FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
Cellular phones have become one of the most common communication devices available because they offer mobile communications at a reasonable cost and, in most urban areas, have great coverage. As consumer demand for cellular has grown, the coverage and capability have increased, and this has presented some interesting opportunities for law enforcement that go well beyond the standard voice use.
Due to significant technological enhancements, cellular can also now function very effectively as a wireless computer network. This means you can speed up the data transfer in your mobile units, add a redundancy layer of infrastructure and increase mobility for assignments, such as detectives who need full-inquiry capability while in the field.
Let’s take a look at the major changes.
Faster & Faster
A few years ago, most agencies were using CDPD (cellular digital packet data) to send and receive data such as dispatched calls or inquiries. CDPD worked relatively well, but it topped out at 19.2 kilobits per second (kbps), making it painfully slow for anything other than short strings of data. CDPD is no longer supported, and many departments were left without a good solution when it was phased out about a year ago. However, the newest iteration of digital cellular communications, usually referred to as 3G, can provide speeds that open up new possibilities for agencies that CDPD never could have supported, such as digital-photo transfers, file updates and, with some limitations, video streaming.
The evolution of broadband data capability in cellular has occurred quickly, and it all benefits the user. Just a couple of years ago, 50–70kbps of data were the best you could expect. To give you a comparison, standard dialup services can provide an absolute maximum of 56 kbps. In early 2004, Verizon and Sprint began rolling out EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) capability, and the speeds shot up to about 200-400kbps (they advertise more, but these are the realistic speeds). And just a couple of months ago, Sprint jumped ahead of the rest of the pack by offering EVDO Rev A in 24 major markets with plans to make it available in more than 200 urban areas across the country.
EVDO Rev A provides downloads at real world speeds of 400–700kbps. And, perhaps more importantly, Rev A now offers upload speeds of approximately 400kbps. This blows the doors off the upload speeds of earlier generations of wireless data, which hovered around 50kbps. This means officers can send in photo or biometric data, and it makes video streaming from the field a possibility. No, it won’t be broadcast quality, but it will provide you with live information from the scene. Think of the advantage it would provide a scene manager during major incidents or disasters.
The price for this broadband data pipe runs $50–$70 per month per device for unlimited data. For some, this may seem on the high side, but remember, you gain a ride on a multi-billion dollar network that continues to improve as technology allows. And it gives you wireless capability anywhere there is a cell signal. You simply place a card in a laptop or use a standalone modem, and you’re up and running. As long as you can hit the cell tower, you’re in business, and remember, cellular companies have been pretty effective at projecting where the crowds will be and getting service into those areas. For instance, many areas that remain virtually impenetrable to radio signals, such as mass transit and indoor shopping malls, get effective cell signals because cell companies want to please their customers. This means you will likely find data-transfer ability in these areas.
All the major carriers have their version of data capability, but some work much better than others. Regardless of the carrier, though, you must consider one absolute: coverage. In fact, if you were to ask me the five most important things to think about, my reply would be simple:
4. Capability; and
5. Customer service.
Why do I place such an emphasis on coverage? Because without it, everything else is pointless. If you are considering cellular for data transmission for your department, do your homework and check out the coverage for your area of responsibility. No carrier will offer 100 percent, but there will probably be a clear winner, and unless that carrier really lacks capability or basic customer service, they should probably be your carrier of choice.
As for capability, give strong consideration to the CDMA (code division multiple access) technology used primarily by Sprint and Verizon; it offers clear advantages in terms of speed and continual network upgrades. I will admit a certain bias when it comes to cell technology for data. Coverage remains the most important consideration, but carriers that use CDMA are far and away the better choice for public safety because the technology offers better broadband speeds. I could include other vendors, but it would be akin to trying to convince officers that revolvers make a viable alternative to semi-automatics for patrol operations.
Customer service speaks for itself. Ask around and see if there is a government rep for your preferred carrier. If so, they probably will go to great lengths to win your service. I have found that cellular representatives like government agencies because they know a few units can turn into many units once the capabilities are realized.
If you intend to use cellular for secure communications or sending sensitive DOJ information (such as mobile computers in patrol cars), you must look into using a product that will provide mobile VPN (virtual private network), a static IP (Internet Protocol) address, 128-bit encryption and session persistence. The best way to meet these needs is by using software like that provided by NetMotion. This company has made cellular broadband a valuable tool for law enforcement.
Of the capabilities just mentioned, one worth particular note is session persistence. You probably won’t get 100-percent cellular coverage in your area, but this feature allows the user to roam in and out of cellular coverage without continually logging back into the network. It also permits agencies to use two complimentary technologies, such as 802.11 and cellular, and roam back and forth between them with the software taking advantage of the one providing the best and fastest capability.
I started using a Verizon EVDO card almost three years ago and found it incredibly useful. No matter where I am, I’ve got instant connectivity to the Internet. It has made me so much more productive and allowed me to make use of time that otherwise would have been wasted (e.g., airport layovers). Yes, I know many of these areas have WiFi hotspots, but these require a login, often incur a fee and remain subject to security compromise by unscrupulous hackers floating a false network. I used this technology while traveling cross-country in a truck carrying Katrina relief supplies. Even at freeway speeds, I had full Web access across most of the country.
For the past three months, I’ve been trying out the Sprint EVDO Rev A network using a card that slips into my laptop. I really liked the Verizon EVDO card, but the Sprint EVDO Rev A is the best yet, hands down. The speeds are noticeably faster, especially when I’m uploading photos for Law Officer.
I see huge potential for law enforcement operations in the Rev A technology. With this level of speed, you’re limited only by your imagination in terms of expanding operational capability. For instance, you could set up remote monitoring sensors (video, GPS initiated, etc.) and use the EVDO Rev A system to send/receive large amounts of live information between any two points regardless of location.
Taking the Plunge
Some have expressed concern about relying on a network maintained by a private vendor, and cellular wireless is not for every operation. I like to think of it as good for vital mission operations, but not mission critical operations. Here’s the difference: Voice communications for public safety belong on radio systems designed and hardened for public safety needs because they are the critical link when all else fails. Data communications, on the other hand, are vital to the day-to-day operation of a department, but generally lack the criticality of radio. The networks that carry data can accomplish major things and are built to provide maximum reliability for consumers. This may or may not provide enough dependability for public safety, however. As time goes on, cellular networks will grow even more robust and will hopefully work out the prioritization of public safety transmissions. In the interim, though, a cellular outage simply means an agency must go back to data inquiry and provision the old fashioned way—radio.
If you’re interested in following up, check the Resources sidebar on this page. Also check with the carriers in your area, making sure you ask about government contracts and the possibility of joining with other entities (like a school district) for improved pricing. Some agencies get vendors to offer a discount pricing plan for employees and family members. Here’s a hint for getting the best deal: Competition has driven rates down significantly, and most vendors will hold pretty firm to established or contracted rates. However, they do have latitude in the hardware markup, and that’s where you can easily negotiate a good deal for your agency. Take a look at the hardware that’s most relevant to your particular use and see if you can’t get the cell vendor to offer it for free (or maybe with a credit or rebate on your bill). You might be surprised at what they’ll do to get you started.
About CDMA Technology
Modems for the Car
Bluetree Wireless Data—www.bluetreewireless.com
For the Laptop
Dale Stockton is the editor of Law Officer.