700 MHZ broadband for mission critical public safety data

By: Members of the Tri-Services Committee Representing the Canadian Emergency Services Chiefs

Partnerships in the field of emergency management are critical and never more so than in today’s challenging economic times. With that in mind, how is it that the Canadian Associations of Chiefs of Police, Fire and Emergency Medical Services are leading the charge for a nation-wide public safety broadband system of systems for “mission critical data?”

For those in the know, 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 are developing a joint position on the issue and are working with emergency management partners, including many provincial EMOs, to determine exact needs and 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 responder agencies’ and government’s ability to fulfill their most important mission over the coming decades.

Today, Canadian public safety entities use existing commercial networks for their 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) can be built with the needs of public safety in mind moving forward. Canadian police, fire, EMS and other emergency professionals must have access to modern and reliable communications capabilities, including high speed data and video, to communicate with each other across agencies and jurisdictions during emergencies and during day-to-day operations.

With advances in technology, Canadian 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. Fire services will need access to building blue prints, health-monitoring sensors and GPS tracking systems in order to save lives. Emergency medical services will need access to telemedicine, high-resolution video 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. 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 across Canada and cross-border with our US counterparts 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 these applications and services depend greatly on the amount of spectrum that is available for public safety broadband services — they require considerable bandwidth and speed that is currently not available. Future networks must be built with public safety requirements in mind.

At the same time, wireless broadband commercial networks (i.e., Cellular networks) do not prioritize their users or traffic. Currently, the public has the same priority to commercial networks as first responders (with the exception of some frequencies dedicated to public safety for low-speed data usage as mentioned above). During day-to-day operations, and especially during major events, responders and their emergency management partners need timely access to data — seconds can save lives. Public safety needs dedicated frequencies where responders have priority and, better yet exclusive rights to for use, without data streams being clogged by the public.

What to do about it?

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. As well, availability of such networks responds directly to the Ministers’ responsible for Emergency Management announcement on January 26, 2011 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 that of 700 MHz broadband. In fact, in 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.”

Without a doubt, the allocation of 700MHz spectrum represents a once in a lifetime opportunity that ties directly to community and responder safety, innovation and the health of Canada’s digital economy. Stakeholders are encouraged to get informed and put this issue on their organization’s radar; inform your boards, municipalities, provincial/territorial governments and other governing bodies that spectrum allocations will have a significant impact on public safety in Canada.

While the Canadian Emergency Services Chiefs may have initiated this latest call to action, they are by no means trying to do this alone. For more information on Canadian efforts, please visit www.action700.ca. Any suggestions, questions or concerns can be sent via e-mail to Action700broadband@gmail.com.