lessons from the Seattle Snowstorm

Seattle EOC Activated

Seattle EOC Activated

The Seattle area and I just went through a four day snow/ice storm event.  The City of Seattle’s emergency operations center (EOC) was activated and coordinated the City government’s response.  That response received high marks from the public and media for a variety of reasons (see Seattle Times editorial here), including the leadership of Mayor Michael McGinn.

I was able to personally observe that response and lead the technology support of it.   Information technology materially contributed to the improved response, nevertheless I see a number of further potential enhancements using technology .  And that’s the purpose of this blog entry.

GIS GIS GIS (Maps)

Every city, county and state is all about geography and maps.  Maps are the way we deploy resources (think “snowplows”).  Maps are the way we understand what’s happening in our jurisdiction.  Everyone who has lived and traveled inside a city can look on a map and instantly visualize locations – what the “West Seattle bridge” or any other street, infrastructure or geographical feature (think “hill”) looks like.

SDOT Winter Response (Snowplow) Map

SDOT Snowplow Map

For this storm, we have some great mapping tools in place, especially a map which showed which streets had been recently plowed and de-iced.   This map used GPS technology attached to the snowplow trucks.  That same map had links to over 162 real-time traffic cameras so people could see the street conditions and traffic.  (Other cities, like Chicago, have similar maps.)

Electrical Outages Map

Electrical System Outage Map

Another useful map is the electrical utility’s system status map, which shows the exact locations of electrical system outages, the number of outages, the number of customers affected and the estimated restoration times.  This is really useful if you are a customer who is affected – at least you know we’ve received your problem and a crew will be on the way.

What could we do better?  We could put GPS on every City government vehicle and with every City crew and display all that information on a map.   That way we’d immediately know the location of all our resources.  If there was a significant problem – let’s say a downed tree blocking a road or trapping people – we could immediately dispatch the closest resources.  In that case we’d typically dispatch a transportation department tree-clearing crew.  But that crew might have to travel across the City when a parks department crew with the proper equipment might be a block away. 

This same sort of map could show a variety of other information – the location of police and fire units, which streets are closed due to steep hills and ice, where flooding is occurring, blocked storm drains, as well as water system and electrical outages.   This “common operating picture”, across departments, would be enormously useful – as just one example, the fire department needs water to fight fires, and it needs good routes to get its apparatus to the fire and perhaps it would need a snowplow to clear a street as well.

Obviously we wouldn’t want to show all of this information to the public – criminals would have a field day if they knew the location of police units!  But a filtered view certainly could be presented to show the City government in action.

Perceptions and Citizen Contact

A lot of media descended on Seattle this weekPartly that was due to the uniqueness of the storm – it doesn’t snow much in this City.  And perhaps it was a slow news week in the world.  A lot of news crews filmed inside the EOC.  The Mayor and other key department spokespeople were readily available with information.  This is quite important – the television, radio and print/blog media are really important in advising the public on actions they should take (“public transit to commute today, don’t drive”) and actions they should avoid (“don’t use a charcoal grill to cook when you are without power”).  Our joint information center (JIC) was a great success.  

Mayor McGinn’s family even contributed to this – his 11 year old son filmed him in a public service announcement about how to clear a storm drain of snow and ice which is now posted on the Seattle Channel.  

What could we do better?   We need better video conferencing technology, so the Mayor and senior leaders can be reached quickly by news media without sending a crew to the EOC.  This video conferencing would also be quite useful in coordinating action plans between departments with leaders in different locations.   In a larger, regional, disaster, such capability would allow the governor, mayors and county executives to rapidly and easily talk to each other to coordinate their work.  It is much easier for anyone to communicate if they can see the visual cues of others on the call.  

Also, Seattle, like many cities, is a place of many languages and nationalities.   We need to have translators available to get communications out in the languages our residents speak.  This might include a volunteer-staffed translation team but at least could include recording and rapidly distributing written, video and audio/radio public service announcements in multiple languages.

Commuting; Telecommuting

In these emergencies, many people elect to use public transit – buses and trains for commuting.  (I actually took my “boat” – the water taxi – to work twice this week.)  Yet snowstorms are also the times when buses jackknife or get stuck in snowdrifts and going up hills.  

In this emergency, the coordination between the transit agency (“Metro”) and the City was quite improved, because we had people – liaisons – from each agency embedded with the other.   This allowed snowplows to help keep bus routes clear and help clear streets near trapped buses.  

And, with recent technology advances and sorta-broadband networks, many workers can now telecommute.  Seattle had few outages of Internet service this week, although in suburban areas trees and snow brought down not just power lines, but telephone and cable lines as well causing more widespread Internet issues.

What could we do better?  The easiest and most useful advance, I think, would be GPS on every bus and train and water taxi boat.   That, combined with real-time mapping, would allow people to see the location of their rides right on their smartphones.  If we deployed it right, such technology might also show how full the bus is and the locations of stuck buses.  This sort of technology would be useful every day for public transit users – but is especially important during snow emergencies.

Another huge necessity – which I’ve advocated often and loudly – is very high speed fiber broadband networks.   With fiber broadband – and Gigabit (a billion bits per second), two way, telecommuting and tele-education becomes really possible.  Kids could continue their school day with video classes even when schools are closed, you could visit your doctor, and of course citizens would have access to all that emergency information and maps described above, real time and two-way.  I could go on and on about this – and I have – read it here. 

Crowdsourcing and Two-Way Communications, Cell Phones

This area is the most ripe for improved technology to “weather the storm”. 

In any emergency – even a minor disaster like a major fire or a pile-up collision – just obtaining and distributing information early and often will have a significant result in managing the problem.   On-duty at any time, the City of Seattle may have 200 firefighters, 350 police officers and several hundred to several thousand other employees.   Yet we also have 600,000 people in the City, each one of which is a possible source  of information.   How could we get many of them, for example, to tell us the snow and ice conditions in their neighborhoods?   Or perhaps to tell us of problems such as clogged storm drains or stuck vehicles?  The Seattle Times actually did this a bit, crowdsourcing snow depths from Facebook. 

How can we “crowd source” such information?   I’m not exactly sure.  Perhaps we could use Facebook apps or Twitter (although not a lot of people use Twitter).  Two-way text messages are possible.   Any one of these solutions would present a whole mass of data which needs to be processed, tagged for reliability, and then presented as useful analytics.    Eventually, of course, there will be whole armies of remote sensors (“the Internet of things”) to collect and report the information.   Perhaps everyone’s cell phone might eventually be a data collector (yes, yes, I’m well aware of privacy concerns).

In the meantime, we should have some way citizens can sign up for alerts about weather or other problems.   Many such systems exist, such as the GovDelivery-powered one used by King County Transportation.   I’m not aware of such a system being used two-way, to crowd-source information from citizens.   There are also plenty of community-notification or “Reverse 911” systems on the market.  The Federal government is developing CMAS, which would automatically alert every cell phone / mobile device in a certain geographical area about an impending problem or disaster. 

Furthermore, during this Seattle snowstorm, many City of Seattle employees – including police and fire chiefs and department heads, used text messages on commercial cellular networks to communicate with their staff and field units.   This continues a tradition of use of text messaging during emergency operations which first came to prominence during Hurricane Katrina.

All of these solutions depend, of course, on reliable cellular networks.  We know during disasters commercial cellular networks can easily be overloaded (example:  2011 Hurricane Irene), calls dropped and cell sites can drop out of service as power outages occur and backup batteries at the sites run out of juice.   Yet, for people without power or land-line Internet, a smartphone with internet is a potential lifesaver and at least a link to the outside world.  I’d like a way to easily collect this information – privately – from the carriers so emergency managers would know the geographies where mobile networks are impacted. 

This leads me, of course, to my final point – that we need a nationwide public safety wireless broadband networkSuch a network would be built using spectrum the Congress and the FCC have set aside for this purpose.  It would only be used by public safety, although – as our Seattle snowstorm underscored, “public safety” must be used broadly to include utilities, transportation and public works – even building departments.  And it would be high speed and resilient, with 4G wireless technology and backup generators, hardened cell sites. 

These are a few of my thoughts on better management, through technology, of future snowstorms and other disasters, large and small, both daily and once-in-a-lifetime ones.   What have I missed?

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– Thanks & Turkeys 2010

Apologies to the Virgina Tech Hokies for using their LogoThis week Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier has a LOT for which to be thankful.   But I also have a few turkeys to carve.

My most significant thanks go to the phenomenal people who work in information technology in local government, especially here at the City of Seattle.    Most City and County CIOs, such as those who are the 60 members of MIX (the Metropolitan Information Exchange)  will agree with me and give thanks for their employees as well.  While some members of the public think government employees are 8 to 5 clock-watching bureaucrats, that’s decidedly NOT true of most employees, especially our technology workers.

This fact slammed home to me again this week – Seattle had a snowstorm.    Two inches.    Those of you in Chicago, Boston or Washington DC are probably laughing.  Two measly inches?  What’s the big deal?  But here in Seattle, because of the uniquenesses of our weather systems/geography and the rarity of snow in the lowlands, it was a real show-stopper.  Monday night many of my employees spent four, five or nine hours commuting home on jammed icy freeways.   I and several of my staff walked home five miles in the snowstorm (video of commuters walking across the West Bridge here).

In Seattle’s Department of Information Technology, we had staff who worked all night Monday, or slept at their workstations Monday night, or stayed in hotels downtown, or turned right around and came back to work Tuesday morning after the long commute home.    They did this because they know the work of a City government and the safety of the people of Seattle depend now, more than ever, on reliable technology:  websites, data networks, e-mail systems and much much more.   For these two hundred dedicated people working in the City of Seattle’s technology department, I give thanks.

(My colleagues elsewhere have similar stories, whether in Houston and Mobile, Alabama, who have suffered through hurricanes, or Los Angeles and Riverside who have suffered through earthquakes, or Chicago and Washington DC, with their snowstorms.)

As I attend conferences and talk to my counterparts across the country, I find similar dedication to keeping the public safe and our governments operational. As just one example, we have twenty cities and states around the nation who have authority from the FCC to build fourth generation wireless networks.  Over the past 11 months I’ve been working with officials from these twenty jurisdictions, as well as the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, the Public Safety Communications Research Program of the Department of Commerce, and Homeland Security’s Office of Emergency Communications.   Every one of these agencies and the people involved have been working tirelessly to build a nationwide public safety network, a vision which sprung out of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster.     This year we’ve made real progress, despite a number of hurdles.  Now the first networks are under construction.   For all these dedicated government officials and technical staff, I give thanks.

I also give thanks to the many private companies who are doing extraordinary work with technology – Microsoft and Windows and Office, Google with Android and search, Apple with iPhones and iPads, IBM’s Smart Cities Challenge, and a few more who not only want to make money, but also want to use a significant part of that money make the planet a better place in which to live and work.

Finally, I give thanks for my elected officials – Mayor and City Council – and the department directors running City departments here in Seattle.     This year of the Great Recession they have faced terrible choices with budget shortfalls of $67 million in Seattle.  And precipitously falling tax revenues.  And urgent needs from the public for safety nets for our jobless citizens and the poor and homeless.   My own department’s budget was cut by over 17% and I’ve laid off over 10% of my workforce over the past two years.    These are all tough choices, and they are done in the glare of publicity with many competing demands by constituents for the ever-shrinking pot of money.  But we have a sustainable budget and services going into 2011.  Thank you to the officials who stepped up and made these tough choices.

Now on to the turkeys – at least the ones I’d like to carve and serve.

First are some of our technology vendors, a few of whom have ever increasing appetites for money.   Some of them are resorting to “compliance audits” to make sure we are paying for every last danged software license we are using.  One vendor even demanded to have access to every one of the 11,000 computers at the City of Seattle to see if their software was installed.   Others absolutely refuse to negotiate reduced pricing or flexible maintenance plans.  These few money-grubbing vendors get my “tech turkey” award.

Next there are a few of our public employee unions.   Many public employee unions here in the Seattle area realize we are in an unprecedented recession.   Those unions have willingly forgone raises which were in their contracts, understanding that few workers in the private sector get raises, and many private sector workers have lost their jobs and retirement money.   But a few public sector unions have held out for their contracted raises, which are far larger than inflation.  This, frankly, can make all city and county governments and our workers look greedy and foolish.  The public backlash was evident in our recent elections where few tax increases were passed and many revenue sources were cut.  These few unions get my turkey award as well.

My final turkey award goes to those politicians who want to whip the public into a frenzy about supposed fraud and waste in government, or think we can continue tax cuts, increase defense spending, and balance the budget all at the same time.  How do they think public schools, parks, police and fire departments, child protective services, streets or public health are funded, or how do we pay the dedicated people who provide all those services?   I’ve blogged about this at length before, and will just leave these politicians with my tea-party-turkey award.

All in all, however, at this Thanksgiving of 2010, I’ve got a lot more reasons to give thanks than to carve!

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– Tech Terror List 2010

Tech Terror 2010

Tech Terror 2010

We are at the end of this quite frightening year of the Great Recession 2010, and at the eve of another frightening Halloween filled with tiny goblins ringing the front door shouting “trick or treat”.  But what are the “real world” goblins knocking at the door, and facing the chief information officer who opens it?

It is time for me to update my 2008 list of nightmares which frighten a CIO. 

Tablet computers (and smartphones). Tablets were on my 2008 list, but are on my 2010 list for an entirely different reason. They’re everywhere. They’re invading! They’re unmanageable.  And every employee wants to use their own. CIOs have long practiced the mantra of standards standards standards.

You need a computer? Yup, we give you a standard HP model with Windows XP, Office 2007 and Anti-Virus loaded on it. You need a smart phone to do your job? Yup, here’s your BlackBerry connected to Outlook and locked down from installing any dangerous applications which present a security threat.

The CIO as Grinch

Grinch CIO?

All of a sudden it’s “HELLO Mr. CIO” – the iPhone explodes on the scene, then it’s the iPad, and soon it will be the Windows Phone 7 and Android phones and the RIM Playbook and the Samsung Galaxy. And employees LIKE them and wonder why Mr. CIO is the Grinch and won’t connect them to e-mail and the network.

But of course the Outlook sync doesn’t work exactly right on the iPhone and appointments get dropped. Oh, and someone loses their Android smart phone with all the home and cell numbers of half the police command staff but gee we can’t remotely wipe its contents because installing the remote wipe software is the bureaucratic Sign of the CIO Grinch. Oh, and all of a sudden a public disclosure (FOIA) request comes in and the employee needs to cough up all the documents and messages on their personal iPad, even though some of them are quite personal or even relate to the employee’s personal business or political activity. And oh, gee, by the way, the employee “forgot” to back up all those docs on that personal device, violating not just the public disclosure act but the records retention act as well.

In the meantime, the budget of the IT department has been cut 13.3%, and I’ve laid off 5% of my workforce, but still we’re the Grinch because we can’t support this exotic stew of personal devices.  Arggh!

(I’m convinced we’ll eventually support personal smart phones and tablets, but we need better tools and more staff. For 2010, they remain on my Tech Terror Watch List.)

Cyberterrorists and Malware. There is much new to fear on this front in 2010. There is the Stuxnet worm, apparently written by a nation to infiltrate and damage Iran’s nuclear program, but sophisticated enough to attack many industrial or electrical control systems, and hard to find and eliminate. This is only the tip of the iceberg of a new set of computer viruses and malware written by nation-states to attack each other.

Then there was a rash of Trojan viruses and keystroke loggers which infiltrated some government and school sites.  These viruses stole passwords for financial employees at these firms, and those passwords were used to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And there is the appearance of malware on legitimate websites, so even innocent employees doing their job on the Internet could get their computers infected.  Cyber threats go onto my Terror Watch List.

Stop and Think, before Connecting (and also have a good firewall and anti-virus program!).

Smart Phone Apps. One problem with Smart Phones is that anyone can write an app for them, including criminals, hackers and cyberterrorists. Apple, at least, reviews and tests Apps before allowing them into the iTunes store. Such testing doesn’t happen for BlackBerry or Android apps. I really hope Microsoft does thorough testing on its Windows Phone 7 apps before releasing them into the wild. Smart Phone Apps go onto my Terror Watch List.

Water. And Fire. These remain on my watch list for the same reason as in 2008 – a broken water pipe or a fire in my data center can put it out of commission for a considerable length of time. But this year there is hope – “the cloud”. And no, the Cloud doesn’t rain on the parade of my technology. It means that many of our services and applications might eventually live in the Cloud of servers and storage in distant data centers, much less susceptible to earthquake, fire, water and other disasters.

Speaking of Fire, I have a very recent story to relate. Early on Sunday morning, October 17th, someone started a fire (probably to keep warm, as it is a place homeless are often found) behind a rented City building near 3rd and Main. That fire raced up a conduit burning through fiber and copper cables, bringing down phone and data network services to Seattle’s Fire Administrative Headquarters and main transportation department dispatch center.

The outstanding information technology staff of my department, with support from cabling contractors and Fire/Transportation department staff restored most services within 18 hours, but it illustrates why Fire remains on the Watch List.  And why skilled, dedicated, employees are the best defense against such terror.

Customer expectations. Most terrifying of all is the rise of customer expectations in the midst of the Great Recession, falling IT budgets and reduced staffing. Government employees use computers at home, use tablets and smart phones. They bank online, download apps, text message and use Facebook and blogs. But with reduced technical staff, plus a whole series of requirements like HIPPA and CJIS and the public disclosure act, the CIO Grinch has fewer and fewer resources to meet the expectation that those same tools and applications can all be used at work.

On Halloween, 2010, it is those increased expectations which really terrify me as a CIO.

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– Why Don’t Cops just use Cell Phones?

The National Plan for Public Safety - click to see more

The National Plan

Police officers and firefighters carry $5000 radios.  Local and state governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build public safety radio networks.  Yet, today, cell phone networks seem to be everywhere, most people carry a mobile phone and many of us think paying $199 for an iPhone is expensive.  

Why can’t cops and firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT) use cell phones like everyone else?   A Washington State legislator from Seattle recently public argued for this approach in his blog.  And, at first, this appears to be a simple way for governments to save a lot of taxpayer dollars.

Here are a few reasons public safety officers need their own dedicated networks:

  1. Priority.  Cellular networks do not prioritize their users or traffic.   A teenager’s cell phone has the same priority as a cell phone used by a police officer or, for that matter, the BlackBerry used by President Obama.  We’ve all experienced “no circuits available” or “network busy” when using a cell phone.  When I’m being assaulted or have been injured in an automobile accident or even have had my house burglarized, the last thing I want is to have the network be “busy” so a police officer or EMT couldn’t be dispatched.   Public safety needs dedicated frequencies where police officer sand firefighters have priority and even, perhaps, exclusive rights to for use, without calls being clogged by the public.
  2. Reliability.  Seattle’s public safety radio network, part of the larger King County-wide 800 megahertz public safety radio network, handles more than 60,000 police, fire  and emergency medical calls every day.  It operated last year with 99.9994% reliability – that’s about 189 seconds of downtime out of more the than 31 million seconds which composed the year 2009. On the average, only about five out of the 60,000 calls were delayed for any reason, and even then the average delay was about two seconds.  What cell phone network has that kind of reliability?   How many times have you experienced “no service” or “call dropped” with your cell phone?   Do we want firefighters who are reviving a heart attack victim and talking to the emergency room on the radio to all-of-a-sudden have their call dropped?  Or should police officers lose service when drunk drivers clog the roads and bars are closing at 2:00 AM because a cell phone company decides to do maintenance because “no one uses the network then”?
  3. Disasters.  Even small disasters cause cell phone networks to collapse.   In Seattle, we’ve had swat team actions or car accidents which have shut down a freeway.   Suddenly cell phone service abruptly ceases in that area because EVERYONE is on their phone.  A few years ago a rifleman was loose and shooting people in Tacoma Mall.  Responding police and EMTs had communications because they had dedicated networks and frequencies, but again cell phone networks were overloaded and down.   In a larger disaster such as an earthquake or hurricane (with associated evacuation of large cities), commercial networks will be overloaded or jammed for days by people trying to escape the affected areas. Do we want police and fire departments – or even transportation, electric utilities and public works departments – to be trying to use those same networks while they are are responding to the disaster? I don’t think so.
  4. Talk-around. A key feature of most government-operated networks is something called talk-around or simplex or “walkie-talkie” mode. In this mode, individual radios talk directly to each other, without using a radio or cell tower. This is very important at incident scenes – firefighters commonly use it at the scene of a fire, because the radios will operate at the scene even if there isn’t a tower nearby. But this NEVER a feature of cellular phone networks. If the cell tower is down or out of range, that cell phone in your hands is a useless lump of plastic. But the radios of publicsafety officers still work and will talk to each other even without the tower.
  5. Ruggedness. No firefighter in his/her right mind would fight a fire using a cell phone for communications. The heat, water and ruggedness of the environment would quickly destroy the device. Yet most public safety radios will survive being dropped repeatedly on the ground or being immersed in water for 30 minutes or more. No standard cell phone can survive the rigorous work of firefighting or policing.

Are there problems with the current dedicated public safety networks? Absolutely. The use proprietary technologies, for example “Project 25“. Theoretically all “Project 25” radios work on any “Project 25” radio system. But only a few of those are deployed around the nation. These proprietary technologies are one reason the radios cost up to $5,000 each.

Representative Carlyle, in his blog, proposes that we deploy “Tetra” radios for public safety. While Tetra is common in some parts of the world, it is not used at all in the United States. This is a dangerous proposal, because it means Tetra networks we buy would not work with the equipment used by any other government or telecommunciations carrier anywhere in the United States. If called to respond to a diaster overseas, we could talk to firefighters in Hong Kong or the police in Ireland, however.

Another problem we face is the small market – the total market for public safety is perhaps 10,000,000 radios which are replaced, say, once every 10 years. On the other hand, the cell phone market is huge – 260 million cell phones replaced every two years in the United States alone. The economies of scale means consumers will have a lot more choice, and their cell phones will be relatively cheap.

So is there some way to reduce the sky-high cost of these dedicated public safety networks while at the same time not endangering cops, firefighters, EMTs and the public in general?

Absolutely. The FCC, in its national broadband plan, and the federal Department of Commerce, with its forward-thinking grant program for broadband, are lighting the way for a new public safety network which will be more robust, national in scope, and interoperable. By “interoperable” I mean the new public safety equipment will probably operate almost anywhere in the nation, wether on a dedicated government network or on a commercial cell phone network. Here are some features of the new networks:

  • The FCC and major public safety organizations have called for the new public safety networks to be built using a fourth generation (4G) technology called LTE – long-term evolution. Not coincidently, this is the same technology which will be used by the major cell phone companies Verizon and AT&T when they construct their 4G networks. The commercial networks will operate on different frequencies than the public safety networks, but they will all be built in same general area of the wireless spectrum – the 700 megahertz (MHz) band.
  • Because they are all using the same technology (LTE) and are in a similar slice of radio spectrum (700 MHz) potentially they will all interoperate. That means that public safety officers will use the government networks and frequencies when they are within range, but could “roam” to a commercial network if necessary. So cops and firefighters will have the best of both worlds – coverage from dedicated government networks and coverage from multiple private carriers. The FCC is even considering rules which would require the commercial companies to give public safety priority on the commercial LTE networks.
  • Because everyone – consumers, cops, firefighters and even general government workers such as transporation and utilities – are all using LTE, constructing the networks can be much cheaper. Commercial telecommunications carriers could put government antennas and equipment at their cell sites, and vice-versa. Perhaps the network equipment at the cell site, or even the central switches could be shared as well. Public safety will still be using its own frequencies and have priority, but could share many other network elements.
  • And the radios used by individual public safety officers or placed in police vehicles and fire trucks can be much cheaper as well. Because manufacturers are all making equipment for the same technology – LTE – it could cost just a few hundred dollars. Again, there will be specialized and ruggedized devices for firefighters and others working in punishing environments, but the “innards” – the electronics – will be much less expensive.
  • Next, we have to get all first and second resopnders to use the same or common networks. Here in Washington State, for example, we have multiple overlapping and duplicate networks. City and County police and fire in the region have one network, each electric utility (e.g. Seattle City Light) have another network. Transportation departments have their own networks (e.g. Seattle Transportation and Washington State Transportation each have their own separate network). The Washington State Patrol has its own separate network. The State Department of Natural Resources has its own network. Fish and Wildlife has its own network. And federal government agencies (FBI, cutoms and immigration) have their own networks. This is patently stupid and expensive. As we build these new fourth generation LTE networks, we need to build a single network with lots of sites and a lot of redundancy and hardening to withstand disasters. And everyone – first and second responders from all agencies – should use it.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all the networks will be nationally interoperable. The lack of communciations interoperability was a major finding of the Commission which investigated the September 11th World Trade Center attack. But with these new networks, a Seattle police officer’s 4th generation LTE device will also work on New York City’s LTE network or New Mexico’s :LTE network or on any Verizon or AT&T network anywhere in the nation. As disasters happen anywhere in the United States, and first and second responders are rushed to the scene of the disaster, they can take their communications gear with them and it will work.

The City of Seattle is one of a handful (about 20) forward-thinking governments leading the way to deploy these new networks. Seattle’s public safety LTE network, hopefully launched with a federal stimulus grant, will eventually expand throughout the Puget Sound region and across the State of Washington. The State of Oregon also has authority and a grant request to build an LTE network, and we are working with Oregon to make sure our networks work with each other seamlessly.

Is all of this a pipe dream? I don’t think so. A number of public and private companies, governments and telecommunciations carriers and equipment manufacturers are working together to realize it. Many of them are in the Public Safety Alliance. In the Federal government, the FCC is working with the National Institute of Standards and the Departments of Commerce and Homeland security are providing grant funding. It will take a lot of work and many years to realize this network.

But when it is finished, we’ll have public safety networks which work to keep us safe, and consumer networks which work to keep us productive and linked to our friends and families. These networks will be separate yet connected. They will be built from common technologies. And they will be less expensive for taxpayers than the networks we have today.

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Filed under broadband, disaster, fcc, Fedgov, homecity security, Sept. 11th