Oregon’s Public Service Network: $100M Over Budget

Posted by Sam Churchill on

The Senate Commerce Committee will conduct a hearing Thursday regarding a nationwide broadband wireless network for public safety as part of a critical week in first responders’ efforts to persuade Congress to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety. “Public safety will be out in full force in D.C.,” said Dick Mirgon, immediate past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

Saying he is speaking for virtually all the the police chiefs, fire chiefs, sheriffs, and first responders, as well as governors, mayors and state legislators, Police Chief Robert Davis plans to tell a Senate Communications Subcommittee hearing audience that the D block of spectrum needs to be reallocated to public safety with sufficient funding to build and maintain the infrastructure.

But things aren’t going so well with some state-wide public service networks.

Oregon’s plan to build a statewide emergency radio network has soared $107 million over budget because of mismanagement, missed deadlines and hidden costs, reports the Oregonian today in a front page story by Brent Walth. An Oregon legislative panel Wednesday grilled officials in charge of building that system and even questioned whether the project should continue.

The new price tag is $592 million, according to the consultant that designed the project. That’s far beyond the $485 million cost that state officials were citing only a few months ago. Here’s an architectural primer (pdf).

Internal state audits and reports released to The Oregonian Tuesday under the state’s public records law show state officials also failed to include big-ticket items — such as a $10 million operations center needed to help run the radio network — in the cost estimates they gave to legislators.

Managers of the project — formally called the Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network — never included a contingency to guard against cost overruns, driving costs up by another $20 million.

“I think it’s imperative that the Legislature review this entire project,” said Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. “I can’t justify cutting essential services while we’re paying for radio towers in a project with an uncertain budget and timeline.”

The FCC allocates spectrum to state and local governments for public safety. Region 35 encompasses the entire state of Oregon. It has two Regional Planning Committees; one for the 800 MHz band, and a second for the 700 MHz band.

The OWIN project has four primary goals (pdf):

  • Infrastructure. Design and construct a reliable public safety radio system for Oregon’s emergency responders.
  • Narrowbanding. Comply with the Federal Communications Commission’s Dec. 31, 2012, deadline to transition state radios from wideband to narrowband on the radio spectrum.
  • Consolidation. Consolidate four existing independent state radio systems for more efficient management.
  • Interoperability. Create a network that all public safety radio users in Oregon can access to communicate with responders from other agencies and jurisdictions.

According to the Oregonian:

An outside audit released to The Oregonian provided a stinging critique of the project’s management under the previous director, Lindsay Ball, who retired in August. Ball did not respond to a request for an interview.

“Overall, the project’s progress has been alarmingly slow, and this appears to be in part because the project is organized in an inefficient and confusing manner,” says a Sept. 7 report written by Public Knowledge, the auditor hired by the state to investigate the project’s many problems.

While the transportation department has made progress in fixing deep problems, the report says, “There is still confusion around scope, schedule and budget, as well as around decision making responsibility.”

Five years ago, lawmakers approved the radio system, which is supposed be switched on by the end of 2012. That’s when the federal government is requiring public safety agencies to switch to new radio systems.

But the proposed network goes far beyond replacing old radios and the federal requirements. The network’s plan calls for about 300 radio towers — most located on hard-to-reach mountaintops — that will allow police, fire and public safety officials statewide to talk to each other, and keep talking if other communication systems fail.

Expensive, state-wide 700 MHz public safety networks have a checkered history.

New York Gov. David A. Paterson’s administration canceled the state of New York’s $2.1 billion contract to build a statewide wireless network for emergency workers after years of delays and numerous technological snags, reports the NY Times.

Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, the state’s chief technological officer, sent a letter to the president and lead legal counsel for M/A-COM, a subsidiary of Tyco Electronics that was chosen in 2005 to build the network meant to link first responders across the state.

In January 2009, the state of New York terminated the $2 billion contract with Tyco Electronic Wireless Systems for a M/A-COM OpenSky statewide network. The termination came after months of growing tension between the state and M/A-COM, which had missed several deadlines to repair its network in two counties.

With the state facing a yawning fiscal gap, the governor was leaning toward shutting the network, which has already cost New York more than $50 million, reported the New York Times last year. M/A-COM was sold to Harris in June 2009. Harris now handles the P-25 radio market.

Trunked radio systems allows multiple groups of users to share a small set of actual radio frequencies. The Tyco/Harris OpenSky system uses a four-slot TDMA transmission in 25 kHz bandwidth channels with an aggregate data rate of 19.2 kbps. Motorola’s SmartZone system is a competing approach using different standards.

In another boondoggle, the Obama administration halted work on a “virtual fence” on the U.S.-Mexican border, called SBINet. Block 1 of SBInet, the technology portion of the plan, was budgeted to spend $700 million to erect about 50 camera and radio towers on a 28-mile segment south of Tucson and a 30-mile stretch near Ajo, Ariz.

Last year, DHS officials predicted SBInet would cost $6.7 billion to secure the full border, minus a 200-mile span in southwestern Texas that is difficult to cross and expensive to monitor. In a statement, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) called SBInet “a grave and expensive disappointment.” The Government Accountability Office, said DHS did not effectively manage key aspects of SBInet testing.

The FCC moved the 2011 deadline that required narrowband radios operating below 512 MHz be replaced. Now it’s 2013.

For many small public-safety entities — like volunteer fire departments — with an annual budget in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, the idea of spending $3,500 on new radios to replace systems that work fine has been unpalatable. Motorola, Harris and EF Johnson like the plan.

Motorola, which controls something like 80% of the Land Mobile Radio business for government agencies like fire and police, is also a large contributor to causes that further their agenda. In Oregon’s case, they were asked to contribute $50,000 to a PR campaign. Last year, Motorola donated $411,415 to state and local candidates and ballot-measure campaigns, according to the Oregonian.

Motorola sold their cellular business to Nokia Siemens Networks. They no longer care about building commercial cellular, WiMAX or LTE infrastructure. Motorola once competed with Ericsson, NSN, Huawei, AlcaLu and Samsung for cellular business. Why they dumped that division and kept their (generic) handset division is a mystery. Corporate raider Carl Icahn, wanted to cash out, say reports.

At any rate, Motorola’s Public Safety business segment is now left without cellular synergy. Motorola dominates public safety, making most of the handheld radios, infrastructure and management systems used by first responders and it consistently produces high margins.

Alcatel-Lucent is promoting its 700 MHz Public Safety solution and recently made a data call on it. Alca-Lu is using the 10 MHz of broadband frequencies licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) which it will use in combination with the 10 MHz of adjacent frequencies known as the D Block in the U.S. These frequencies combined form Band 14.

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials likes Senator Jay Rockefeller’s bill, which would allow first responders to resell D Block spectrum and receive additional funding by selling off tv spectrum.

The FCC’s plan would require the D Block licensee to provide a network that covers 75% of the U.S. population by the end of the fourth year, 95% of the U.S. population by the end of the seventh year, and 99.3% of the U.S. population by the end of the tenth year. The FCC wants that 10 MHz chunk shared by public service and commercial users. Taxpayers don’t need to fund the construction of a dedicated, multi-billion dollar public safety network if commercial providers build it, say promoters of the FCC plan.

Verizon Wireless and AT&T, both with 700 MHz spectrum from 2008 auctions, want to see the D Block go to public safety. So does Motorola, which dominates the market for first responder communications equipment and handsets. T-Mobile USA and Sprint Nextel Corp., eager for more spectrum, support the FCC proposal.

The FCC’s plan — supported by the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission — “will ensure the build-out of a network that is cutting edge, reliable, and cost-effective,” FCC spokesman Rob Kenny said. It would auction off the 10 MHz “D Block”, but allow public service agencies to use the commercial frequencies. The FCC says it lowers cost and increases broadband penetration for everyone.

Public safety users currently use 800 MHz for most voice traffic, and recently were given an additional 10 MHz previously used by Nextel. In the 700 MHz Public Safety Band, they received (free) the equivalent of four television channels (roughly Ch 63 & 64 and Ch 68 &69) in the 700 MHz band. Half those frequencies will be used for narrowband voice, the other half for broadband (LTE).

Now Public Safety has their eyes on a potential cash cow – the “D-Block”.

Public service lobbyists like Motorola want taxpayers to build a dedicated, stand alone, nationwide wireless network and buy their $5,000 radios. They make a compelling argument. But broadband satellite access is available right now. Satellite phones and satellite broadband are sometimes the first and only communications link available when infrastructure is severely damaged.

States create their own GIS-enabled information-sharing platforms. Oregon has their Virtual Emergency Network of Multnomah (VENOM) while Washington has their Washington Information Sharing Environment (WISE). Humaninet’s Maps 2.0 tool enables humanitarian organizations to post, access, share, modify, and use critical, geo-referenced information in emergency relief operations, post-emergency reconstruction, and continuing development projects using Google Maps.

Alternatives to a dedicated $600 million state-wide public service radio network include:

Inmarsat’s IsatPhone Pro, a handheld satphone has been available since April. It retails for $US699, although promotions are expected to bring the end-user price to $US500-$US600, Inmarsat says. Airtime costs about $1 per minute.

Now pocket-size satellite phones are available. They allow anyone to access broadband – either direct via satellite or through AT&T’s cellular network.

TerreStar’s $799 Windows Mobile-based Genus phone (right) was announced for AT&T, offering a combination of GSM/HSPA and satellite access when far from a cell tower.

The $799 phone requires regular AT&T voice and data service plans. It uses the AT&T network where it’s available. When out of cellular range, it will switch over to the satellite. The satellite connection will costs $25 extra per month, and then 65 cents per minute of calling.

LightSquared plans initial LTE trials in Baltimore, Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix, with commercial launch by the third quarter of 2011. The company has access to 59 MHz of spectrum and plans 40,000 cellular base stations covering 92 percent of the U.S. population by 2015. Nokia Siemens Networks signed an 8-year, $7 billion agreement with LightSquared.

Putting a $700 TerreStar dual mode (cellular/satellite) satphone into the pockets of 1,000 first responders would cost $700 thousand — not $700 million. It WILL be operational WHEN The Big One strikes.

The Oregonian editorializes:

“Legislators are right to object to this project, which has the laudable goal of knitting together all of Oregon’s first responders in a way that allows them to communicate with one another in the event of an emergency. The thing is, there are about 592 million reasons to question the path that Oregon has chosen with OWIN. Many believe that there are far cheaper ways to build a system.”

The FCC says cellular operators have already built a nationwide broadband network. First responders will get priority access to all of it.

Cellular architecture is better matched for broadband because it uses more spectrum. Ten Mhz shared over 10 square miles (cellular) is more manageable then 100 square miles (Land Mobile Radio) trying to service many more users. Imagine the jurisdictional disputes over broadband rights on the D-block.

The FCC argues that if public service agencies try to build their own independent LTE cellular network (with the D-Block), they won’t get the coverage they need – or the funding. A joint public/private system, by contrast, would benefit everyone with better coverage, improved service, and lower costs.

State departments of Highway, Forestry, Corrections and State Police – in Oregon and other states – all have their own networks. A shared, interoperable communications system, they argue, is needed.

Nobody doubts that.

But paying for a dedicated 700 MHz statewide network and thousands of interoperable P-25 radios is expensive and ultimately bandwidth limited. First responder access may be restricted due to interagency rivalries.

The FCC argues that 700 MHz commercial cellular operators – including AT&T and Verizon – should work with first responders in building statewide networks, reducing duplication and expense. In exchange, first responders could use their own dedicated 12 Mhz broadband 700 MHz data network – but also use a commercialized “D-Block” – with priority access to virtually any cellular broadband resource.

The FCC and the 911 Commission say sharing broadband infrastructure delivers better service for first responders and citizens. Isn’t that what we all want?

Dailywireless has posted dozens of stories on OWIN. Related Dailywireless articles include; Riot in D Block, Why Cops Don’t Just Use Cell Phones, SF Announces LTE First Responder Net, LightSquared + SK Telecom, The 700MHz Network: Who Pays?, Public Safety Spectrum Grab, Public Safety: Show Us The Money, SF Announces LTE First Responder Net, Clearwire to Test LTE, Apps for the City, LightSquared: 5K Basestations by 2011, Phoney Spectrum Scarcity, D-Block: It’s Done; Congress Pays, The 700MHz Network: Who Pays?, Big Bucks for 700 MHz Public Safety, FCC: Stop Complaining about Interoperability, Police & Fire: No Broadband for You, Commentary: Future of Public Safety Communications, New York Cancels Statewide Wireless Network, New York’s $2B Statewide Network Close to Canceling, M/A-COM to NY: We’re Good, NY Gives Tyco 45 days to Fix Network, Battle for Oregon’s State-wide Radio Net, Twitter 911, FCC Okays 21 Public Service Nets, FCC: Stop Complaining about Interoperability, Police & Fire: No Broadband for You, The 700MHz Network: Who Pays?, The National Broadband Plan, National Broadband Plan Previewed, D-Block: It’s Done; Congress Pays, AT&T/TerreStar Ready Satphone Service, TerreStar Phones Home, Motorola + SkyTerra Team for 700 MHz/Sat Radios, Alvarion, Open Range To Build 17 State Net, San Diego State: Wildfire GIS to Go, Emergency Mapping, Cascadia Peril, Commentary: Future of Public Safety Communications, New York Cancels Statewide Wireless Network, New York’s $2B Statewide Network Close to Canceling, M/A-COM to NY: We’re Good, NY Gives Tyco 45 days to Fix Network, Battle for Oregon’s State-wide Radio Net, Oregon’s $500 Million Statewide Wireless Network.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 at 7:42 am .

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