Broadband and 700 MHz For the Fire Service

May 1, 2006

Several definitions on the Internet state that broadband can best be described as, “From the words ‘broad bandwidth’ and is used to describe a high-capacity, two-way link between an end user and access network suppliers capable of supporting full-motion, interactive video and other high speed data applications.†In this context, it refers to broadband over the Internet.

What does it offer the fire service? Broadband over the Internet means a great deal to the fire service and public safety. If you already know the power of the Internet, then you already have a general grasp of what broadband offers the fire service and public safety. For those who do not fully understand broadband, it means the ability for fire and EMS responders to use high-speed data to better perform their jobs through the use of geographic information system (GIS) mapping, geo-positioning system (GPS) location applications, real-time video streaming, radio frequency identification (RFID) programs and much more.

Every report that has followed the catastrophic events of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other disasters has identified the need for new, better and resilient radio communications that have higher levels of efficiency for voice/data, operability and interoperability. A need for better situational awareness is needed for unified commanders, emergency managers, and elected or appointed officials to possess the necessary information available to make better-informed decisions. This is especially true when dealing with terrorist events.

The future of broadband for public safety may very well be impacted greatly depending on the use of the “to be released†700 MHz radio spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has stated that it will examine the use of some of the 24 MHz bandwidth earmarked for possible use of broadband.

In an interview, Morgan O’Brien, former vice chair and co-founder of Nextel, said a big gap for public safety to overcome is the price of new and evolving wireless infrastructure and equipment. O’Brien identified economies of scale as the biggest impediment to this process, as manufacturers are limited on the present course to develop this communications equipment due to the smaller volume of customized users as opposed to that of the general commercial wireless services.

Imagine broadband directly to your wireless public safety radio that lets you see satellite imagery, real-time video or even live TV on equipment designed to meet the ruggedized specifications of public safety at an affordable cost. That is where a new FCC filing has been submitted that suggests that the entire 700 MHz radio spectrum (beyond the 24 MHz earmarked for public safety) be re-examined to fully explore how it may be better used to maximize the spectrum through the use of present and future technology. Today, we think of radio spectrum in blocks or frequencies, but today’s technology can do more if not bound by the frequency binding of the past.

This new FCC filing proposal may not even affect the new 24 MHz of spectrum to be released to public safety except that it requires a different way to reassign the entire 700 MHz spectrum block. This means that before the 700 MHz frequencies are released for use, they must be aligned close enough that public safety can gain the benefit of commercially designed equipment on the public safety systems.

The District of Columbia’s Wireless Accelerated Responder Network (WARN) is demonstrating a limited version of this idea by providing high-speed voice and data over the 700 MHz spectrum. During the last presidential inauguration, WARN sent real-time video images from a U.S. Park Police helicopter directly to units on the ground. The value of such technology and the use of spectrum is that it provides a real-time view that is invaluable to address situational awareness rapidly. That is not all; the system will also provide GIS mapping and building floor plans and more to units in the field.

There is much debate that must follow this proposal and that is included in the FCC filing. The fire service must be actively engaged in this new discussion to fully explore opportunities and needs. A balance between the new functionality and the needs of public safety must be fully addressed to ensure the robust nature, reliability, redundancy, ruthless priority preemption, and quality of voice and data. At this juncture of technology and the way voice and data are transmitted wirelessly, it is in the fire service’s best interest to explore every technology in a way that it affords new opportunities and prevents it from being blocked by practices and technology of the past.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and is fire chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner serves on a number of local, state and federal interoperability working groups, and is technology chair for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the Commonwealth of Virginia First Responder Executive Committee. In addition, he serves on the SAFECOM Executive Committee and Advisory Group.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!