Emergency Call: Broadband for Public Safety: Ian MacLeod, The Ottawa Citizen Feature Article
January 22, 2011

Emergency call 

When a slice of premium broadband becomes available next year, Canada's first responders hope to finally get their fair share, Ian MacLeod writes.; In an age when even children carry smartphones and iPads, Canada's police, fire and ambulance services operate largely in digital darkness during emergencies, unable to access the high-speed data and video networks most people take for granted.

 

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Police want access to surveillance networks capabel of identifying known criminals through video analytics, autmoated licence plate recognition and biometric mobile fingerprints and iris identification. Having a bigger slice of the 700 Mhz high-speed data networks will make that possbile.

Photograph by: Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — That's why the country's three primary emergency service associations are mobilizing to grab a bigger slice of the prized 700 megahertz broadband airwaves that Industry Canada is to auction in late 2012.

The so-called "digital dividend" of very high quality radio spectrum, the airwaves on which wireless devices communicate, will be freed up by the Aug. 30 switch to digital television from analog signals.

The stakes are high. The telecommunication industry's lifeblood -- spectrum -- is a limited natural resource and the 700 MHz band is particularly precious because of its ability to travel extended distances and penetrate buildings and other obstacles. Carriers, already struggling to manage the explosive popularity of bandwidth-intensive mobile broadband devices and applications, salivate over the prospect of licensing the "beach front" 700 MHz band.

The wireless industry delivered an estimated $39 billion in economic benefits in 2008, including nearly 300,000 jobs, and big carriers, such as Rogers, Telus and Bell, present "a significant hurdle," to the cash-strapped public safety groups, says John Reid, president of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA), which recently launched a "Broadband for Public Safety" advocacy campaign. "The major incumbents spend a lot of resources and are much better funded than the first responder community," he notes.

George Krausz, vice-president of government and commercial markets division with Motorola, North America's biggest supplier of emergency communications equipment, says government and Canadians are at an important juncture in the development of the country's critical infrastructure.

"Spectrum is a precious resources ... Once it's auctioned for commercial use, it's gone forever.

"First responders must have access to broadband technologies that will be out there in the very near future, but agencies will not be able to implement them if Industry Canada does not allocate the (20) MHz spectrum to them now."

For emergency services, securing a bigger chunk of 700 MHz broadband also presents an opportunity to overcome enormous interoperability problems with voice communications systems, known as Land Mobile Radio.

Many of those aging systems operate on different frequencies and are made by different manufacturers, some with proprietary technology, and are often not compatible. Police, fire and EMS agencies often can't talk with neighbouring services, the RCMP, coast guard or military, let alone with utility crews, aviation and transport officials or the commissionaires and security guards with responsibility for 25-storey office towers.

The consequence of not being able to exchange on-scene voice messages was never more evident than on Sept. 11, 2001. Helicopters circling the World Trade Center towers reported to incident commanders on the ground that the towers were close to collapse. Hundreds of New York City police officers received word to evacuate the buildings. Firefighters, on a different radio system, didn't -- 343 died.

Emergency service leaders want government to establish a national strategy to plan and build regional voice communications systems, with a national governance structure and common technology standards, that can one day be linked to form a national and transnational interoperable network.

In the meantime, while voice communication is expected to continue on existing LMR frequencies for the foreseeable future, expanding broadband data and video capabilities should ease some of the LMR interoperability headaches.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association says data traffic on wireless networks is expected to double every year through 2014, as more Canadians use more devices that consume more bandwidth.

If the volume of motor-vehicle traffic was expanding at the same rate, the association says Canada would need to expand the Trans-Canada Highway from four to 64 lanes by 2014.

A crucial question is how many lanes should be set aside for indispensable "mission critical" public safety traffic. Should they be dedicated lanes or mixed with commercial traffic that can be pre-empted -- kicked off -- when an emergency arises? What will it all cost and who will pay?

Public safety advocates say the costs of getting it wrong will be measured in lives lost.

Twenty four megahertz of 700 narrowband/wide-band is already dedicated to public safety and used for voice communications and low-speed data. The national police, fire and EMS chiefs' associations are expected to ask Industry Canada for an additional 20 MHz for broadband data. That would be a firehose compared to their current narrowband garden hose.

"If you don't grab it now, it's not like somebody is going to create (more)," says Michael Sullivan, division chief of communications with the Ottawa Fire Service and member of a new national tri-service committee on public safety broadband needs.

Firefighters want the on-scene ability to access building blueprints and monitor firefighters' vital signs and their GPS locations in burning buildings.

Or, have real-time video of a fire downloaded to them from bystanders or others so firefighters know "they have a basement fire or they know they have a third-storey fire, which requires different tactics, or they know they have people hanging out the widows," says Sullivan.

"There's all sorts of indications here that become valuable for us."

EMS want access to telemedicine, high-resolution video and patient records to reduce the time it takes to deliver medical services at the scene of car crashes and other emergencies.

And police want access to surveillance networks capable of identifying known criminals through video analytics, automated licence plate recognition and biometric mobile fingerprint and iris identification.

The auction's timing coincides with the dawning of high-performance, fourth generation (4G) Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless networks to handle the global tsunami of traffic generated by texting, online search, video, gaming, banking and voice communications.

The country's primary police, fire and emergency medical services associations believe the combination of a 4G LTE wireless network standard with the repurposing of the 700 MHz band presents an exceptional opportunity to begin building the next generation of emergency data and video communications and, ultimately, a dedicated nationwide mobile broadband public safety network.

The United States government, meanwhile, began auctioning blocks of its 700 MHz frequencies in 2008, raising almost $20 billion (U. S.). Debate continues over reallocating the remaining airwaves, including for expanded public safety frequencies.

Because Canada and the U.S. have a 2005 a cross-border frequency sharing arrangement for public safety systems in the 700 MHz band, Canada, it seems, will have to align its public safety 700 MHz frequencies with those of the U.S. if Canadians want lower equipment prices and the ability for vastly improved trans-national emergency communications.


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