Agencies activate IWN plan

Standardized net should adapt to local law enforcement needs

Border Patrol: Officers can be quickly deployed into the most remote sections of the United States to provide protection along our borders.

James Tourtellotte/USCABP

Three arms of federal law enforcement are planning, at last, to catch up with Dick Tracy. The Justice, Homeland Security and Treasury departments, each with multiple law enforcement wireless systems, have launched a 15-year, standards-based project to build a nationwide interoperable federal law enforcement network.

But even as they begin to assign specific tasks to integrator General Dynamics C4 Systems for building the Integrated Wireless Network, the agencies are planning a system with varying technologies customized to the terrain and law enforcement missions in different regions of the country.

Federal cost estimates for IWN have ranged as high as $10 billion over 15 years.
The departments framed the IWN acquisition to answer the call for secure, interoperable wireless communications in voice, data and multimedia formats.

Some phases of the IWN technology package have emerged during the years that the Justice-led acquisition has run pilots in the Gulf Coast region, Oregon and eastern Washington state.

For example, Justice stated in an e-mail response to a GCN inquiry, 'The IWN will be a hybrid of wireless technologies which will employ relevant and appropriate standards.'

Justice pointed to its plans to use the Project 25 land mobile radio standards that are intended to pave the way for an open system in the law enforcement radio arena.

The Project 25 process is developing standardized interfaces to link varying mission-critical land mobile radio systems.

'Ultimately, you could reach the point where you could purchase the radios as commodities,' said Jeff Osman, General Dynamics' executive program manager for IWN. 'It may take some time to reach that point.'

IWN also will rely on IPv6 technology and evolving National Institute of Standards and Technology security standards, Justice said.

Those standards will be the same nationwide, according to the federal plan, but some differences will characterize systems in different areas.

Asked about IWN's relationship to some urban police departments' broadband multimedia system pilots, Justice said it 'does not intend to migrate the entire wireless system to any one technology, but instead will look to utilize a range of wireless services to meet the department's communication needs. Real-time broadband video is a potential example.'

On the same topic, Osman noted that providing multimedia broadband service requires big pipes, and that such bandwidth can get expensive quickly.

Cost could limit the size of the regions that might be candidates for video surveillance by law enforcement officers in vehicles or on foot, but some high-value targets might still qualify for the service, Osman suggested.

The IWN buildout likely will also feature a variety of gateway devices to establish connections with older analog systems used by some local and tribal police agencies.

Osman said that in some areas where law enforcement communications networks have proliferated, such as in major port cities, the gateway systems would have to be complex.

In other areas, such as rural zones with few or no existing law enforcement networks, the gateways could be simpler and cheaper, Osman said.

Another factor driving local technology variations is the availability of electric power and landline communications, Osman said.

'Sometimes you can't get [conventional] network connectivity [in remote areas] and you might have to consider other methods such as microwave backhaul,' Osman said.

The IWN integrator faced similar problems of creating connectivity in remote places as it built out the Coast Guard's Rescue 21 system, a wireless communications project sometimes referred to as a maritime 911 service, Osman said.

'There [are additional] similarities between IWN and Rescue 21 because they are both national [projects] and deployed on a regional basis,' Osman said.

'When you have that, you have an issue of how you communicate at the boundaries' [of the regions], Osman said. Because IWN will use IPv6, the system designers will be able to build in permissions for users at the boundaries of each region to connect with the neighboring regional system.

His team will conduct detailed surveys of the federal and local communications infrastructures in each area as it plans the regional buildouts. Existing federal law enforcement radio nets will stay up until users are satisfied with their new IWN services, Osman said.

The new networks' planners will have some advantages flowing from the fact that existing federal law enforcement radio nets in some areas and agencies are so clunky that they waste valuable bandwidth.

Osman noted that the existing very-high-frequency bandwidth allocations that federal law enforcement agencies use are largely based on obsolete wideband 25 KHz systems.

However, modern technology using IPv6 can achieve better service using only 12.5 KHz, or half as much bandwidth.

Another technology benefit will flow from the fact that federal law enforcement agencies haven't completed the process of adopting modern trunked radio systems.
Trunked networks combine several two-way voice conversations on a single channel that is not only bandwidth-thrifty but also resists eavesdropping.

Justice said in another e-mail comment that IWN technology would be affected somewhat by the spectrum reallocation resulting from the shift to digital TV.

The resulting 700 MHz spectrum reallocations will primarily affect state and local public safety radio nets, Justice said.

The department added that because federal agencies 'need to interconnect with state and local systems, this spectrum activity may have some impact on the IWN program.

'In addition, the department intends to leverage some of the commercial broadband service offerings which are also impacted by the spectrum re-allocation activity,' Justice said.

Osman cautioned that IWN designers would be constrained from relying on commercial providers of wireless communications bandwidth for mission-critical applications because spectrum use rules could restrict the availability of the service.

IWN would provide a source for building out DHS' planned OneNet-Wireless infrastructure that is designed to support its Secure Border Initiative and the other wireless systems operated by several homeland security law enforcement agencies, DHS said.

Although IWN will serve as a vehicle for DHS, Justice and Treasury agencies to buy law enforcement wireless networks, it isn't a compulsory method of purchasing the technology, one senior federal technology executive said.

The federal official emphasized that his agency would use IWN technology where it made sense, but that his agency and others likely would use existing acquisition vehicles or possibly even new methods to buy systems.

A separate cautionary perspective came from observers in the federal government who have contrasted the apparently high capital expenditure plans for IWN with the far higher investment levels of the private wireless industry.

Those federal officials ask how successful the IWN will be in covering virtually the entire country with a law enforcement wireless network, when the private sector has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to cover a much smaller footprint.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above