Just DoITT

— April 10, 2007

If government officials have it right, there is no future for New York City, or any other American metropolis, without a response strategy in place for another terrorist attack. Public safety experts believe that without better communication and coordinated response capabilities, a natural or manmade catastrophe could produce even greater chaos and casualties than before.
Which kind of wireless network will work best in emergencies? "An ordinary cell phone system can't distinguish between a first responder and someone checking in on his kids," says Gino Menchini, the former commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) of New York City. "That's why public safety folks absolutely need their own bandwidth and priority [access], because citizens have a tendency to grab and absorb bandwidth in emergencies."

Nightmare scenarios and plain awareness of wireless broadband's huge potential have driven DoITT to reinvent public safety networking with high-speed data and video overlays. Today, officials are getting their wish for a state-of-the-art 2.5GHz private wireless broadband network based on UMTS (universal mobile telephone service) that's devoted exclusively to the city's first-responder teams. These include firefighters, police officers, HAZMAT, transportation, environmental protection, the mayor's office, medical personnel and coordinating federal agencies responsible for disaster preparedness.

Awarded in September 2006 after a six-month trial between two competing technologies--
the 2.5GHz UMTS evolution of GSM, offered by contract winner Northrop Grumman/IP Wireless, and a 4.9GHz network offered by Motorola on a newly allocated public safety spectrum, which ultimately was rejected because of performance and cost issues--the five-year, $500 million first response network will cover all five New York City boroughs (totaling 322 miles square miles). In networking terms, that's huge. Providing high-speed data and real-time video feeds of crime or disaster scenes, medical files and blueprints, as well as access to multiple databases, the network is not designed to replace New York's myriad public safety voice radio systems, which will remain operational.

"We've set aside common frequencies and common radios so police and fire supervisors can speak to each other," solving the public safety "babble" problem, explains Menchini, who left his post last spring to take a job in the private sector. The UMTS overlay network is purposed exclusively for data. One reason is a change in public safety logistics and protocol. Since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, one new protocol is that fire chiefs stay in bunkers and receive real-time video from their firefighters on the scene.

"There's a need for wireless high-speed data access in New York City," Minchini explains. For example, the Mayor's office is planning many bandwidth-intensive applications, such as allowing 911 call centers and the popular 311 service line to receive digital photos and videos from callers. New York City will be the first city in the nation to incorporate digital images into its emergency response system, and other crime-fighting applications will surely follow.

Penetrating Urban Canyons

"New York is a particularly challenging environment because of its size, density and the canyon effect of its skyscrapers," observes Menchini, who coordinated the recovery of the Big Apple's telecommunications infrastructure during the 9/11 recovery effort, the blackout of 2003 and the 2005 transit strike. In considering competing bids for the private public safety network, city IT directors weighed issues such as architectural build-out and the cost of adding redundant base stations to boost reliability in emergencies.

City planners considered architecting a huge unlicensed 2.4GHz WiFi network that could be leveraged for public safety needs. However, cost, size and scope were prohibitive when compared to a licensed 2.5GHz cellular network with 3G capability. Another factor was cost and the availability of spectrum. The winning network will utilize cellular spectrum owned primarily by Sprint Nextel, along with the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which leases the 2.5GHz band it once reserved for educational TV purposes.

"Reliability was one of the key driving factors in the [DoITT] decision," says Paul Chelson, the program director of Northrop Grumman's citywide mobile wireless project. "We have very tight service-level agreements for this public safety network, and it has to be up all the time."

Industry observers believe DoITT made a bold choice in opting for an exclusive (and expensive) first-responder network that does not share bandwidth or costs with the public. The question now is whether New York City can be a model for other large urban centers seeking better public safety solutions.

"The city's point was that it could not face another catastrophe without getting into a reliable, interoperable high-speed data service," said Steve McCrudden, a wireless broadband consultant who provided expertise to one of the DoITT competitive bidders. "But while the city made a reasonable choice, there are few cities that can afford to follow suit by building a private public safety network. You've got to spread the cost. How does the model of New York City help Cleveland? How do we utilize a commercial interest to build a public network [in other cities] and get the public safety aspects for free?"

The jury is still out, but public safety officers around the country will be watching the implementation closely. Paul Cosgrave, who was appointed the new commissioner of the DoITT in June 2006, asserts: "When complete, the network will be one worthy of the world's greatest city and the people who protect it on a daily basis."

Arielle Emmett is a freelance writer and the editor of Wireless Data for the Enterprise

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