Will We Have a Wireless Public Safety Network?

WASHINGTON -- Law enforcement agencies across the country may one day link to a broadband wireless network that lets them view streaming video of felonies and identify criminals more quickly.

However, the legislation necessary to make the network a reality isn't moving at the same pace as the technology.

The Spectrum Coalition for Public Safety, a national coalition of cities, counties, public safety associations, and law enforcement officials, held a press conference this week to demonstrate the potential of the network and urge Congress to allocate the spectrum needed.

"[There is] a pressing need for a national, wireless broadband network like we see here today," said Lt. Charles B. Smith, a coalition member who works for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Accompanying Coalition members were representatives from IBM; Insight (a provider of technology products and services to businesses); Motorola; and Flarion Technologies (a broadband communications company), who showed off the products and technology available for a wireless public safety network.

Coalition members played a video demonstrating how a public network--running on a Flarion wireless network and employing Motorola, IBM, and Insight products--could be used in a time of crisis. The video depicted a simulated bomb threat, during which pictures were relayed from a security camera to a bomb squad and a witness identified a suspect by viewing real-time streaming video.

Also unveiled was a wireless video handset that could be used by first responders to a crisis, as well as a sophisticated video monitoring software program that could be adapted to a normal security system.

The network could do more than help catch criminals. Smith noted that during last year's forest fires in southern California, a wireless network would have permitted law enforcement agencies to share burn maps, personnel rosters, and information about containment areas in a much more efficient manner.

Ahead of the Game

Washington, D.C. is already testing such a network. The program, part of an 18-month pilot project, runs on a Flarion network and uses Motorola's Greenhouse Project high-performance video technology designed for public safety communications.

Although the project is already underway, it is moving slowly, according to District of Columbia Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Robert LeGrande, II. LeGrande says the first six months will be dedicated to testing the network thoroughly, determining its limitations, identifying which technologies to purchase, and solidifying the site's security.

"We're getting ready [for the new network]," says Andrew White, a lieutenant with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. "This is an exciting opportunity for us."

Legal Matters

Holding up deployment of a national network is the need to allocate space on the public radio spectrum; such assignments are made by the Federal Communications Commission. But before the FCC can act, bills need to be passed in both the House and the Senate authorizing allocation of the spectrum. Currently, two bills--the HERO (Homeland Emergency Response Operations) Act, and the SAVE LIVES (Spectrum Availability for Emergency Response and Law Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services) Act are working their way through Congress. Both bills call for reserving 24 MHz of the 700 MHz available for public safety for the creation of the network.

"We feel propelled by the [findings of the] 9/11 commission, because we think this is probably the best chance to get the additional megahertz," says Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, (D-District of Columbia). Norton adds that she feels confident of the chances of the bills passing into law.

"We feel good about the legislation effort and we've got support on both sides of the aisle," says a coalition spokesperson. When asked when the bills might pass, the spokesperson says, "Hopefully, this session."

With such a robust network of streaming video available, the issue of personal privacy is bound to come up.

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says his organization is supportive of using wireless technologies for the Internet, but adds that "there have to be rules in place."

"Legal protections have really not caught up with what the technology makes possible," Rotenberg says.

But officials working with the project contend that the network would not become a tool for snooping.

"This is not a surveillance mechanism," Norton says. "This is a law enforcement mechanism. Nobody's going to waste this on looking at people."

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