May 04 2012 OTTAWA - Police officers, firefighters and paramedics across the country will soon be able to communicate with each other using a broadband network dedicated to emergency services.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced Thursday the allocation of 10 MHz of the highly coveted 700 MHz broadband spectrum for use by emergency service providers.
Currently, first-responders can encounter a lot of interference, especially during periods of heavy use. Under the new arrangement, they will be able to communicate in a less cluttered environment - sort of like getting your own lane in a busy highway.
Lance Valcour is executive director of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group, which has been pushing for a broadband network on behalf of first responders. He applauded the move Thursday and said he expects testing to begin within the year.
"This is the largest public safety information and communications technology project in Canadian history," said Valcour, a retired Ottawa police inspector.
However, Valcour said first responders would like the government to go even further and allocate an additional 10 MHz to accommodate the huge volumes of data that would need to be transmitted on a really "bad day" - during a major earthquake, for example. "We're happy with the announcement, but we're not ecstatic yet," Valcour said.
Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for the public safety minister, said talks are continuing with provinces, territories and Industry Canada on allocating an additional 10 MHz and no decisions have been made.
Valcour explained how communications can sometimes fail under the current system.
Let's say someone has a heart attack at the mall, he said. Paramedics arrive and want to send wireless ultrasound information back to the hospital.
But a large group of teenagers pull out their phones to record the incident and then start uploading their videos to YouTube. When the paramedics press send, they might get a busy signal.
Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu said the spectrum allocation will help in a variety of ways - for instance, by giving first responders the ability to send video to police cars from the scene of a robbery or track firefighters in 3-D as they navigate through a burning building.
The dedicated public safety bandwidth will also allow first responders to communicate with their counterparts in the U.S. during emergencies that occur near the border, Chu said.
The surging popularity of wireless devices has resulted in huge demand for more broadband capacity in recent years.
Ottawa, however, has had to balance accommodating the interests of companies such as Telus and Bell with others, such as those in public safety.
The 700 MHz spectrum is highly desirable and considered "beachfront property" because it can transmit large volumes of data at high speeds and offers better penetration of buildings and other obstacles.