Let's say your police department is handling a major incident that could turn terribly dangerous at any moment and threaten human lives. Maybe it's a hostage situation as part of an attempted bank robbery, a riot erupting out of a public demonstration or a bomb threat in an office building. Although two-way radio communication allows your cops to share details as they unfold, live, on-scene images of streaming video sent back and forth would make a huge difference in your department's ability to strategize and then quickly deploy just the right resources to defuse potentially volatile scenarios. Does this sound familiar?
Although in the early stages of deployment within some municipalities, worldwide interoperability for microwave access (WiMAX) is a promising standards initiative. WiMAX systems can enable citywide public safety entities to wirelessly communicate with one another. This takes place not just through radio communications, but with live video, photographs or other images in a mobile mode. This article explores how WiMAX and other alternative mobile wireless data transfer alternatives can benefit a municipality's public safety infrastructure.
Ideal for Law Enforcement?
Currently popular, WiFi wireless technology is now widely used by consumers in home networks, mobile phones, video games and more, and it offers public access in various hotspots such as hotels, restaurants and airports. Some municipalities have tried to use it for citywide, public safety applications, but with mixed results.
WiFi has built-in limitations, especially for public safety. For one, it's not completely secure because it operates on unlicensed frequencies. With unlimited amounts of users able to pile onto WiFi, a system can suffer tremendous interference and weakening signals. And if you move out of your hotspot, you lose your Internet connection.
WiMAX, on the other hand, is secure, limits the number of users and operates at a powerful and geographically far-reaching frequency (2.5 Ghz). This makes the possibilities for WiMAX in public safety applications truly exciting. WiMAX's high-speed data transfer capability can offer improved public safety scheduling and dispatch, and more efficient transaction execution and documentation. WiMAX can also allow immediate access to databases by operatives in the field, which might mean, for example, that police officers could instantly access criminal records during a standoff in a hostage situation.
Mobile WiMAX devices can allow squad cars and fire trucks to receive and transmit streaming video directly from the scene of an incident, and from different vantage points at scene locations. That could help surveillance operations, and even in high-speed pursuits. And WiMAX networks could link traffic cameras citywide to help route traffic around problem areas.
The Grand Rapids Implementation
As a member of the City of Grand Rapids, Mich., Wireless Team, Police Communications Bureau Manager Ralph Gould realized early on how effective WiMAX could be for his city. In 2007, Grand Rapids invited public safety and other officials in surrounding jurisdictions to join forces to contract for installation of a region-wide wireless mobile network.
Prior to considering WiMAX, the Grand Rapids police and fire departments had been using an 800-mhz data system since 1986 for text messaging between headquarters and mobile units.The problem:The system had inadequate bandwidth to allow for streaming video, still pictures or building diagrams.
"Police, fire and other city departments have the need for this," Gould says. "Many of the critical incidents that occur have information that's available visually from the scene that responding police officers or firefighters could benefit from." For this reason, Gould feels WiMAX could lend a tremendous advantage.
Example:If police faced a barricaded gunman at a house, the ability to transmit the views of the building in which the suspect had barricaded himself to various officials and
decision-makers could prove helpful. "If we were to try to get a search warrant to go into a house where there is a barricaded gunman, we could transmit live video, or even still photos, of the building," Gould says. "This would help the decision-makers grant the search warrant for us to enter the building."
In addition, Gould noted that WiMAX could enable a police or fire chief to have visual contact simultaneously with multiple incidents in different sections of the city.
Grand Rapids is 45 square miles in size, flat, with gently rolling terrain. So, WiMAX signals can travel without difficulty over just 20 transmitter-receiver locations, compared to 1,000 locations that would be needed for a WiFi system.
After extensive testing of several systems on the East Coast by Gould, consultant Excelsio, and Project Manager Sally Wesorick to experience the differences between WiMAX and WiFi first hand, Grand Rapids decided the very strong signal coverage of WiMAX was an excellent fit for its public safety needs. It also chose Clearwire Corporation (www.clearwire.com) to build the project.
Clearwire is a wireless broadband Internet service provider serving both U.S. and international markets. The firm uses Motorola's Expedience (www.motorola.com/expedience) wireless technology, called Pre-WiMAX, which is transmitted from cell sites over a licensed spectrum of 2.5 2.6 GHz in the United States and 3.5 GHz in Europe.
Clearwire and Sprint Nextel's (www.sprint.com) wireless broadband unit XOHM announced their intent to merge in May. This merger will allow Sprint to combine its 4G WiMAX network (XOHM) with Clearwire's Pre-WiMAX broadband network. (At press time, the FCC and U.S. Department of Justice approval was pending, with the FCC scheduled to vote on the merger Nov. 4.)
"In our trial network, we're seeing 5 6 megabits per second from the Internet to the user, averaging 2 3 megabits per second of data from the user to the Internet," says Barry Davis, executive director of product planning and services for Clearwire.
Clearwire will offer up to 200 MHz of spectrum for its WiMAX offering, this means many people can be on the broadband network in Grand Rapids and surrounding areas at the same time. "It all comes back to depth of spectrum, which allows a number of users, capacity and throughput," Davis says.
John Polivka, spokesman for Sprint-Nextel, says the whole WiMAX movement is a capacity story. "When you start moving video, audio and real-time communications over mobile networks, they need to support the traffic volumes and multitude of users who will tap into it," he says. If appropriate public safety, first responder and municipal organizations have a common (broadband wireless data-transfer) feed, the chances of sharing data in real time increase, with less opportunity for lost or misinterpreted data, he contends.
Example:An ambulance en route to an accident scene and armed with video capability can provide footage of the incident scene and victim status, which doctors at a hospital can view remotely. Consequently, the medical staff can start planning triage, if needed, before the victim even shows up at the hospital.
Likewise, in other scenarios, fire, ambulance and police can assess a scene and determine, then relay via WiMAX what resources they need.
The real upshot of WiMAX for public safety is that it will allow true interoperability to occur, emphasizes Clearwire's Davis. "Because WiMAX puts you onto the Internet, you can have access to another network in another city in any way."
According to Richard Mirgon, first president elect of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, the public safety sector has been observing WiMAX since discussion about it arose because one of the potential, pivotal benefits is usage in a mobile environment. Example: Mirgon feels WiMAX could be a good solution for meeting the IEEE mobile, wireless, broadband standard (802.16m) for maintaining data rates as a police cruiser travels at 50 60 mph down the road.
"What public safety needs is cost-effective, interoperable broadband," Mirgon says. "When you look at the applications it's trying to run in the field (e.g., fingerprints, data, photographs, live video, etc.), from mobile command posts to a patrol car, fire truck or ambulance, this requires a lot of bandwidth, and it's got to occur while you're moving."
Sprint launched WiMAX service in Baltimore in September, and plans to launch service in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before the end of the year.
Making WiMAX Affordable
WiMAX certainly has its proponents and offers attractive benefits and efficiencies in a public safety setting, but cost remains an obstacle. In fact, Grand Rapids felt it could incorporate WiMAX only if there was a way to spread out the cost.
"We didn't want to own the system," says Gould, "but wanted to work with a commercial entity to install the system in this entire region. We invited all the other cities in this region to come in and participate in the discussions with us because we want this to work for everyone in this part of the state, not just Grand Rapids."
What kind of deal did Grand Rapids hammer out? Gould says the city offered its existing 14 radio receiver-transmitter sites in exchange for WiMAX service. "We would assist them in getting the permits and zoning approvals to install antennas on these city-owned sites in exchange for service on the system when the switch turned on for WiMAX," he says. "We contracted with Clearwire to provide the system while we provide antenna sites. We will exchange credits for every valuable radio receiver-transmitter site they're able to use."
This arrangement was necessary for Grand Rapids, and no doubt similar arrangements will need to be forged between other municipalities and their WiMAX vendors because no federal matching funds appear to be available.
Presently, APCO's Mirgon estimates that only 25 30 percent of America's public safety entities within cities can afford a WiMAX or similar solution. But he also feels that if a standard technology can be established, this can drive down the price tag. "The lower the price goes, the more public safety agencies will join onto it," he says. "If we can do this right, and you can deploy the first responder resources more effectively, you can potentially reduce the number of resources you need. So, in the long term, there could be cost savings and a data transfer system that's not so costly."
Bob Galvin is a freelance writer based in Oregon City, Ore. He writes on topics related to trends and issues concerning how technology can aid law enforcement. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE NEXT GENERATION
APCO has conducted its own tests of WiMAX for public safety applications, and Mirgon says it has generally gone well. However, Mirgon is taking a wait-and-see attitude with the WiMAX standard, and he says APCO supports other standards. "It would appear to us that LTE (Long-Term Evolution) is going to be the overarching technology across the country," he says.
LTE is an emerging fourth-generation (4G) cellular standard that many mobile wireless data transfer experts feel will surpass WiMAX for public safety applications. 4G promises higher data rates and expanded multimedia services. WiMAX is categorized as 3G (third generation) wireless technology. Stay tuned.