The Time to Deal with National Emergency Network Voice Issues Is Now

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Now is the time for the telecommunications industry and the government to hash out precisely where it is going on public safety and emergency communications. And, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there is a lot to talk about.

It's a frustrating issue. The nation has seen a series of horrific events during the past decade or so: shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the hurricanes in Joplin, Mo., immediately come to mind. There also are lower-profile tragedies and more or less normal weather emergencies that are guaranteed to spring up.

The inability of first responders and other emergency personnel to communicate effectively was an issue in most or all of these events. The baseline, of course, is for the cops, firefighters and others to be able to talk instantly and easily. Sending non-verbal data - floor plans of buildings under siege, videos of the particular spot that is aflame superimposed on architectural renderings so that a sense of a structure's stability can be gained - is the next step up.

The problem is that once the speechifying and editorializing ends, little really gets done. The good news, reported by InformationWeek, is that the drive to create such a landscape has taken a step forward. The story says that the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 sets aside 700 MHz in the D Block for a nationwide first responder network and provides $7 billion to create it

That's the step forward. The step backward, courtesy of a GAO assessment, is that mission-critical voice functions will be missing because they will rely on 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE), which lacks the required capabilities. This will create a reliance on land mobile radio:

This means the current system of LMR systems--which are expensive and limited in their range--will have to be used concurrently even once the mobile broadband network is place, the report found.

It is unclear, however, whether the GAO report took into account the drive to use LTE to provide voice services. Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is a near-term goal of vendors and carriers. Neither the InformationWeek story nor a one-page PDF summary of GAO conclusions states whether VoLTE was considered in GAOs conclusions.

The InformationWeek piece references another report from The Council of Economic Advisors. Released this month, it extols the virtues of making more spectrum available for wireless broadband. It has this to say about supporting emergency services, but doesn't mention any concerns on voice communications:

Wireless broadband has a vital role to play in improving the ability of emergency personnel to communicate efficiently and to obtain necessary information quickly, including real-time videos, images, and other data. The creation of a state-of-the-art nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety communications will ensure that the public safety benefits of wireless broadband are available throughout the nation, and will also enable interoperability at the national level, making first responders more effective when they are called on to cross jurisdictional lines. With sufficient dedicated spectrum for public safety use, public safety personnel will have access to critical information even in emergency situations when commercial wireless networks are congested.

The time to deal with the issues is now. The tendency in the past has been to shake our heads after a tragedy in which the situation was made worse by an inability for first responders to communicate or get the information they needed. There is an uproar afterwards. Slowly, the shock of the event fades and little is done. It seems that the government, to its credit, has shaken off some of its lethargy. But it is vital that the important decision makers deal quickly with questions surrounding the evolution of emergency voice communications.