State ties in to post-9/11 wireless link
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.”