Police and other emergency management officials in four cities around the country got a glimpse of what the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) might look like once the infrastructure begins to take root.
Five months after Congress passed a law that granted public safety organizations the much-needed mobile broadband spectrum (the so-called D Block in the 700 MHz band), Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp. conducted the first live test of a real-time first responder network. The test, conducted July 12, spanned four states and leveraged 700MHz band LTE (Long Term Evolution) technologies.
The Harris LTE network core is housed in a Chelmsford, Mass. facility, which functioned as a command center to mobile users in Las Vegas, Miami and Rochester, N.Y. Officials in Chelmsford, acting as a dispatch coordinator for police in the field, coordinated the efforts of three vehicles simulating a surveillance scenario involving a suspicious person, monitoring voice, mapping data and streaming video from cars equipped with mounted dash cams.
In Chelmsford, “we watched as they drove up to the person, got out of the vehicle and the dispatcher was able to talk to them and see what they were doing in real time,” said Chuck Shaughnessy, vice president for Public Safety LTE at Harris. “And there was no latency at all. It was very impressive.”
The demonstration also showcased Harris’ newly-released BeOn® application (pictured above), which successfully converts commercial Android smart phones into push-to-talk (PTT) Project-25-compatible Land Mobile Radios (LMR) – the existing radio infrastructure in use by the vast majority of first responders and the central focus of the modernization effort in the new NPSBN.
BeOn® is currently in beta testing with two public safety organizations. Harris Corp. has been one of the main manufacturers of P-25 radios for years and has leveraged that experience to integrate the LMR infrastructure with the new generation of Android devices running across any commercial network. And while police and firefighters may not be able to use commercial devices in the field (due to the lack of ruggedized form factors), there are many other users on public safety networks that will be able to leverage these new capabilities. “It’s just in its infancy, but we do think it offers a real possibility for cost savings for localities and it positions the public safety community to use the same kind of voice application on what will become FirstNet,” said Shaughness, referring to the NPSBN.
Harris Corp. is currently supporting LTE pilot programs throughout the cities that took part in the demonstration. And so far the reaction has been positive. “This program brings the potential for advanced capabilities, as well as greater efficiency and effectiveness in the field,” said Felix Perez, Director of the Radio Communications Information Department for Miami-Dade County. “With more than 2.4 million citizens to serve, our officers require the enhanced situational awareness that only public safety LTE can deliver.”
But is it too early in the process of building the NPSBN to evaluate the significance of the Harris demonstration? Breaking Gov asked the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the world’s largest trade association of public safety communications practitioners, but APCO declined to comment.
However, Jack Brown, director of the Arlington County Office of Emergency Management in Virginia, isn’t quite ready to claim victory for the NPSBN. “From my perspective it is far too early in the process,” said Brown. Harris, like AT&T would like to demonstrate the solution and then ask so why go any further. I’m not sure they have the solution. They hope they do.”
Brown cautions that nobody really knows yet how the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will approach one of its key responsibilities – setting nationwide standards for the network. “I would recommend listen, consider, but wait until our friends at NTIA further define how the FirstNet will work,” said Brown. He added that the Harris demonstration tied together jurisdictions that received waivers from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deploy local and regional public safety broadband networks ahead of the establishment of FirstNet.
“There is no guarantee that those networks will work as they do today,” said Brown. “They will be integrated, but how and at what cost is not clear.”
For Shaughnessy, however, the lessons from the demonstration were clear.
“I think it showed that there really are no technology limits in making all of this stuff work,” he said. “There are logistical limits and funding limits and questions about how fast we can build the network and how much it will cost,” said Shaughnessy. “But technology is not in the way, that’s for sure.”