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In January, Mississippi began implementing the country's first statewide public-safety network based on Long-Term Evolution (LTE), the next generation of wireless broadband technology.
The state's solution, which is being funded by a $70 million grant from the Department of Commerce's Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP), will vastly increase the data rates currently available to public-safety agencies and will enable real-time and near-real-time interoperability between city, county and state emergency personnel.
"It will be a network that is very leading edge," says Craig Orgeron, state CIO and executive director of the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services. "The sky's the limit in terms of what we will be able to do with it, but the bottom line is that, for the first time, in the field, our first responders will have access to vital information that will make them much more effective at their jobs — whether that's saving lives or protecting property or managing a natural disaster."
Mississippi is one of seven state and local governments that were granted BTOP funds and are proceeding with LTE implementations. The others are Adams County, Colo.; Charlotte, N.C.; Los Angeles; New Jersey; New Mexico; and the San Francisco Bay area. All BTOP-funded networks are required to be in place by fall 2013.
The BTOP grants are critical for jumpstarting implementations by individual recipients and for laying the foundation for interoperable regional public-safety networks and, ultimately, a national public-safety network, according to Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst for Yankee Group Research.
"We're now going to have some governments that are getting experience with these networks, along with the opportunity to learn some lessons and pass along best practices," Rehbehn says. "Hopefully these implementations will stimulate the ecosystem of new devices and applications that can really take advantage of the power of an LTE network."
Several BTOP recipients have been able to make the most of the funding and move quickly because they can leverage existing infrastructure. Mississippi, for example, which endured the disastrous consequences of not being able to communicate across jurisdictional lines during Hurricane Katrina, is currently deploying a $162 million, statewide Land Mobile Radio (LMR) system. The Mississippi Wireless Information Network (MSWIN) enables state, local and federal agencies to talk to each other via their traditional push-to-talk radio handsets. MSWIN has already been used effectively by multi-jurisdictional agencies during the BP oil spill, the Mississippi River flooding and several tornadoes, Orgeron notes.
$382.3 million Total grants awarded by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to build wireless public-safety networks based on Long-Term Evolution technology
SOURCE: The Department of Commerce
Built by Motorola Solutions, the MSWIN implementation is two-thirds complete and will be fully operational by fall. "Our LTE installation will follow that model, and because we now have an existing tower infrastructure, we will have to install LTE equipment on those towers," says Orgeron. "That's not easy and requires expertise, but having that in place — or at a minimum, a work in progress — has been a tremendous advantage in terms of being able to plan a quick and cost-effective rollout of LTE."
Adams County, Colo., which received a $12 million BTOP grant and will begin implementing its LTE network in March, has access to a statewide LMR and will also be able to build on some of its existing towers. The county, which covers 900 square miles and is made up of both rural and urban populations, will also install LTE equipment atop city and fire department buildings in order to ensure the best possible coverage, according to Scott Newman, IT director for the Adams County Communications Center.
Obtaining upfront support was one of the greatest challenges Adams County faced in the LTE rollout. "The police chiefs and the fire chiefs that we serve recognized the benefits of this network immediately, but they have their own city managers and fire boards that they have to report back to that didn't understand what this was going to do for them," Newman explains. "We thought everyone would automatically understand the benefits, but we have had to take a step back and educate more people than we normally would and really explain it in detail."
For those on the front lines, the benefits of an LTE network are obvious, providing a quantum leap in data access, field reporting capabilities and situational awareness, and bringing public-safety agencies fully into the 21st century, according to Susy Orellana-Curtiss, a member of the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) project team.
Los Angeles received a $154.6 million BTOP grant to add an LTE mobile data network called LA-SafetyNet to LA-RICS, a push-to-talk radio network that is connecting 50 law enforcement and 31 fire service agencies that serve more than 10 million city residents.
"Surprisingly, today's teenagers have better access to applications and data from their smartphones than our first responders have from their in-house mobile data systems," Orellana-Curtiss says. "LA-SafetyNet will immediately improve the speed of access to traditional public-safety wireless data, such as law enforcement queries, dispatch messaging and unit-to-unit communications. The bottom line for this investment is improved public safety and enhanced protection of lives and property."