Oregon’s Radio Network Under Fire

Posted by Sam Churchill on

Oregon lawmakers misled about cost, progress of emergency radio network, blared the headlines on a front page story by Brent Walth in the Sunday Oregonian, with a follow on faulty maps used to sell Oregon radio network to lawmakers and a third article on possible alternatives to fix the troubled the Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network (OWIN).

The Oregonian reports that OWIN is about two years behind schedule, and the price has soared from $414 million to nearly $600 million.

Lawmakers in 2005 called for merging the states Land Mobile Radio (LMR) radio systems of four state agencies: Oregon State Police and the departments of Corrections, Transportation and Forestry. Two years later, the governor’s office floated its plan for new radio equipment and a sprawling web of about 300 microwave towers and radio relays on mountaintops across Oregon.

Nobody seems to dispute that a new first responder radio system is needed. The four state agencies each operate independent radio networks, with limited coverage and interoperability. “Every choice we have right now is pitting the short term against the right decision, which is the long term,” said Chief Jeffrey Johnson of Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, the Chair of the Statewide Interoperability Executive Council.

The FCC has adopted an order that establishes a technical framework to ensure interoperability among the public-safety mobile broadband networks.

“Our goal is to make sure that nationwide interoperability is built into these networks from the beginning,” said James Barnett Jr., chief of the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau .

The Federal Communications Commission’s has a December 31, 2012 deadline to transition state radios from wideband to narrowband voice channels, especially below 512 Mhz.

Project 25 radios allow different agencies to interconnect. The P-25 system connects radio towers together using the internet.

In Oregon, about 90% of public-safety agencies operate in the 150 MHz band, but the remaining 10% that operate in the 450/700-800 MHz spectrum cover about 80% of the population base. A multiband radio can cost from about $3,000 to $6,000 each.

OWIN’s mission was to consolidate the four existing independent state radio systems for more efficient management, and create a network that all public safety radio users in Oregon can access and link to other agencies and jurisdictions.

I’ve been been skeptical about OWIN. Why? State officials won’t acknowledge the ubiquity of cellphones. Smartphones with built-in cameras, 200,000 applications, real-time tracking, maps, and chat networks can outgun cops.

P-25 radios can’t do any of that.

The FCC argues that auctioning off the D Block, in a joint public/private use agreement, would lower costs while providing better coverage for everyone.

On May 27th, the Technology and Innovation Subcommittee reviewed the status of interoperability for public safety communications that enable interoperability from multiple agencies. The hearing discussed the status of the technical standards for public safety land mobile radio (LMR) systems.

According to Chairman David Wu:

While there has been a lot of progress on the P25 standards since 1989, the entire set of standards remains incomplete. I would like to understand the implications of this for public safety agencies procuring systems sold as “P25 compliant” and get a better sense of when we realistically can expect all of the standards to be completed.

Not all P25 radios are equal. Some statewide systems claim P25 compliance, but use proprietary features that systematically restrict “off-brand” radios by using proprietary encryption. Prices can be kept artificially high. On trunked radio systems, Talkgroups are assigned to different users (as long as they use a compatible radio). Competitors include the Harris with OpenSky and EDACS, Motorola with their SmartZone variations, iDEN and others.

There are over 5 billion cell phone subscribers in the world, with near ubiquitous service in urban areas. The FCC (and the 911 Commission) wants public service agencies to work with cellular providers to share costs and deliver more broadband to rural areas. They can share tower construction, backhaul and spectrum. They can even share radios. Everyone wins with interoperability – even APCO agrees.

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.

Public safety officials hate the idea. They want taxpayers to build a dedicated broadband network and give the “D Block” to them.

Bills that would reallocate the D Block to public safety were introduced in both the House and the Senate, with one piece of legislation being sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Public-safety officials have been told that legislation reallocating the D Block and providing funding for the buildout and operation of public-safety LTE networks nationwide will be reintroduced next month. Senator Jay Rockefeller’s bill would allow first responders to resell D Block spectrum and receive additional funding by selling off tv spectrum.

I believe the 700 MHz broadband and public service narrowband issues are related. P-25 radios work for voice. Cellular works better for broadband. Imagine the jurisdictional disputes when only ten broadband channels are available in a 100 square mile coverage area. It will pit the State Patrol vrs Sheriffs vrs Transportation vrs Police.

I believe the OWIN network and the larger nationwide IWN concept is flawed for the following reasons:

  • Partnerships. Everyone knew the 700 MHz cellular auction was coming. That meant Verizon and AT&T needed to build new cell towers. Sharing infrastructure and backbone costs makes sense. That’s what the FCC and the 911 Co-chairs want.
  • Broadband. The FCC’s broadband plan would enable public-safety roaming across all 700 MHz cellular services. The FCC’s plan was authored by the 911 Commission Chairman. The FCC Commission said a parallel and duplicate broadband network, dedicated exclusively to public service, is simply not affordable and will not provide the necessary coverage.
  • Interoperability. I’m not saying cellphones can replace the aging state-wide public service network. Narrowband voice networks in the 150MHz, 450MHz and 700MHz are necessary. They have better range. Raytheons Wide Area Interoperability System (WAIS) provides interoperability by translating a variety of different networks into multiple group talk channels. Software defined radios enable near universal communications.
  • Experience. The State of New York killed their $2B state-wide radio network. Other states and jurisdictions have encountered similar show stopping issues (such as San Francisco’s 700 MHz network).
  • Cost. A satphone costs $500-$800. AT&T’s Genus, a pocket-size, dual-mode satphone also hands over to AT&T’s cellular network (when coverage is available). Lightsquared is talking up a similar system (but not yet available). Bottom line: one thousand satphones cost $600,000. Not $600 million.

San Jose City Council members unanimously voted to decline participating in the 700 MHz LTE public-safety network that Motorola plans to build in the San Francisco Bay Area, leaving the proposed interoperable broadband system without the largest city in the region.

Everyone makes mistakes. Perhaps empire building precluded sharing infrastructure costs with commercial carriers. Perhaps that is not the case.

But when the big one hit New Orleans, about the only thing working was satellite phones. Where are the satphones?

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.

The Oregonian reviews alternatives that are on the table. Here are some additional possibilities:

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’s public safety bureau provides technical and policy answers about narrowbanding. “The FCC’s commitment to helping public safety make the migration to narrowband communications by the January 2013 compliance deadline remains strong,” according to Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau.

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. Ten Mhz shared over 10 square miles (cellular) is more manageable then 100 square mile coverage serving many more users. Imagine the jurisdictional disputes.

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.

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; Oregon’s Public Service Network: $100M Over Budget, Bay Area 700 MHz Net in Altercation , Battle for Oregon’s State-wide Radio Net, Oregon’s $500 Million Statewide Wireless Network, Riot in D Block, AT&T: 80% Upgraded to HSPA+ , SkyTerra 1 Launched , 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, .

Posted by Sam Churchill on Monday, December 13th, 2010 at 7:14 am .

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