Public Safety Communications: Time For Convergence - InformationWeek

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Government // Mobile & Wireless
09:06 AM
Paul May
Paul May

Public Safety Communications: Time For Convergence

First responders need a better blend of reliability and multimedia capability. Until a dedicated 4G network is implemented, a blend of networks, devices, and applications should drive future procurements.

As commercial mobile broadband consumers, we've all seen the accelerating pace of product, application, and service developments for personal communications. Within the past decade, consumers have moved from cellular voice to voice plus text, data, pictures, and video. Using a variety of smartphone applications, we can deliver individual, group, and broadcast multimedia communications, providing family, friends, and colleagues with real-time updates on any situation.

Ironically, these are the same types of communications required to ensure the effectiveness and safety of emergency first responders. Yet for a multitude of reasons, the communication capabilities provided by public safety agencies are just beginning to catch up with what's available in the consumer marketplace.

Public safety's slow adoption has been the result of cost, security, reliability, and workflow concerns, all of which moderate adoption of new technologies. As a result, first responders continue to rely on aging Land Mobile Radio (LMR) networks for mission-critical communications, particularly during emergency responses. Given that these LMR networks are specifically designed to meet the performance, security, and voice-messaging capacity requirements needed for incident command and control, this is not surprising.

[Room for privacy: Why FBI Is Wrong On Encryption Workaround.]

What is surprising is the degree to which LMR networks are being augmented by commercial services, devices, and applications. With the adoption of commercial technologies, often on an ad-hoc basis, LMR is increasingly reserved for emergency situations because, regardless of how "cool" the latest devices and applications are, first responders simply do not run down dark alleys without their LMR radio to keep them connected.

LMR still reigns supreme within public safety because its coverage, capacity, and reliability meet the requirements of "public safety-grade" communications. For example, in most jurisdictions, LMR provides 95% or better geographic coverage, instead of the 95-98% population coverage provided by commercial cellular.

Where LMR is challenged is with the integration of multimedia into the public safety workflow. First responders understand that, in some instances, a picture really does say a thousand words, and LMR cannot effectively transmit a video conversation. That's why LMR is often supplemented by broadband technologies for non-emergency communications. And because public safety agencies have been unable to deliver private mobile broadband networks to their user communities, first responders have increasingly brought their own devices, applications, and services.

Over the past year, we have spent hundreds of hours riding along with public safety professionals, and we have observed some very important and interesting practices related to communications and mobile broadband device use. Based on our observations and survey data from first responders across the United States, almost 90% of public safety professionals are already using their own smart consumer-grade devices to leverage cellular telephony, text messaging, Google services, and social media to perform their duties better. While the utilization of these commercial technologies constitutes advancement in communications, just as with enterprise BYOD, there are some serious inherent risks that must be considered.

For example, consumer-grade public broadband networks are exactly that: consumer-grade. For economic reasons, commercial networks do not operate with prioritized access or with uniform, hardened, public safety-grade reliability. As countless catastrophic weather incidents have shown, these networks are susceptible to interruptions during critical and time-sensitive events. Consumer-grade applications typically also lack the high level of end-to-end security essential for public safety communications and operations.

Additionally, public safety personnel who rely on consumer devices and networks during emergency situations must contend with consumer network traffic congestion as citizens become "first observers," consuming all available bandwidth with social media posts, including photographs and video. And as anyone with a cellphone can attest, consumer networks are simply not designed to support mass loads following events like the Boston Marathon attacks. Commercial networks become overloaded

Paul May is a Senior Product Manager for Harris Public Safety and Professional Communications business, based out of Lynchburg, VA. Mr. May has responsibility for the Harris Corporation Long Term Evolution (LTE) product offerings for the public safety marketplace. He has over ... View Full Bio
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