Bobbies need broadband-enabled gear, insist 4G LTE fans

Streaming video doesn't put out fires, say opponents

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Critical Communications World While consumers have access to 4G networks, emergency services are still stuck with 2G - and it's going to take more than rebranding their annual conference to bring LTE to the uniformed masses.

The conference used to be called TETRA World, but in an attempt to imitate its consumer equivalent (which successfully flipped from "3GSM" to "Mobile World Congress") TETRA World has rebranded itself as "Critical Communications World".

TETRA is still the main focus. It is already providing voice communications to everyone from traffic wardens to military police. The future, however, is high-speed mobile broadband standard LTE, the preferred 4G technology around the world. There's much talk of migration paths, extending the existing LTE standard and, most importantly, lobbying governments for free radio spectrum.

The Americans have already given 20MHz of spectrum at around 700MHz to nationwide emergency services comms provider FirstNet, along with a $2bn in subsidy towards the $7bn FirstNet promises to spend on a national LTE network for use by the US First Responder community (police, ambulance, fire and so forth).

Earlier this week the UAE also promised its emergency services some gratis spectrum at 700MHz. It has become an article of faith that other governments will follow suit, but, just to be sure, the industry is lobbying the EU hard to standardise a single band for LTE use - before Ofcom has has the chance to flog it all off.

Ofcom isn't big on allocated spectrum. The UK regulator's remit is to fill the airwaves with as many signals as possible, not hand over significant chunks of radio spectrum to be left empty in case of an emergency which may never happen.

Blighty already has a 14MHz block allocated to TETRA, given to Airwave, from which emergency services lease voice connectivity, but the industry is asking for at at least another 20MHz to realise its dream of multimedia-equipped rescue workers and telemedicine delivered to a moving ambulance, so it is working hard to justify that request.

Helping that effort was Todd Early from the Texas Department of Public Safety, who got an FCC licence and put his workers onto an LTE network. His demonstration scenarios included a cinema shooting, where CCTV from inside the building was streamed to the control room. Hostages texted photographs of the perpetrator while floorplans were sent directly to officers planning an assault.

Impressive stuff, though one has to ask: couldn't the same thing be done over a (suitably-encrypted) commercial network?

Early was adamant that the answer is no. He pointed out that when you're relocating three million people within 36 hours (as Texas has had to do in the past thanks to natural disasters) commercial networks are quickly overwhelmed as everyone tells everyone else what's happening. Thus the security forces need a dedicated network, and dedicated spectrum, to keep them organised. But he also admitted that his patrols roam onto the commercial Verizon network when outside the reach of his current deployment.

Not that new spectrum is necessarily needed. Cassidian has been busy squeezing LTE into the existing TETRA bands for the German army. They've supplied a number of fixed and vehicle mounted base stations which can flick between LTE and TETRA at the flip of a switch, providing broadband data or backwards compatible voice as needed, though not at the same time.

Which is a shame, as the importance of uninterrupted voice will prevent refarming of TETRA spectrum in most markets, so new spectrum will be required to provide broadband data alongside existing voice services.

The arguments are backed by claims that every pound spent on public safety will be repaid five times over, that every murder results in 70 people leaving a city, and that one can't put a price on public safety. All this in the hope that governments will hand over the spectrum and let the industry flog kit (at great expense, naturally) to those for whom the spectrum has been set aside.

The problem, for the industry, is that there isn't yet much evidence that rolling out broadband to foot-mounted plod will reduce crime, or that a firefighter able to stream video from his phone will be able to put out fires faster, or even that the surgeon sitting in the hospital will be able to diagnose the passenger in the ambulance.

With that in mind, it looks very much like the industry is seizing on any evidence it can to justify itself. ®

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