RATAJ – Mobile data innovation
By Tom Rataj
By Tom Rataj
Most public safety agencies follow the conventional wisdom that it’s best to own, control and manage their own wireless communication systems.
When mobile data terminals (MDT’s) arrived in the 1980’s, agencies followed this established wireless model, building private data networks by adding extra hardware to their existing voice-radio towers and infrastructure. This actually worked reasonably well because first generation mobile data services relied on fairly simple monochrome-screened “dumb-terminal” MDTs, only capable of sending and receiving simple text-based information.
When the first real mobile computers, such as the famous Panasonic ToughBook, arrived in the 1990s, data communications needs rapidly changed. The basic text-only data networks couldn’t reliably and efficiently support everything that mobile computers were capable of doing.
Building and maintaining wireless data networks was also an expensive proposition, often preventing smaller agencies from doing anything more than putting mobile data on their wish list. Rural agencies faced additional challenges because of their large patrol areas, which required many additional radio towers to provide reliable coverage.
Once data capability began to arrive on cellular telephone networks it became increasingly convenient to just buy access. One of the biggest advantages to this arrangement, especially for smaller agencies, was that they didn’t need to invest huge amounts into capital infrastructure to build the latest state-of-the-art data network. They just needed to do buy a large enough block of data from the local provider to serve their needs and install the necessary modems and other hardware to make all the connections.
Additionally, the cell networks often provided 100 per cent coverage, especially in and around urban areas and along major highways, and operators routinely upgraded their entire networks to the latest and fastest technologies. This allowed agencies to implement increasingly more sophisticated applications and services on their mobile computers.
When fourth-generation (4G) cell data networks, using Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology, debuted several years ago, mobile data began to realistically approach the upload and download speeds seen over WiFi networks, unlocking the real potential of mobile data.
Routing highly-sensitive police data through a publicly run communications network can, of course, be concerning, although proper encryption and other security protocols can placate most of those worries.
Another concern is the reliability of public networks, especially during major emergencies when agencies need them the most. Typically there are large spikes in traffic volume during emergencies, often causing service issues or failures because the demand exceeds system capacity. Agencies typically have data priority arrangements in place to ensure operational continuity during these situations, but it’s not known how well this will work.
Mobile data allows live and up-to-date feeds so operational decisions can be made based on the best data, instead of waiting for post event input. It also improves officer safety, efficiency and effectiveness.
GPS, audio, video, vehicle telematics and a wide variety of new and emerging technologies are all largely made feasible by complete geographical coverage, reliable high-speed cell data networks and powerful mobile computers and connected devices.
The federal government’s recent decision to reserve a complete 20 MHz block of the 700 MHz cellular radio band for the exclusive use of public safety agencies further enhances mobile data. Agencies will not have to share or compete for frequencies and the 700 MHz band is ideally suited because of its range and building penetration capabilities.
The Calgary Police Service (CPS) launched a new approach to mobile data in June by becoming the first Canadian police service to connect to a private hosted 4G LTE cellular data network. The “test of technology” project is meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of this service.
The network was built and is owned and operated by Motorola Solutions as part of its LTE Cloud Core service, launched in 2011 and designed to provide a private state-of-the-art LTE cellular data network for public safety agencies. CPS has the first Canadian installation.
The system consists of half a dozen cellular towers located on CPS properties in the city and provides coverage to approximately two-thirds of its jurisdiction. The LTE system hardware is manufactured by Ericsson Canada Inc, while the remainder of the system is provided by Motorola Solutions and its partners.
Because the system isn’t shared with any other users, the CPS now has a reliable and uninterrupted high-speed private data network. As a contracted service, it doesn’t have the large up-front capital expenditure normally required, and the CPS doesn’t have to budget and plan for hardware upgrades every few years. The cost is a budgeted monthly operating expense so it’s easier to manage.
The system is completely scalable, so additional users and public safety partners such as fire and EMS can be added in the future, offering better inter-agency collaboration, efficiencies and potential cost savings.
The network uses the high-speed LTE standard so it is capable of supporting an almost endless array of data-intensive technologies beyond the usual core services such as Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD), Records Management Systems (RMS), CPIC, MTO and other databases.
System operation is monitored by specialists at the Motorola Solutions’ Network Operations Centre in Schaumberg, Illinois. Reliability, availability, performance and other factors are constantly monitored and analysed so they can be adjusted and improved.
On the vehicle end of the system, CPS has 90 Panasonic ToughBook rugged computers installed in a mix of marked and unmarked vehicles. These are connected to the LTE system through the Motorola VML750 cellular modem. As with other similar hardware, the VML750 meets or exceeds ruggedness standards such as MIL-STD 810G (heat, cold, rain, humidity, dust and vibration), so it should stand up to the rigours of mobile policing and Calgary’s challenging seasons.
Interestingly the VML750 also includes a WiFi hotspot feature for up to 32 users, although this is currently not enabled. This would be advantageous because mobile radios (both data and voice) have much greater transceiver power than handheld devices. A police vehicle could act as a powerful local host for a large number of nearby handheld device users at large crime scene or other incidents.
Ten Motorola LEX700 Handheld data devices are also connected to the network as part of this project. These Android-based devices look like thick smartphones and provide secure data access.
CPS vehicles are also equipped with Panasonic in-car camera systems and body-worn video cameras are coming. Both systems can eventually be connected to the new mobile data network for remote access and sharing of live media.
This project moves mobile data to a new level for public safety agencies by providing the latest technology on a secure private hosted network without the large capital outlay. This project will be interesting to follow as it moves through its test phases and into a regular production mode.