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US pushes forward on public-safety LTE network

The next phase of interoperability testing is set to begin July 9

The body defining standards for a mobile LTE network serving police, fire departments and other public safety agencies across the U.S. has finished testing radio-access gear and will start interoperability testing of packet-core equipment on July 9.

The Public Safety Communications Research Program (PSCR) is on an accelerated schedule to set down rules for the network following the Feb. 22 approval of a mechanism to fund it. The funding plan, which was attached to a middle-class tax cut bill, calls for auctions of other spectrum to cover most of the estimated US$7 billion cost of the network.

The U.S. has long sought a unified nationwide network so federal, state and local public-safety agencies can more easily work together. This was one recommendation of the 9/11 task force that studied the 2001 terrorist attacks on the country. The current plan calls for an LTE network using a block of spectrum in the prized 700MHz range.

The new infrastructure, which would be built from the ground up, would replace a patchwork of different systems in use today and give public-safety workers in the field the capacity to send and receive rich data types, especially video, said Emil Olbrich, a lead project engineer at PSCR. His agency is a joint project of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

"Because they didn't have standards for the last 80 years, they have to duct-tape everything together," Olbrich said at the Next-Generation Mobile Networks conference in San Francisco on Thursday. He estimated the network might start to be available next year, though an official timetable has not been set.

The Feb. 22 tax-cut law calls for NTIA to establish a service provider, called First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), to operate the network and deliver services on it to the approximately 60,000 federal, state and local agencies that need it. FirstNet will have more stringent coverage requirements than the typical commercial mobile operator. It will need to cover 95 percent of the U.S., including all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all territories, including places such as Guam and the Marianas Islands in the Pacific. The system will also have to cover 98 percent of the U.S. population, Olbrich said.

PSCR's job is to find out what first responders need from the network and translate those requirements into a set of technical standards, Olbrich said. Because the thousands of agencies have so many different needs, it's often hard for vendors to develop products to serve all of them, he said. Just to provide the extensive coverage required, PSCR is looking at options such as satellites and at public-private partnerships, he said. It will also have a research and development budget to fund grants for development of specialized client devices.

The agency has already finished interference tests and basic performance testing for the radio network. Next, it will test equipment for the packet core, which processes data after it passes over the wireless network and on to wired backhaul networks. That includes functions such as traffic prioritization. PSCR carries out tests at Table Mountain in Colorado, one of two radio-frequency "quiet zones" in the U.S., where NIST keeps a large plateau free of radio signals so it can do tests in isolation, Olbrich said.

FirstNet is being created by NTIA and will be run by a board, scheduled to be seated on Aug. 20, that will include representatives of key federal agencies and other members appointed by the secretary of commerce. That board will set the timetable for network rollout, Olbrich said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com


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