A terrorist attack, active shooter situation, or natural disaster can bring out the best in police first responders. It can also expose the flaws of a patchwork radio system that often thwarts communications among police, fire, and EMS.
To bridge these gaps, Motorola Solutions and Verizon are working closely with public safety agencies in Northern California's Bay Area and Harris County, Texas, to build and operate what will likely be the nation's first public safety broadband network on the LTE (Long Term Evolution) platform.
When it's fully operational, the Bay Area Wireless Enhanced Broadband System (BayWEB) should provide interoperable communications and higher-speed data transfer to better link agencies serving the area's 10 counties of 7 million people. A similar network would cover Harris County's nearly 4 million residents.
The networks will arrive as public-private partnerships. Motorola Solutions, the publicly traded entity that separated from Motorola's mobile-phone business in January, is positioning itself as a leader in public safety broadband infrastructure build-outs. The company has invested $22 million in the Bay Area network, matching a $50 million federal stimulus (ARRA) grant.
"The police have been waiting for broadband to arrive," says Rick Keith, Motorola Solutions' senior director of private broadband. "Now they're saying the teenager downloading her latest Fergie album has greater throughput than an officer."
The private network, which will be built over 13 years, will utilize 193 upgraded public safety towers and antennas to enable field officers, dispatch centers, and commanders to move on-scene video to a cruiser's dashboard screen, dispatch center's monitor, or watch commander's desk computer.
Officers could tap into surveillance cameras from their cruisers. Deputies sending fingerprint-image files from handheld readers could get faster matches from criminal databases. And audio data from gun-shot detection systems could be quickly triangulated via GPS to bring the closest patrol unit.
The system would initially speed up data transfer and later add mission-critical voice communication, allowing first responders to communicate radio-to-radio regardless of which agency they serve. The network operates on 700MHz channels now available, and could be modified if additional D-block spectrum arrives. At press time, federal officials continue to debate whether to auction the additional spectrum or allocate it to public safety.
"Whatever happens in D.C., if we get the extra spectrum, we're building a system that will add that rather than replacing the entire system," says Alameda County Sheriff's Dep. David Kozicki, who is overseeing the project. "In order for us to have full functionality, we need spectrum."
To manage the network, the Bay Area public safety agencies formed a joint-powers authority that would negotiate an operational agreement with Motorola called a BOOM (Build, Own, Operate, and Maintain) agreement. The company would build and operate the network and likely charge the agencies a recurring rate for use. Eventually, the network would be handed over to the authority.
Motorola Solutions is also developing devices for the network, such as a rugged handset with a smartphone form factor, vehicle modems, a USB dongle that plugs into a laptop, and a handheld license plate reader. The USB dongle and vehicle modems could be available as early as the fourth quarter, and the other devices will arrive in 2012, Keith says.
The company is also developing several secure apps, including the Tactical Commander, which will give SWAT leaders GPS awareness of officers involved in a hostage barricade, and silent messaging to help position officers at building entry points.