State ties in to post-9/11 wire­less link

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BRIAN FANNEY

Ar­kan­sas on Thurs­day be­came the third state to sign up for a na­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem aimed at solv­ing prob­lems that be­came ap­par­ent after the 2001 ter­ror at­tacks.

First Net — built by AT&T — will pro­vide first re­spon­ders with ac­cess to a wire­less ser­vice that al­lows them to share data and gives them pri­or­ity over other users for the first time. Vir­ginia and Wy­oming opted into the net­work ear­lier this week.

Dis­as­ter plan­ners say the sys­tem will al­low po­lice,

fire­fight­ers, emer­gency med­i­cal tech­ni­cians and oth­ers to share video, lo­ca­tion, pic­tures and other in­for­ma­tion. In the long term, they say that the tech­nol­ogy is likely to re­place the ra­dios first re­spon­ders typ­i­cally use to­day.

Ar­kan­sas’ first re­spon­der sub­scribers will im­me­di­ately have pri­or­ity to voice and data across the ex­ist­ing AT&T net­work, ac­cord­ing to a FirstNet news re­lease. By the end of the year, first re­spon­ders will have ded­i­cated ac­cess to the net­work when they need it.

“As a former Un­der­sec­re­tary of Home­land Se­cu­rity after 9/11, I un­der­stand the ne­ces­sity of a re­li­able stand­alone emer­gency com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem,” Gov. Asa Hutchin­son said in a state­ment an­nounc­ing his de­ci­sion to sign the state up for the net­work. “FirstNet has re­ceived wide sup­port among our com­mu­nity of first re­spon­ders be­cause it will en­able us to re­spond more quickly dur­ing crises when sec­onds can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death.”

In its re­port, the Na­tional Com­mis­sion on Ter­ror­ist At­tacks Upon the United States — a bi­par­ti­san panel also known as the 9/11 Com­mis­sion — high­lighted the fact that dif­fer­ent ra­dio sys­tems used Sept. 11, 2001, by first re­spon­ders in New York City could not com­mu­ni­cate.

It rec­om­mended: “Congress should sup­port pend­ing leg­is­la­tion which pro­vides for the ex­pe­dited and in­creased as­sign­ment of ra­dio spec­trum for pub­lic safety pur­poses.”

Mike Poth, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of FirstNet, said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day that the wire­less spec­trum is es­sen­tial for shar­ing new forms of data in a way that every­one on the net­work can ac­cess.

“The last rec­om­men­da­tion of the 9/11 Com­mis­sion is for the na­tion to build out a na­tion­wide pub­lic safety broad­band net­work,” he said. “Through FirstNet be­ing en­acted … we’re ac­tu­ally a promise ful­filled fi­nally.”

The com­mu­ni­ca­tions prob­lems iden­ti­fied in the re­port have been present for decades, said Dereck Orr, di­vi­sion chief of the Pub­lic Safety Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Di­vi­sion at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Stan­dards and Tech­nol­ogy.

In ad­di­tion to the ter­ror­ist at­tacks, of­fi­cials cited the in­abil­ity of var­i­ous gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties to co­or­di­nate over ra­dio after Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina hit New Or­leans in 2005.

“Even though there is a stan­dard, not all de­vices are built to that stan­dard,” Orr said in an in­ter­view. “With the creation of FirstNet, what it did is it put every­body on one band. You’ve got­ten rid of the mul­ti­ple bands of spec­trum is­sue, put every­one on one tech­nol­ogy stan­dard — LTE — and put every­body on a na­tion­wide car­rier — FirstNet.”

FirstNet will be built us­ing the same tow­ers and stan­dards that power cell­phones. Be­cause AT&T is build­ing more cell tow­ers to ex­pand cov­er­age in ru­ral ar­eas to ful­fill its obli­ga­tions to FirstNet, its stan­dard wire­less cus­tomers will see a boost in ser­vice in some parts of the state.

Still, A.J. Gary, di­rec­tor of the Ar­kan­sas Depart­ment of Emer­gency Man­age­ment, said in an in­ter­view that he didn’t see the ex­ist­ing statewide ra­dio sys­tem — the Ar­kan­sas Wire­less In­for­ma­tion Net­work — go­ing away any­time soon.

That net­work, known as AWIN, is aimed at solv­ing the same in­ter­op­er­abil­ity is­sues as FirstNet, though it can­not carry data such as pic­tures or video. Hutchin­son re­quested $10 mil­lion to fund up­grades for the sys­tem last year, which was ap­proved by law­mak­ers.

That ra­dio net­work was pro­posed in Jan­uary 2001 un­der then-Gov. Mike Huck­abee. The Ar­kan­sas gov­ern­ment faced some of the same com­mu­ni­ca­tions chal­lenges first re­spon­ders in New York City ex­pe­ri­enced later that year.

Be­fore the Ar­kan­sas Wire­less In­for­ma­tion Net­work, a patch­work of eight ra­dio sys­tems was used by 12 state agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Ar­kan­sas State Po­lice. For years, troop­ers had trou­ble ra­dio­ing any­one out­side their home coun­ties. Some ar­eas had patchy cov­er­age, and some troop­ers couldn’t use their ra­dios at all.

And be­cause the state High­way and Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment and its law en­force­ment arm, the High­way Po­lice, were on a dif­fer­ent ra­dio sys­tem, nei­ther agency could use ra­dios to talk to state po­lice or the Ar­kan­sas Na­tional Guard.

The Ar­kan­sas Wire­less In­for­ma­tion Net­work went on­line in 2006. It was crit­i­cized for its $75 mil­lion cost, ac­cord­ing to news re­ports. City and county law en­force­ment agen­cies in­sisted then that the sys­tem’s ra­dios, each cost­ing $3,000, would col­lect dust and that re­sources could be spent more wisely.

But in 2008, when tor­na­does hit the state, law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said the net­work made a dif­fer­ence. Other means of com­mu­ni­ca­tions were si­lenced dur­ing the ma­jor storm that dev­as­tated mostly ru­ral ar­eas, many of which had no early warn­ing sirens.

“The best state money that I’ve got is from those AWIN ra­dios,” said Izard County Emer­gency Man­age­ment Di­rec­tor Den­nis Wil­liams in 2008. “We used them, and they worked.”

More re­cently, Gary said the sys­tem was in­te­gral to co­or­di­nat­ing dis­as­ter re­sponse to the flood­ing that wracked Ar­kan­sas this year.

“We had a lot of peo­ple up there,” he said. “The state po­lice had their mo­bile com­mand post up there and they were all op­er­at­ing off AWIN. The ben­e­fit, of course, to that is all of these dif­fer­ent agen­cies that are up there — ev­ery­thing they had was in­ter­op­er­a­ble and they could all com­mu­ni­cate on the same chan­nel.”

Gary, like Poth, the FirstNet chief ex­ec­u­tive, said ra­dio sys­tems will be around for the fore­see­able fu­ture, but the sys­tems can work to­gether.

Dur­ing the re­cent flood­ing, for ex­am­ple, FirstNet could have been used to share the video feed of a drone in­spect­ing levee breaches, while Ar­kan­sas Wire­less In­for­ma­tion Net­work ra­dios would be used for dis­cussing emer­gency rescues, he said.

“Some­time in the fu­ture there will prob­a­bly — I’m sure — be mis­sion crit­i­cal push-to-talk that will op­er­ate on FirstNet,” Gary said. “How many years down the road that will be, I don’t know. With how quick tech­nol­ogy changes, that just re­mains to be seen.”

Kelly Gottsponer, out­reach and ed­u­ca­tion co­or­di­na­tor for the Ar­kan­sas Pub­lic Safety Broad­band Net­work, said re­searchers are work­ing to en­sure voice com­mu­ni­ca­tion is easy and re­li­able on FirstNet.

The new net­work will be “an­other tool for our first re­spon­ders. Cur­rently, first re­spon­ders pre­dom­i­nately use land mo­bile ra­dio and AWIN is the statewide land mo­bile ra­dio net­work,” she said in an in­ter­view. “Mis­sion crit­i­cal voice is what is car­ried over these sys­tems. The FirstNet sys­tem is not go­ing to carry mis­sion crit­i­cal voice for quite some time. They are work­ing to­ward that. They are try­ing to de­velop that, but it’s still in its in­fancy and it’s in its re­search stages.”

She said “hard­ened” de­vices — which can with­stand drops, high tem­per­a­tures and other abuse — also need to be de­vel­oped for use in the field, though stan­dard iPhones and An­droid smart­phones also should work on FirstNet.

Orr, of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Stan­dards and Tech­nol­ogy, said he couldn’t pre­dict what most de­vices that end up on the net­work will end up cost­ing.

“We have ra­dios — land mo­bile ra­dios — that are over $10,000 in our lab­o­ra­tory, but if my son drops his iPhone and I have to re­place the en­tire thing, it costs about $500,” he said. “There’s some­thing to be said for go­ing with mass com­mer­cial prod­ucts. We’re talk­ing about a world­wide com­mer­cial tech­nol­ogy.”

Like a typ­i­cal wire­less ser­vice, FirstNet will re­quire a subscription from gov­ern­ment agen­cies to use the ser­vice. While of­fi­cials would not dis­close the ex­act cost, they said it was com­pa­ra­ble to their cur­rent AT&T con­tracts.

To build the net­work, AT&T re­ceived ac­cess to “high-value” telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions spec­trum and $6.5 bil­lion from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, ac­cord­ing to a Depart­ment of Com­merce news re­lease.

AT&T will spend about $40 bil­lion over the life of the con­tract to build, de­ploy, op­er­ate and main­tain the na­tional net­work, ac­cord­ing to the re­lease.

“It is our honor to pro­vide ad­vanced com­mu­ni­ca­tions ca­pa­bil­i­ties to en­sure Ar­kan­sas’ first re­spon­der com­mu­nity has a net­work they can rely upon when needed most,” said Ed Drilling, pres­i­dent of AT&T Ar­kan­sas, in a state­ment. “AT&T has a long his­tory with the pub­lic safety com­mu­nity, and to­gether we know we will cre­ate a first-of-its-kind net­work that will help first re­spon­ders op­er­ate faster, safer and more ef­fec­tively when lives are on the line.”

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