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GAO: First Responders Broadband Network Lacks Crucial Features

GAO report says network, which just got $7 billion in funding, lacks many key voice capabilities, forcing use of current system for another 10 years.

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A plan to create a nationwide broadband network for public safety and emergency first responders uses technology that has limitations that will require the use of the current system for at least the next 10 years, according to the Government Accountability Office, the government's watchdog agency.

While a new public safety broadband network will provide more interoperability that will let first responders better coordinate efforts, it won't have the same mission-critical voice capabilities that current land mobile radio (LMR) systems have had for quite some time, according to a recently released report by the GAO.

This means the current system of LMR systems--which are expensive and limited in their range--will have to be used concurrently even once the mobile broadband network is place, the report found.

[ The government is very active in the mobile field. Read Federal Agencies Prepare For National Mobility Strategy. ]

The report comes as another report extols the benefits of the network to improve communication for first responders. A report by the president's Council of Economic Advisers said the network will make the work of first responders more effective by ensuring they always have an interoperable communication channel, according to a White House blog post.

"With sufficient dedicated spectrum for public safety use, public safety personnel will have access to critical information even in emergency situations when commercial wireless networks are congested," according to the report, which promotes setting aside some of the wireless spectrum exclusively for public-safety use.

This is the main reason the feds have been planning for years to develop a mobile broadband network that will standardize how emergency responders and public-safety workers talk to each other, particularly during times of real crisis.

During disasters like the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, police, firefighters and other responders couldn't communicate because their radio systems operated on different frequencies, calling attention to the need for a better communication network.

However, it's not until recently that lawmakers and federal agencies--in particular the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Homeland Security--have taken real steps toward making the network a reality.

The biggest step forward came last week when tax-cut legislation passed by Congress finally gave the network the spectrum and funding it needs to go ahead. The Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 (H.R. 3630) allocates the 700 MHz "D Block" section of spectrum for the network and provides $7 billion in federal grant money to build it.

Federal entities already have begun planning and defining the network's technical framework, as well as developing technical rules, educating emergency responders, and creating a demonstration network to prove how it will work.

Still, even once the network is up and running, it will lack mission-critical voice capabilities that LMR systems will have to provide in the interim. This is because the LTE standard designated for the system does not support all of the functionality--such as push to talk--that first responders need, according to the GAO.

The network also will lack support for direct or talk around, a common feature for public safety use that permits communications between units when they are out of range of a wireless network or when working in a confined area. Both the transmitter and receiver operate without support from infrastructure. This feature is not one typically used in the commercial market, and--with LTE being a commercial wireless standard--it means there is likely to be a lack of interest in developing the capability for it, according to the GAO.

Group talk, or the ability to communicate on a one-to-many basis, and emergency alerting also are critical first-response features that won't immediately be available on the network, making the use of LMR systems a requirement, according to the report.

The broadband network will however provide higher data speeds that will allow for the use of new video and data applications that aren't currently available, according to the GAO. For instance, in a situation in which people may be trapped in a building, firefighters could use the network to download building floor plans to find the best ways to reach the victims.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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