Public safety network has ‘eye-opening’ first real-world test

Police in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida, used a first-of-its-kind LTE cellular network dedicated to law enforcement as part of security operations for the Republican National Convention in August.

The network was a demonstration project for the proposed National Public Safety Broadband Network, which would use the Long Term Evolution standard to provide interoperable voice, video and data communications for first responders.

The Federal Communications Commission granted special temporary authority for the network, which was fielded by Cisco, Raytheon, Nokia Siemens Networks, Reality Mobile and Amdocs.

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“This has been a real eye-opener for what the future holds,” said Sgt. Dale Moushon, commander of the St. Petersburg Police Department’s intelligence unit, which used the network for crowd control and surveillance.

Officers on the streets were able to use iPhones during the convention for encrypted voice and data and to stream video over a cellular network that was not available to the public. The use of off-the-shelf cellular devices by police is not new, but cell phones rely on commercial carrier networks that lack security and police have to compete with the public for access during times of high traffic volume.

“During large-scale events we have difficulty using our cell phones because of congestion on the network,” Moushon said. Because the RNC demo network did not use a commercial carrier and was dedicated to police there was no congestion, making advanced services available for mission-critical communications. “That was absolutely huge for us,” he said.

The need for such a network that could allow roaming and interoperability between jurisdictions and departments on a national scale has been apparent since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The FCC has set aside spectrum for it in the 700 MHz band and the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has been established in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to hold the spectrum license and oversee deployment of the network. But to date, the National Public Safety Broadband Network has been used only in testbed environments such as that operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo.

“This is the first time that such a mission has been allowed” in an operational environment, said Kevin McFadden of Cisco’s National Security and Defense team.

The system gave police the ability to deliver video from the streets to command centers and from one officer to another, and to track the location of individual officers by Global Positioning system-enabled real-time situational awareness in an environment in which large crowds and protesters were on the move in the neighboring cities. It also reduced traffic on the departments’ land mobile radio systems, the traditional primary communications channel for police.

The National Public Safety Broadband Network would be the first major advance in police communications since the introduction of mobile radios more than 80 years ago. The vehicle-based and hand-held radio has been effective for voice, but usually is not interoperable across departments and has not kept up with advances in communications. It has remained the mission critical channel, however, because frequencies can be dedicated to law enforcement and can provide needed privacy and availability.

The new national network would provide the same dedicated infrastructure while also taking advantage of current digital and IP technologies. It would be based on high-speed LTE, technology that already supports advanced commercial cellular networks. The RF bandwidth has been set aside for the network and $7 billion has been appropriated for deployment under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. An additional $135 million is available for state and local government implementation grants.

The GOP convention marked the first deployment of such a 700 MHz LTE network. The LTE packet core, Unified Communications applications, IP routing and switching, and cybersecurity were provided by Cisco. Nokia Siemens Networks provided the LTE radio access network, and Reality Mobile provided the RealityVision mobile video and visual collaboration platform. Amdocs provided subscriber and device data management, and policy control with the Amdocs Home Subscriber Server and Amdocs Policy Controller solutions. Raytheon provided project management and systems engineering support.

LTE transceivers with ranges of three to five miles were mounted on the St. Petersburg Police Department tower on the south side of Tampa Bay and on a portable tower in Tampa to the north. Because the iPhones could not connect directly with the 700 MHz system, officers used pocket-size MiFi wireless routers from IPWireless to create a gateway for the phones to the cellular network. McFadden said the use of MiFi was a stopgap that would not be necessary when commercial phones can be equipped to connect directly with police networks.

In addition to LTE communications, a push-to-talk feature on the phones could be used to link them with the police radio systems.

The network not only expanded communications options, it allowed plainclothes police to operate less conspicuously in crowds, Moushon said. Cops otherwise would have to use ear-pieces and police radios. “They quickly become identified as police officers,” he said. But in Tampa and St. Pete, undercover police were able to blend into the crowd where everyone else was using iPhones and Androids to talk, text and shoot video.

GPS features in the phones let command centers track individual officers, improving situational awareness and also helping to avoid the embarrassing situation of undercover police watching each other because of suspicious behavior. Because police did not have to radio their location and describe events that could be photographed, “the amount of radio traffic was reduced significantly,” McFadden said.

While not perfect, the first live test of a dedicated public safety LTE network provided few problems and has whet the departments’ appetites, Moushon said. “There are going to be so many possibilities coming out of this as the technology matures,” he said. “This showed us it is possible and it is coming.”


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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