700 MHz for Mission Critical Data

Mar 15, 2011

While the phrase “a once in a lifetime opportunity” often makes us think of a marketing scam or timeshare pressure sales, in this case it is very true. Emergency responders have a once in a lifetime opportunity to obtain 700 MHz broadband spectrum from Industry Canada. This will allow responders the needed spectrum to transfer mission critical data to and from scenes. Once this spectrum is gone it will be gone forever.

Partnerships in the field of emergency response and management are critical – and never more than in today’s challenging ­economic times. With that in mind, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), the Canadian Fire Chiefs Association (CFCA) and the Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada (EMSCC) are leading the charge for a nation-wide public safety broadband system for mission critical data.

With advances in technology, responder agencies will have an increasing need to access data and video networks during all emergency incidents.

Law enforcement agencies will need access to streaming video, surveillance networks capable of identifying known terrorists through the use of video analytics, criminal records, automated license plate recognition and biometric technologies – including mobile fingerprint and iris identification – to prevent and respond to criminal activities.

In order to save more lives, fire services will need access to building blueprints, in-building 3D, personal health-monitoring sensors, and GPS tracking systems, to name a few of the key requirements.

Emergency medical services will need access to tele-medicine, high-resolution video and ultrasound, and patient records to reduce the time it takes to deliver medical services at the scene of an incident such as a car crash on a highway.

In addition to profession-specific technologies, these agencies will require information sharing capabilities in real-time for all unified responses.

And we must not forget that critical infrastructure service providers will need to be able to coordinate their responses to restore power and telecommunications services during large-scale incidents. Governments at all levels in Canada and the U.S. need access to situational awareness information, including from wireless sensors (i.e. flood data) during large-scale incidents to coordinate mitigation, response and recovery efforts. Obviously, the key here, as always, is the planning phase that we are just commencing now.

All of these applications and services depend greatly on the amount of spectrum that is available – the fact is, they require considerable bandwidth and speed that is currently not available. For the safety and security of our citizens, future networks must be built with public safety requirements in mind.

Tri-Services Committee
During a Public Safety Interoperability Workshop in December 2010, the presidents of Canada’s three major chiefs ­associations announced the creation of the Tri-Services Special Purpose Committee on 700 MHz Broadband for Mission Critical Public Safety Data. The creation of the committee is in direct response to Industry Canada’s recent announcement of public consultations on the use of the 700 MHz band by commercial mobile services.

Three representatives have been appointed to the committee. I am representing the EMSCC and am privileged to be working alongside two very experienced colleagues from partner agencies and associations, Superintendent Bill Moore, of the Halifax Regional Police and the CACP, and Division Chief Mike Sullivan, of the Ottawa Fire Service, and representing the CAFC. Together, the three of us have set in motion a mechanism to monitor and advise on the issue, inform stakeholders and identify responder spectrum needs and potential opportunities.

The issue is that Canada’s radio spectrum regulator, Industry Canada, has opened consultations on the 700 MHz broadband allocations (the result of spectrum availability due to the transition from analog television to digital) that will ultimately affect public safety agencies’ ability to deploy mission critical data well into the future. The chiefs’ associations developed a joint position on the issue and have been working with emergency management partners, including many provincial Emergency Management Office’s, to determine the exact needs and the optimal use of the, soon to be available, spectrum.

This is truly a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, not just in Canada but in the United States and beyond. Inaction poses significant risk as the upcoming allocation of spectrum will directly impact responder agencies’ and government’s ability to fulfill their most important mission over the coming decades. The current bandwidth is the waterfront property that everyone wants.

August 30, 2011 marks the transition from analog television to digital in Canada, freeing up spectrum for potential use by public safety. Emergency responder agencies are looking for 20 MHz to be allocated to broadband services (10 plus 10), 8 MHz of that 20 would come from the existing 24 MHz allocation to public safety. We are looking for a total of 36 Mhz; these figures include the 4 MHz of guardbands within the narrowband block that have limited usefulness. Many private and public agencies are also vying for the additional (and very valuable) spectrum, and Industry Canada (our nation’s spectrum regulator) opened consultations on the 700 MHz broadband allocations on November 30, 2010 (consultations closed February 28, 2011). We had a very limited time to submit our response to Industry Canada and we are continuing to convince government that the best place for this spectrum is in the hands of responders!

In order to complete our response the committee met with a number of stakeholders from across the country. After compiling all of our findings, we came up with these main themes in our response:

  • to encourage Industry Canada to assign the full 20 MHz for public safety use;
  • to coordinate the 700 MHz Canadian public broadband spectrum with the U.S.;
  • to ensure that governance of the 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum for public safety broadband use must reside with public safety stakeholders;
  • to explain that current commercial ­systems will not meet the mission critical requirements of our public safety community.

As the consultation response period closed there were 88 total responses to Industry Canada: 55 from companies and organizations (such as the Tri-Services, Telcos, CATA, Industry); 4 from Federal Government (ICSAR, Public Safety, RCMP and MP, Scott Simms); 23 from provincial and municipal governments (notables include CCEMO, SOREM, many provinces); and 6 from private individuals. Overall, the Tri-Services and public safety stakeholders were pleased to see that the majority of responses acknowledged the need to designate a portion of 700 MHz spectrum to be dedicated for public safety use.

Of the respondents: 44 advocated harmonizing with the U.S.; 26 called for 20 MHz of spectrum to be dedicated to public safety; 7 called for only 10 MHz of spectrum to be dedicated to public safety; 6 called for 10 MHz to be dedicated to public safety now, plus a possible additional 10 MHz after D Block assigned in the U.S.; 3 respondents called for 0 MHz dedicated to public safety; the remaining responses made no mention of public safety. Of note, one telecommunications company acknowledged the need to designate a portion of 700 MHz spectrum to be dedicated for public safety use.

In the U.S., a similar digital TV transition was accomplished on June 12, 2009. The U.S. spectrum regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has already dedicated 10 MHz to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. Collectively, U.S. public safety agencies are now fighting for a second 10 MHz block in the critical band of 700 MHz spectrum, known as the D Block. The FCC recently announced that the D Block may be auctioned off for commercial purposes instead of being ­allocated to public safety (currently under consideration by U.S. Congress). This move has caused U.S. counterparts to mobilize quickly on what is arguably the most important issue U.S. law enforcement, fire and EMS officials have faced in decades. Canadian responders may be faced with the same challenge.

Today, Canadian public safety entities use existing commercial networks for their voice and data needs. Some 700 MHz narrow and wide band spectrum is already dedicated to public safety in Canada for voice and some low speed data use. However, securing dedicated spectrum for broadband applications for public safety will ensure wireless broadband networks (a system of systems across the country) can be built with the needs of public safety in mind moving forward.

To ensure public safety remains a top priority, police, fire, EMS, and other emergency professionals must have access to modern, reliable, and robust communications capabilities, including high speed data and video, to communicate with each other across agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies and also for  day-to-day operations. Responders cannot continue as a customer forced to wait for service when bad things happen. The emergency response community needs “own” and be in ­control over who has access to this spectrum and when. For instance, responders should not have to compete for bandwidth with the teenager who is sending live video to all of his friends of the very emergency responders are dealing with. Not surprisingly, there is a public expectation that when things go wrong, a responder can communicate within their agencies as well as with their partners in the community. Dedicated bandwidth will ensure this public expectation continues to be a reality.

The issue of spectrum and possible nationwide broadband network(s) is very complex and potentially expensive, and at this point Canadian responders have more questions than answers. What is known, is that dedicated public safety spectrum for the creation of interoperable wireless broadband networks for data and video transmissions is the 21st Century vision for communications system for Canada’s responders. Availability of such networks responds directly to the announcement on January 26th, 2011, by the Ministers responsible for Emergency Management, about the approval of the new Communications Interoperability Strategy and Action Plan for Canada. One of the top ­priorities outlined in this excellent, cooperatively built strategy is the dedicated 700 MHz broadband solution. Specifically, the Ministers’ communiqué stated:

“…the Ministers discussed the current consultation related to the 700 MHz broadband spectrum and securing a portion for the use of emergency responders for public safety and security purposes. Provincial and territorial ministers expressed support for this approach as it offers significant interoperability enhance­ment potential. The use of the 700 MHz spectrum would link public safety and security stakeholder communities across Canada and along the Canada-U.S. border, while promoting innovation and Canada’s digital economy.”

The allocation of 700MHz spectrum truly represents a once in a lifetime opportunity that ties directly to community and responder safety, innovation, not to mention the health of Canada’s digital economy.

Stakeholders and citizens are encouraged to get informed and put this issue on your ­organization’s and government’s radar; inform your boards, municipalities, provincial/territorial governments and other governing bodies that spectrum ­allocations will have a significant impact on public safety; and work with tri-services ­colleagues and others to advocate a strong voice for public safety in advance of ­spectrum allocations.

Superintendent P.B. Rodier is the Officer in Charge of the British Columbia Ambulance Service, South Fraser District. He is also currently the EMSCC rep on the Tri-Service Committee for the 700MHz project.
© FrontLine Security 2011