Project Broadband Radio – As Published in the CCAP County News Magazine May/June 2015
The Baby Boomer Generation grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons. One of our favorites was always the Roadrunner series featuring a speedy caricature of a southwestern United States bird being continually pursued by and outwitting a carnivorous canine named Wile E. Coyote. No matter what scheme he hatched in an effort to capture his ornithological prey, the Coyote always ended up ensnared by circumstances and his own machinations. He often managed to blow himself up with an ACME rockets, firecrackers, exploding tennis balls or whatnot, sometimes had huge boulders or safes smash him into a hole in the ground, captured entirely the wrong prey in a tiger trap or with giant flypaper or simply ran off the cliff when the Roadrunner executed a quick turn. Only once did he catch the Roadrunner, but Wile E. Coyote had been shrunk down and was incredibly dwarfed by his prey. In frustration he holds up a sign asking, “Okay, wise guys, you always wanted me to catch him. Now what do I do?”
With the explosive growth of broadband capabilities and applications nationwide, success in consumer-oriented markets has outpaced even the speedy Roadrunner, often leaving the public-safety community trying to catch up just like the Coyote. We have a vision of how the technology wonders of Facebook and Twitter provide instantaneous communications or how our smart phone can quickly send texts, pictures or videos. Like Wile E. Coyote, we want that!
The First Responder Network Authority, FirstNet, was created by Congress in 2012 to develop a nationwide broadband network dedicated solely to public-safety. It is a noble effort, and one that is supported by industry and trade groups alike. It holds promise for day-to-day first responders…the police officer on patrol, the firefighter dragging a hose line, a paramedic evaluating a patient or the telecommunicator taking a 9-1-1 call for help. But, can we get there without being blown up, crushed, trapped or otherwise foiled in our pursuit? If we do, will we find the elusive prey has grown disproportionately and that we, too, ask, “You always wanted me to catch him. Now what do I do?”
We can meet the future challenge by beginning to take small, deliberate steps that can be supported by the two most important resources available to counties: personnel and limited budgets. Schuylkill County seized the opportunity to do this as a result of the Federal Communication Commission’s “narrowbanding mandate” that could have resulted in continued reliance on outdated low-band (30-50 MHz) radio frequencies and reduced efficiency of its primary VHF (150-174 MHz) resources. With a rural population and rather stagnant growth potential common throughout the United States for the past several years, the acquisition of a simulcast multi-site trunked radio network with a +50-million dollar price tag was simply out of the question.
The rather mountainous topography and previous experiences of Schuylkill County suggested a VHF solution would provide the best coverage with the smallest infrastructure investment particularly with respect to developing new tower sites and the attendant difficulties accompanying that process. However, traditional public-safety VHF frequencies have been difficult to acquire for many years and the promise of additional availability as a result of narrowbanding is yet to be realized.
The County contracted with Essential Management Solutions, LLC, a Pottsville-based emergency services consultant, to discuss a route forward. It was determined a VHF solution was possible through the purchase of radio channels available in spectrum traditionally assigned to common carriers. Once the province of telephone companies and paging networks, frequencies in this spectrum have fallen into some level of disuse with the advent of cellular telephone networks. While budget analysts may arch an incredulous eyebrow at the notion of paying for frequencies, there are a number of benefits that positively impact the balance sheet. The acquired channels are licensed on a geographic basis that extends well beyond the County’s borders, common and adjacent channel interference is almost non-existent and the difficulties of frequency coordination and individually licensing transmit sites is eliminated. The licensee can build as many sites as it needs and locate them where they want, often using available towers instead of constructing new ones.
The bridge to the future for Schuylkill County, however, was Essential Management’s recommendation to implement a Motorola Digital ASTRO P25 trunking platform to facilitate the staple of public-safety: two-way communications. Because the system is IP-based, there are multiple opportunities to leverage the capabilities of a future national or statewide broadband network both within Schuylkill County and other counties throughout Pennsylvania.
For example, the coverage area of the radio frequencies acquired by the County extend along the upper counties of the Commonwealth from Clinton County east to Monroe County, south along the Delaware River to Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, west above the Maryland state line as far as Adams County then back north through the all of the counties along the west bank of the Susquehanna River. In all, 30 Pennsylvania counties fall within this coverage “footprint,” and could use it to support their public-safety radio requirements. However, with broadband connectivity the potential exists to realize both cost savings and operational efficiencies by “sharing” or “regionalizing” the trunked radio network’s “core” in a geo-diverse architecture that could be located in any County to provide a level of system redundancy not currently available.
While these high-tech resources can be expensive, the potential of cost-sharing presents an opportunity for each county participating in the network to minimize its own investment. Additionally, because the radio system core operates “behind the scenes,” none of the participants need to change operational practices to conform with a common standard that must be accepted by all. Another key benefit, and a primary goal of FirstNet and communications planners in general over the past decade would be improved communications capabilities, interoperability with adjacent counties and state agencies (such as the Pennsylvania State Police), and providing for disaster recovery through shared redundant systems.
Essential Management Solutions also identified other potential cost savings in the project beyond just the radio system’s core. Historically, county public-safety radio systems have been engineered and implemented to provide coverage solely within that county’s boundaries. Coverage into an adjacent county was not normally a requirement that was given much consideration by emergency managers. Today, however, broadband capabilities such as microwave links or fiber optic connectivity can network counties together. Through the sharing of the radio system core, other infrastructure equipment can also be shared to reduce costs. As an example, instead of two counties having to develop separate towers and related infrastructure, the ability exists to share a single tower site, antennas, cabling, combiners, shelters, generators and other site specific equipment. This also opens the door to the formation of a wide area communications system that supports the over-arching goals of improved interoperability, disaster recovery capabilities and better emergency response capabilities.
The Schuylkill County system also supports low-speed data that is currently commonly used for mobile computers installed in police vehicles. In time, technology advancements suggest this could advance to greater throughput, equivalent to commercial wireless broadband today that facilitates the transmission of photos, video feeds or other communications that are data-intensive. In other words, the County has positioned itself to be ready to continue moving forward as the FirstNet efforts and technology in general continue to advance.
Schuylkill County, through its collaboration with both Motorola and Essential Management Solutions, has begun to take steps to plan, procure, implement and migrate onto shared communications platforms anchored on broadband networks that will provide opportunities to better manage both capital expenditures and operating costs during a time when virtually all public-safety organizations face stagnant or shrinking budgets. They key is opening the thought and planning process beyond traditional boundaries or historic considerations.
We can reach our goal, but it will take time, patience and, most of all, money. Indeed, it may be for the next generation of public-safety professionals, managers and their elected officials to realize the true promise of FirstNet. It is for us today to begin to transition to systems and equipment compatible with the vision, and to move away from the legacies of the past. It is universally recognized the Congressional action that created FirstNet did not include enough funding to fully-construct a nationwide public-safety broadband network, and the jump to public-safety broadband is far too big to be accomplished at a single bound lest we, like the Coyote, end up falling into the abyss. When we ultimately “catch” our Roadrunner, there will be no need to ask, “Now what do I do?”
Craig Breneiser and Brian Jones
Essential Management Solutions (EMS) is a Government and Public Safety Consultancy working with State, County and local agencies.