Category Archives: wireless

– A Public-Private Radio Network?

Do they Really?Police and Fire radio networks.

They have to work.

All the time

During power outages, hurricanes, earthquakes.

When every other wireless network is dead.

So they have to be built, maintained and operated by government, right?

Or else they cannot be trusted, right?

That’s the way cities, counties, regions, states and local governments have ALWAYS built our radio networks for police, firefighters, emergency medical response, utilities, transportation, public works.

And with good reason.

Historically (by that, I mean “before cell phones”), most radio networks were really unreliable.  They were used to dispatch taxicabs and for citizens’ band radio (“CB”) by amateurs.   But no government would trust such a radio network to dispatch cops or firefighters. Such networks had dead spots, lots of static, and dropped off the air entirely when the electricity failed.

With the rise of commercial cell phone and, later, smart phone networks, such networks became … well … “really unreliable“.   Even today many people are angered and upset by dropped calls, “all circuits busy” and slow-loading (or “never loading”) pages.  And during any large event – a packed stadium for a baseball game, or a major traffic jam, a windstorm or an earthquake, you might as well use your phone as a camera, because you probably won’t get through to make a call.

When you’re being robbed at gunpoint or having a heart attack, do you really want the first responders coming to help YOU to depend on such networks?   That’s why, as I’ve blogged before, “cops don’t use cell phones“.

But building government-owned radio networks is REALLY expensive.  A public safety voice network requires just a handful of sites – say 8 radio sites for Seattle or maybe 30 for all of King County here in Washington State.  However, to rebuild those networks today, and to build the new high-speed data networks for responders’ smart phones, tablets and computers will take dozens – perhaps hundreds of sites to cover the same geography.  And THAT takes hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hello – we’re still in the midst of the Great Recession, right?   Government budgets are pinched left and right – sales tax, income tax, property tax revenues are all falling.   While the private sector is still hiring, many governments are laying off employees.   There are few dollars available for hundred million dollar networks.

Is there a middle way?   Is there some way governments could take advantage of the hundreds of existing cell phone sites developed for commercial networks?  Perhaps a way the commercial networks could take advantage of fiber optic networks and buildings or radio sites owned by government?   And some way we could make the cell phone networks more secure, more resistant to terrorism and natural disasters, and therefore more reliable for public safety use?

Here in Seattle, we think so.

We think we might be able to start with all the assets which taxpayers have already bought and paid for – the fiber and microwave networks, radio sites, backup generators, skilled technology employees, and our existing investments in radios and computers.  Then we would add equipment and cell sites and other assets, along with expertise and innovative ideas from private sector companies – telecommunications carriers, equipment manufacturers and apps developers.  Mashing these together, we might get a private-public partnership which gives consumers and businesses more reliable, faster mobile networks, while giving responders new, state-of-the-art networks at a fraction of the cost of building them from scratch, like we’ve always done before.

That’s the idea behind a request for information (RFI) issued by the City of Seattle several weeks ago  seeking ideas about private-public partnerships for next generation networks.  We need some great pioneering “outside the box” ideas in response to the RFI.

And then, perhaps, we can build a modern, smart, network in the Central Puget Sound which saves everyone money, and works reliably during disasters small (“heart attack”) and large (“earthquake”).

P. S.  All these ideas are not mine.  In fact, to some extent I’ve been hauled kicking and screaming (or maybe shuffling and whimpering) to look for a middle way.   Let’s give credit to Deputy King County Executive Fred Jarrett, United States Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, elected officials like State Representative Reuven Carlyle and Mr. Stan Wu of the City of Seattle for “coloring outside the lines without falling off the page”.

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Filed under government operations, radio, wireless

– S.911: Profiles in Courage

Joe Biden speaks at the White House, Photo by Bill Schrier

Vice President Joe Biden leading the charge

It is fascinating how words and phrases take on difference nuances of meaning depending upon their context. I guess that’s why it is so hard for computers (IBM’s Watson notwithstanding) to understand and properly interpret human speech or, in many cases, writing. Take “911”. In most contexts and for most people, that would be the police/fire emergency number . The number you’d call to get help with a heart attack or a burglary-in-progress or a lost child.

But 9/11 refers to that infamous day when terrorist Osama bin Laden’s gang of terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City.

Now, today, 911 has a new meaning. S.911 is the United States Senate bill sponsored by Senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, which allocates additional spectrum and $11.75 billion in funding to build a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband network.

That bill passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee on a vote of 21 to 4 on June 8th.

On June 16th, Vice President Joe Biden and public safety officials from cities and states across the country celebrated this huge step forward on a long road toward building that network. Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and many others called upon the full Senate and House to pass the bill, so the President could sign it this year.

You don’t usually think of Senators as “courageous”, but we have twenty-one really courageous Senators on that Commerce Committee (and a courageous former senator in Vice President Biden).

They faced (and continue to face) a wide variety of pressures:

  • The continuing pain of the Federal budget deficit, which threatens to suck away the almost $12 billion allocated in this bill for public safety.
  • The pressure from some wireless telecommunications companies, who would rather see that spectrum given to them to build more consumer networks;
  • The Federal debt ceiling – which needs to be raised for the economic health of the nation – but many in Congress are holding that rise hostage to force budget cuts;
  • A lack of trust by some in the ability of state and local governments, who some believe cannot be trusted to continue to build out the network. This is ironic, because when anyone telephones 911, it is local police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who respond.  Furthermore, eight local governments are already building these networks under waivers from the FCC;
  • A need by electric and water utilities, transportation agencies, and other critical infrastructure providers for spectrum to build their own interoperable networks so they can respond to hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms and earthquakes too – luckily, if S.911 passes Congress, it would modify Federal law and allow these utilities to share the public safety network and spectrum;
  • Oh, did I mention the Federal budget deficit as an as an excuse to NOT giving cops and firefighters and local governments the network they need to keep us all safe?

These are all poor reasons used to justify voting “no” on S.911. Reasons to justify inaction. Reasons to put the safety of 300 million Americans aside.

The campaign to pass S.911 – to fund and build this vital network – is significantly helped by the leadership of President Obama  and Vice-President Biden, who allocated the money in their 2012 budget. The Vice-President is especially active leading the charge to build this nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.  The Administration just issued a report describing the urgent need.

Yes, there is a lot of courage on that Senate Commerce Committee, and hopefully the courage is infectious and spreads to at least the 51 Senators and 217 members of the House needed to pass the legislation.

Because 9/11 is looming again.

9/11/11.

The 10th Anniversary of the terrorism at New York City’s World Trade Center. Where hundreds of firefighters and police officers lost their lives because their radio communications networks didn’t get them the order to evacuate the buildings which were about to collapse.

Will the rest of Congress have the courage to act?

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Filed under 911, emergency operations, Sept. 11th, wireless

– FCC’s Broadband Plan and Cities

FCC-broadband-plan.jpg

So the FCC has published its national broadband plan.   This plan has many implications for cities and counties and local government.   It has implications for public safety and general government, for consumers, for business, for wired and wireless networks. 

Here’s my take on it:

Q: Is this plan really radical or different?

A: The FCC has charted a brave new vision for the United States with this plan. For example, in this plan the FCC has set a goal of “one hundred squared”, that is, connecting 100 million households with 100 megabits per second. This is radical because it cannot be accomplished with existing copper wire networks such as the telephone networks or cable TV networks. Such speeds require fiber optic cable to every home and business, a radical change. The speeds copper can carry are quite limited. But fiber cable lightwave signals theoretically, have no upper limit on speed. Incidentally, there are about 114 million households in the U.S.

Q: A 100 megabits per second – a 100 million bits per second – is “geekspeak” . What does it really mean for consumers at home or small business?

A: Let me give you one specific example. Many homes and businesses are buying and installing flat screen TVs, and most of those are HDTV – high definition. That’s cool, and the quality of the image is very detailed. But the signal is one way – you “watch the TV” – you don’t really “interact” with it or use it for communications like you use a phone. At the same time, you can buy a video camcorder – even a cheap one like a Flip phone – that takes HDTV video. Now, let’s suppose you could put the video camcorder next to the HDTV and connect them – all of a sudden you would have a video telephone or a video conferencing setup. You could make video phone calls. You could attend meetings with video. You could attend class at a high school or community college or a university, and actually interact with the teacher or professor – ask questions and participate. You could visit your doctor to talk about a health problem, or work from home. You could visit your local appliance store or clothing store and talk to the owner and have the owner demonstrate what you want to buy. You could play really cool interactive video games. And think of the implications for quality of life – with this sort of video, grandparents could have dinner with their kids and grandchildren every night via a video phone. They could see their grandchildren from hundreds or thousands of miles away, or from an assisted living or nursing home. But all of this requires super fast networks for both high quality and almost zero latency – no delay, just like the voice phone network. And this requires fiber with 100 million bits per second or more. To each home or business.

Q: What are the implications for large cities like Seattle?

A: Seattle has been a leader in thinking about these networks. We’ve already installed fiber cable connecting every public school, all our college campuses, every fire station, police precinct and every major government building. We have done extensive planning for a fiber optic cable network to every one of the 300,000 homes and businesses in Seattle. We are a high tech community and we value education. We need such a fiber network for jobs, education and quality of life. Mayor Michael McGinn is very committed to the idea, and a number of departments are working together on a business plan to make it happen. The visionary goals set by the FCC’s broadband plan – 100 million bits per second to 100 million homes – validate that we’re following the right path, and we need to move rapidly to stay ahead of other cities in the United States and around the world.

Q: How can we learn more about this Seattle plan?

A: To stay abreast of it or support it, go to http://www.seattle.gov/broadband .

Q: What are the implications of the FCC plan for suburban and rural communities?

A: Suburban communities can be wired with fiber, just like the FCC’s plan envisions and Seattle intends to do. Some Seattle area communities such as Kirkland and Woodinville already have fiber networks installed by Verizon. In rural communities installing fiber to farms and small towns may not always make economic sense, although in some visionary places like Chelan County, the local PUD is doing it anyway. But the FCC has envisioned an alternative for rural communities – high speed wireless broadband. Today’s wireless networks are usually called “3G” or 3rd Generation. Fourth Generation – 4G – wireless networks will be available in a few places by the end of 2010. These faster networks require a lot of spectrum. You may recall that, in June, 2009, all TV broadcast signals became digital – every TV in the nation had to have a wired cable connection or a digital antenna. The FCC mandated this digital transition to take spectrum away from UHF TV use and give it to telecommunications companies to build 3G and 4G networks. The FCC’s broadband plan calls for adding another 500 megahertz of spectrum to be dedicated to new, faster, wireless networks. The FCC will try to convince TV broadcasters to give up even more of the 300 MHz of spectrum now used for TV. And the government itself controls another 600 MHz of spectrum, some of which could be used for wireless broadband. 

Q: The nation faces a number of threats – terrorism, disasters (like earthquakes and hurricanes like Katrina) and even local disasters like the shooting of four Lakewood, Washington, police officers in 2009. Will the FCC’s national broadband plan help with this problem?

A: Public safety communications were problematical on September 11th in New York City, in the Katrina Hurricane and in other disasters. The public cell phone networks won’t reliably operate in such disasters or, sometimes, even in daily emergencies like power outages. The FCC has allocated 10 Mhz of spectrum in the 700 Mhz band for a nationwide public safety broadband network. In the national broadband plan, the FCC proposes putting money where its mouth has been – the FCC is proposing $6.5 billion in grants to create the public safety network. The City of Seattle is one of only 17 communities nationwide who have asked the FCC for permission to use this spectrum and build such a network. In their plan, the FCC includes a method for setting standards and operating procedures which will allow cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston to build. And these municipal or regional public safety wireless broadband networks will interoperate with others nationwide. In fact, under the FCC’s plan, the public safety networks will also interoperate with networks being constructed by AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile. So if a police officer or firefighter can’t get a strong signal from the public safety network the officer could get signals from a commercial network instead. 

Furthermore, Seattle has proposed that other government agencies – our electric utility, Seattle City Light, our water utility, Seattle Public Utilities, our transportation department, and others, also be allowed to use this network. In both daily emergencies and major disasters such “second responders” are vital to public safety and must interoperate with police and fire to keep the public safe. The national broadband plan recognizes this need as well.

Q: Practically, why do we need a public safety wireless broadband network?

A: I’ll give one specific example – video. On October 31, 2009, a Seattle police officer was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant – Christopher Montfort was ultimately charged with the crime. How did the police find Montfort? I’ve discussed this in more detail in this blog entry, but essentially, every Seattle police patrol vehicle has a video camera which records video of traffic stops. The recording goes to a computer in the police vehicle. It took several days for the police to review all the video footage of traffic stops from Seattle police cars. They noticed, in the background of several such stops, a uniquely shaped vehicle cruising by, which was traced back to Montfort. With a wireless broadband network, such video could immediately, in real time, be transmitted to dispatch centers and other police officers. Furthermore, police and firefighters could receive mugshots, building plans, hazardous material data, and video from a variety of sources to improve their response to both daily incidents and larger disasters.

Q: Are there other implications of the plan?

A: Several are worth mentioning and there is a bit more detail in an analysis here.

  • The FCC has recognized that cities and counties need to be able to control their own streets, utility poles and rights-of-way, and receive fair compensation for their use by companies who build broadband networks, while allowing private companies better access to rights of way to build networks.
  • The FCC has recommended to Congress that it pre-empt laws in 18 states which prohibit cities and counties from building broadband networks. In most places, there is no competition for broadband – there are only one or two providers, usually the cable TV company and the phone company, with older, slower, networks. In places where the city or county has built a network – like Tacoma – consumer costs are significantly lower for phone, cable TV and Internet access.
  • The plan calls for strengthened cybersecurity measures to protect broadband networks, consumers and businesses from hackers and other cybersecurity threats.
  • The FCC plans to revamp the Universal Service Fund (USF) to help subsidize broadband adoption.

In summary, the FCC’s plan is visionary. Certainly it was carefully crafted with many competing interests interests in mind.  And it doesn’t really provide any good mechanism to encourage competition between private providers.  Such competition would reduce costs to users.  Nevertheless, if it is followed, will materially improve the economy, safety, and quality of life for the people of the United States.

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Filed under broadband, cable, fcc, wireless

– CES: The Time Machine

The Time MachineWe have a Time Machine.  It is one way, moving 60 seconds an hour, 24 hours a day, into The Future.  The Consumer Electronics Show is a window into The Future.  Technology demonstrated there this week will be available to early-adopter consumers and businesses in the next year or two, and will be available at Costco soon thereafter.  And it has at least one common theme – networks will have to be fast. Not just fast, but FAST.

Here are some examples:

But what does all this speed really get you in the real world?

For one thing, much faster two-way or multi-way video telephone or video conferencing, which means fewer commute trips in cars and less demand on other transportation such as plane trips across the country. That translates into less air pollution, less dependence on foreign oil (and need for foreign military expeditions) and less global warming. Then there is improved entertainment, interactive gaming, energy management, and much much more.

But it all depends on rapid deployment of LTE for wireless and fiber-to-the-premise for wired networks.

The Time Machine is taking us inexorably into this glitzy new future. But are our wireless and wired networks ready for this? Not in Seattle, certainly. We need a network vision to match our CES vision and here it is.

The Flux Capacitor is Fluxing.   The Time Machine is Ready.  Are we ready to build the networks we need?

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is ready, and we’re going to do it.

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– Shocked, SHOCKED to learn …

Shocked over the FCC Chairman?

Shocked over the FCC Chairman?

I am schocked, SHOCKED to learn that an senior official of the Bush Administration would abuse his power, withhold information from the public and members of his agency, and attempt to manipulate data and information to advance his personal agenda, perhaps directing excess payments of up to $100 million to private companies.

Or, to continue the parallels with the 1942 movie classic Casablanca, “play it again, W”. (Yeah, I know the line “play it again Sam” was never in the movie!)

I’m not referring to the bungled management of Iraq in 2003-4 or the vast sums of money funneled in no-bid contracts to companies like Halliburton. I’m referring to the majority staff report of the United States House Committee on Energy and Commerce, released this week, and its primary subject, the management of the Federal Communications Commission by Chair Kevin Martin.

My comment: DUH. The report is NOT news to those of us in local government who’ve had to deal with the FCC Chairman and the outfall of a few of his decisions over the past eight years.

Exhibit 1: Congress authorized the removal of UHF television channels 52 through 69, freeing 108 megahertz of spectrum in the 700 megahertz (MHz) band for other uses. This spectrum was really valuable because it has good penetration of walls and into buildings. The FCC auctioned most of this spectrum to wireless telecommunications companies with the money going into the federal treasury.

About 10 megahertz was reserved for public safety use: police, fire, and emergency medical services. Traditionally, cities and counties and regions have licensed and used spectrum allocated to them to build radio systems for public safety and general government. Spectrum allocated only for voice radio systems, that is. We expected the same kinds of licensing rules to apply to this valuable new chunk of spectrum, which could be used for “broadband” – essentially wireless Internet. Such spectrum could send building maps to firefighters, video from crime scenes, patient telemetry from medic units.

Under Martin, however, even that small piece of the 700 MHz spectrum was ripped from the hands of local government and was to be auctioned into the control of private companies. Only in the last few weeks – since the November 4th election and impending changes at the FCC – has this plan been derailed.

Exhibit 2: Martin demonstrated an active prejudice on behalf of telecommunications carriers by altering the rules for cable franchising. Under the Constitution, states, cities and counties control their streets and rights-of-way. Under the Telecomm Act of 1996, cities and counties franchise the companies who string cables on poles in those rights of way and then offer cable television and related services to consumers. The franchises funnel revenues and services (e.g. Internet access and cable TV at community centers) to the local governments.

But the FCC, under Martin, changed the rules – cities and counties are now forced to grant cable franchises within 90 days, but ONLY to telecommunications carriers who already operate within the jurisdiction. Anyone else wanting a cable franchise goes through the traditional process!

Under Kevin Martin, the FCC’s mantra apparently was “no telecommunications carrier left behind”. And cities and counties lost the ability to manage their own rights-of-way and airwaves on behalf of the public safety and welfare.

Certainly the FCC has done a lot of good work regulating the airwaves, telecommunications and cable, and there are a lot of talented FCC staff who are dedicated to serving the public.

They deserve a Chair of the Commission with similar values and ethical leadership.

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Filed under cable, Fedgov, radio, wireless

ClearWire, Kirkland & Backwoods Seattle

Clearwire Wireless, like Costco, is HQ'd in Kirkland, Washington

Clearwire Wireless, like Costco, is HQ'd in Kirkland, Washington

Original post:  16 May 2008

Those of us who regularly buy 48-roll packages of bathroom tissue (in some places known as “toilet paper”) at Costco recognize “Kirkland Signature”, the store-brand-name for many Costco products. “Kirkland Signature” takes its name from the location of Costco Headquarters, in Kirkland, suburb of Redmond (!) and Seattle, Washington State.
Another little company headquartered in Kirkland is Clearwire, founded by Craig McCaw, who made billions developing one of the world’s first cell phone networks, then selling it to AT&T. Craig’s trying to repeat that success today by rolling out Wi-Max – a wireless data network solution – with Clearwire.
There’s one minor problem: Clearwire’s losing money. Big time. $727 million last year.
Last week, however, a Smorgasboard of partners announced an initiative to deploy Clearwire’s Wi-Max nationwide. The Smorgasboard includes Clearwire, Sprint/Nextel and a whole set of others including cable providers (Comcast, Time Warner, Brighthouse) and Google (!).
But what a Smorgasboard! A wireless data provider – essentially an Internet Service provider (Clearwire), a cellular telephone company (Sprint), traditional cable providers, and an Internet content provider (Google). What’s up with this?

Clearwire et al - A Smorgasboard?

Clearwire et al - A Smorgasboard?

Perhaps this Smorgasboard sees the writing on the subway walls. And maybe that subway writing points to the demise of their business models: Verizon and AT&T are deploying a coordinated set of services nationwide – cellular phone, land-line phone, cable television service and (via all-fiber networks), really high speed internet service. Verizon, in particular, is pushing forward with its FIOS fiber-to-the-home network. I believe Verizon will eventually grab the market share from traditional cable providers who’ve enjoyed virtual monopolies in most of their markets for years.
Consumers will be faced with buying either a their services from bunch of different, uncoordinated, companies, or the same set services (and actually, because of the fiber, superior in speed and quality) from a single provider: AT&T or Verizon. And probably at a discount.
What does this mean for most consumers and most cities? If the Clearwire/Sprint-Nextel Smorgasboard works (and that may be problematical – read the Washington Post), most cities and consumers will at least have a choice of a duopoly: either Verizon or AT&T, and the Smorgasboard.

Cable is a Monopoly in Seattle

Cable is a Monopoly in Seattle

What does this mean for Seattle? We’re still stuck in monopolyland. Neither Verizon or AT&T operate here. Comcast has a virtual monopoly on cable service. Qwest is an outlier from all these equations. So Seattle’s consumers will continue to face high (and rising) prices for many of these services and will continue to be lost in the backwoods for innovation, because all these companies will make their investments and bring their new technology to other cities, where they actually have to compete for market share.

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