IWCE: Panel discusses future of public safety radio

Broadband is coming, but experts disagree on when and how

By Scott M. Bruner
Police1 Product Editor

Although the title of the IWCE 2010 Thursday symposium was ‘Will Broadband Voice Replace Traditional Land Mobile Radio,’ most of the symposium’s roster agreed that broadband was coming and would supplant land mobile radio. What they disagreed on was when and how — as well as what is needed — to make the change.

"If we’re looking into communications possibilities, why not look to the future?" Chuck Dowd, deputy chief of the NYPD asked. "Why limit ourselves with narrowband? Why can’t we bring the reliability of land mobile radio to broadband? Why should we support two networks? Ultimately, it’s the right solution to move all our capabilities to broadband."

Photo Scott BrunerAt the IWCE 2010 show in Las Vegas a panel of communications experts debated the future of public safety radio.
Photo Scott Bruner
At the IWCE 2010 show in Las Vegas a panel of communications experts debated the future of public safety radio.

Dowd’s statements were echoed by most of the participants at the lunchtime conference, although disparities existed on how to get there. The informal chat was moderated by Donald Jackson, the senior writer of Urgent Communications magazine. In addition to Dowd, the panel consisted of: Harlin McEwen, former chief of police for Ithaca, NY and FBI assistant director; Bill Schrier, chief technology officer for Seattle, WA; Emil Olbrich, lead project engineer in the Office of Law Enforcement Standards of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); and Tom Sorley, the deputy director of Radio Communications Services in Houston, Texas.

Sorley was one of the members of the conference who urged caution as departments and agencies weight the benefits and very real and significant costs of upgrading to broadband capability for their communications networks.

"I’d like to put a word of caution in here. There hasn’t been a standard set … We need to approach this with caution, once the standards are there, we can do it," Sorley said.

Most in the forum agreed that moving to broadband is inevitabile and that LTE (Long Term Evolution) would be the standard of choice. Most also agreed that 20MHz would be the minimum amount of spectrum to make broadband a workable reality for first responders.

Public safety is still struggling to adopt the best strategy to create a nationwide interoperable broadband network. The D-block was supposed to be shared by both a commercial network and public safety, however, the FCC may force the build of a guard band between the two spectrum blocks. This potential proposal may come at the cost of bandwidth for public safety.

"Chuck’s vision is the right vision and very possible. Not only is it possible, it’s likely a matter of time," McEwen said. "This is not going to happen quickly. It will take while. We’re still struggling to find out how much spectrum we’ll have to do it. We need more spectrum to do it."

Dowd and Sorley also pointed out that the most important things — points which Dowd had noted during his keynote address at the conference — are that a public safety broadband network must not have the limitations or drawbacks which sometimes plague commercial broadband, such as "dropped calls" and lack of coverage in some areas.

"We need to be able to communicate one-to-many," Sorley said. "We must be able to communicate without a network. The ability to communicate peer-to-peer without a network is critical. We also need to know the device will work in an environment."

Schrier listed some of the reasons why public safety should make the move to broadband, and what it needed to be able to provide it. They included true interoperability capability, comprehensive coverage, as well as determining the cost — which until network standards are set, maybe very difficult for some agencies, especially smaller jurisdictions, to swallow.

The last question that Jackson asked when the right time to make the move to broadband would be for public safety networks.

Sorley and Olbrich both said the time was now. Schrier and McEwen agreed that now was the time for broadband data but that voice broadband for public safety was still 10 years away and encouraged continuing to support the P25 radio standard until then. Dowd countered that wherever data was needed, so was voice.

"Firefighters and policemen don’t care whether it’s land mobile radio or broadband, they just want it to work," Dowd concluded.

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