Utility of mobile broadband technology for LE

Capt. Eddie Reyes
It’s hard to believe it has almost been two years since I last contributed an article to PoliceOne. In June 2007, our agency made a huge leap to a new style of policing, which we called Strategic Response System (SRS). It is a modified version of CompStat, taking the best models out there and coming up with our own “homegrown” version that made some very big changes for our organization. We took a time management concept we had been practicing for many years and transitioned to a geographic management model which created three patrol sectors with lots of emphasis on human communication at all levels of our agency and accountability for crime, quality of life and follow-up. I had been managing a small community within one of these sectors, traditionally known for a high crime rate and lots of quality of life issues, and was appointed as one of three sector commanders.

Since then, I am very pleased to report that our new direction and implementation has been a huge success and I am able to devote time and attention to a part of my career that is very important to me – data sharing, voice and data communications and interoperability issues. I can tell you that I am in a better position now to provide a regular column to PoliceOne.com after having completed a three year tour as our emergency communications section commander and another three year assignment as a fellow to the United States Department of Justice – National Institute of Justice focusing exclusively on data-sharing, communications and interoperability issues. Since that time, I have been back out in field operations – a sector commander applying the knowledge and standards I came to learn in my previous two assignments.

So Who Needs Mobile Broadband Technology Anyway?
We are fast approaching the eighth anniversary of the most terrible attack on our nation’s soil, September 11th. What shocks me is the lack of data sharing, voice and data communication, and interoperability that still exists within and across agency boundaries and disciplines. I continue to witness limited communication based on narrowband, proprietary networks (also known as “stovepipes”), limited access to criminal records or law enforcement databases. Too often I still see agencies that rely on office resources to obtain time sensitive information that is needed out in the field by law enforcement personnel working on critical incidents. Information such as:

• Automatic vehicle locator
• Vehicle-to-vehicle data communication (more secure than voice)
• Call history to a particular address and emergency contact information after hours
• Suspect information and criminal history
• Biometric, photo and video data to and from the incident
• Mapping data
• Police reports that accompany any critical incident

There has never been a more critical need for secure, standards-based networks to facilitate data sharing, communications, and interoperability across all levels of an organization or between different disciplines.

If you are an agency leader or IT professional, I am sure some questions that come to mind are:

1) Do I really need mobile broadband connectivity for my agency?
2) How will I pay for it?
3) What is the best solution out there?

Like it or not, we have transitioned from a reactive method of policing to an information-led model where keeping up with criminal element is simply not sufficient. Law enforcement personnel (and the public) demand that first responders stay ahead by having good communication and access to critical information all of the time.

Today’s liability standards no longer support the “I can’t afford it” defense. I know that it is harder than ever to swallow the cost “pill” these days, given the serious assault most public safety budgets have suffered in these tough economic times. But if you do not have mobile broadband connectivity for your agency yet, where were you when financial times were much better and grants were falling out of the sky? PoliceOne maintains current information on grants that have routinely been available to law enforcement, most of them intended to enhance public safety communications.

In Fiscal Year 2007, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration,
NTIA, an agency within the United States Department of Commerce (DOC), along with the United States Department of Homeland Security – Office of Grants and Training (G&T) were charged with the development of domestic and international telecommunications and information policy for the Executive Branch. This charge was intended to ensure efficient and effective use of spectrum by local public safety agencies. NTIA was given authority to expend $1 billion in grants (known as PSIC Grants) to public safety agencies to improve communications.

I was part of this very comprehensive effort that included a statewide planning approach in which each state was required to implement a “Statewide Plan” that was used as part of the grant application process. If you or your Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) missed out on this opportunity, there are still lots of grant opportunities out there.

NTIA just released two important documents related to PSIC grants. One contains a report from the DOC Inspector General noting concerns relative to the ability of grantees to comply with the funding deadline requirements of the PSIC program. Currently the states/grantees are required to expend (not encumber) all PSIC funds no later than September 30, 2010. The second document contains information related to the audit of certain PSIC grants.

Applications and Challenges
Only a formal needs assessment will determine the best mobile broadband application for your organization. There is no “silver bullet” solution that will work for all environments all of the time. Most times, multiple solutions are needed to cover the vast areas and topography we work in under the most challenging conditions.

Some of the most common applications being used by public safety agencies today include:

• Mesh networks using integrated 802.11b/g, commonly known as “hotspots”
• 4.9GHz
• Third-party cellular providers, such as AT&T, Sprint-Nextel and Verizon

They all have their advantages and while they all provide the broadband connectivity that is necessary to transport the critical data sets I mentioned earlier, they operate differently.

Typically, mesh networks cover small areas, for example, one node may only cover up to a city block, providing there are no obstructions, such as trees or buildings. These types of applications typically require a node on every city block, again, depending on obstruction. 4.9 GHz networks typically provide up to one kilometer (approximately 6/10 of a mile) in outdoor coverage. Both of these applications are best for indoor use. Depending on the size of your coverage area, this may or may not be your best choice. While small jurisdictions deploy these two solutions regularly because they are more cost effective than paying a monthly service fee per device to a third party cellular provider, it is very easy to outrun the coverage footprint. This is especially important if your personnel routinely conduct business outside of the jurisdiction (investigations / mutual aid) or during vehicle pursuits.

Third party cellular providers offer a great option because they typically provide very robust broadband coverage throughout the United States. These companies are constantly improving their coverage, because after all, coverage means revenue. And while these networks are extremely reliable for mission critical communications, one downfall is a monthly service fee per device. Typically, that fee is around $60 per month. So if an agency has a fleet of 300 mobile devices (laptops, PDA’s, biometric readers, etc), they can expect to pay as much as $216,000 for broadband connectivity annually (300 devices x $60 per month x 12 months). Another downfall of this option is lack of indoor coverage. Sometimes a bi-directional amplifier is needed indoors (especially in hospitals and detention centers) to amplify the third party cellular providers’ signal.

So as you can see, each has its pros and cons and this is why it is sometimes necessary to use a combination of solutions. While there can be significant challenges in achieving continuous access or seamless mobility as vehicles and users move or roam across multiple wireless networks or technologies, devices exist that allow seamless transition between all three solutions, invisible to the user.

First responders and public safety cannot afford to be disconnected anytime critical information is needed in a “dead zone”, an area historically known for having no broadband coverage or connectivity. Can you imagine having to re-authenticate or re-connect while an officer is using a critical application such as using a digital map, viewing a criminal history or a mug shot?

Security is an obvious concern to ensure that the same level of security used to guard confidential data and resources is just as secure over a wireless network as it is with a wired connection.

Always avoid proprietary networks because they can be difficult to add new applications and are usually inflexible. Standards based IP networks are, by their nature, designed to allow networks to connect to other networks. This also touches on the need for investment protection and not having to rip out entire infrastructure or applications over a short period of time.

I know that I covered lots of information here, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In my following articles, I will cover more detailed information such as critical data sets that are necessary in real time during large events. Whether preplanned, such as festivals or sporting events or disasters, the utility of mobile broadband technology for law enforcement is more important than ever. Transmission of biometric data to and from crime scenes is a must today. License plate recognition technology and solutions are quickly becoming a very important part of every law enforcement agency’s arsenal. From detecting wanted persons associated with license plates, stolen vehicles to parking enforcement, these systems are quickly becoming a “must have” solution in these financial times where we all constantly have to do more with less.

It is during these dire situations that technology can fill the gap of missing personnel.

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