Our country is in the midst of another debate on border security and immigration policy. Generally, we know that a combination of tactical infrastructure, barriers, technology and increased agents and officers deployed in key, high-risk locations can increase border security. Although the recent debate has covered a wide range of border security issues, what is the best use of taxpayer money to secure the border? When we do spend the money? How do we know that we have improved situational awareness and operational control?
According to the Performance.gov website, the U.S Border Patrol is using Operational Control (OPCON) as a results-based framework with three interrelated, operational elements:
- Impedance or denial: The ability to stop or slow down the adversary at the immediate border
- Situational awareness: The degree to which operators are able to perceive and process critical elements of information and make effective operational decisions
- Execute law enforcement response and resolution: The ability to respond at the border to implement the appropriate consequences against illegal activity
The U.S. Border Patrol’s ability to make progress on these operational elements will depend on agent training, equipment readiness, and agent availability, all which require sustained funding.
First, we look at background on the current state of mission-critical communications and propose three strategies to consider when planning for the deployment of modern, mission-critical communications for your agency. To achieve both goals, let’s focus on only one element of the OPCON framework, Execute Law Enforcement Response and Resolution. Since one sub-element is agent and officer safety, and includes mission critical communications, the OPCON framework provides a nice backdrop for this discussion.
Current state of mission critical communications
There is significant progress being made in LMR, Long Term Evolution (LTE) and mobile deployable technologies to improve communication and, as a result, situational awareness. Planning is highly complex, deployment risk must be managed and maintenance for operational availability must be funded. For decades, mission critical communications meant LMR voice only. The operational requirements were always there for voice, video and data applications, but deployment of broadband infrastructure technology limited the distribution of these applications, especially in rural and extremely rural locations.
According to the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), “It is important to fully explore the coexistence of, and simultaneous use of, LMR and LTE technologies to determine necessary operational requirements to ensure continued interoperability.” The NPSTC’s Public Safety LMR Interoperability with LTE Mission Critical Push to Talk Final Report published on Jan. 8, 2018, states, “One of the proposed new services is Mission Critical Push to Talk (MCPTT), which is being designed to provide some LMR like services which may eventually allow first responders to carry a single device to access voice, video, and data. However, comparability with existing LMR systems for voice is yet to be determined (e.g., for coverage and direct unit to unit communications).”
Governments have invested millions of dollars in civil infrastructure and devices that deliver secure, reliable communications to law enforcement and first responders; however, LMR and LTE integration is slow as we work through technical and programmatic issues. In the meantime, agencies will continue to operate on both LMR and LTE networks and explore ways to use these technologies in their operational environments. Considering the accelerating rate of progress, agencies need to plan for operational demand and convergence with LMR with LTE infrastructure and devices.
Three strategies to prepare for convergence
The convergence of these technologies is well underway, but with a highly dynamic threat. How do we make the right choices to quickly deploy communication solutions to agents and officers in the field that are both secure and reliable? For those of us who work in homeland security, we understand the threat is dynamic and so must be the solutions. There are a variety of ways to plan, deploy and measure communication solutions depending on the agency. I offer the following three strategies for consideration:
- All requirements are both local and regional. Mission critical communication requirements and solutions vary by threat conditions and geography. We may want to deploy a permanent LMR solution to close a local communication gap, but what if the threat is regional, dynamic and deploying the LMR solution is years away? Consider the following:
- Identify civil infrastructure that can be used for LMR or LTE equipment to consider utilizing existing sites.
- Define and obtain agreement on the threat condition so investments are for the right solution at the right time and are effective for the user.
- Develop a “menu of LMR and LTE choices and costs” that are proven to close most communication gaps and address the threat, shortening the time to deploy.
- Evaluate the trade-off between temporary and permanent solutions, whether LMR or LTE. Temporary solutions are often deployed as technology demonstrations and avoid some of the agency standard processes or security requirements. The intent is short-term but often users value that a problem has been solved and want to make the temporary solution permanent. Consider the following:
- Purposefully plan to make the temporary solution permanent and complete all the lifecycle stages, steps and documentation to reduce program and technology risk.
- Infuse risk management across the transition lifecycle in order to identify problems early and often.
- Form a team that represents all aspects of the transition and constantly communicate the planned solution to stakeholders.
- Focus on lower total cost of ownership by locating and leveraging existing civil infrastructure rather than building, maintaining and owning towers. Consider the following:
- Enter into tower-sharing agreements.
- Decommission duplicate sites without impacting coverage and operational performance.
- Infuse competition to lower costs of infrastructure and devices.
- Plan for technology refresh rates required by the users to keep equipment operational and improve interoperability.
- Tower site repairs are more expensive when unplanned – include remediation costs when refreshing communication equipment.
When we connect requirements and lower the total cost of ownership with strong program management, we can effectively maneuver this changing mission and technology space. Many who work in this field have observed the development of LMR and LTE solutions, anticipating the opportunity to take advantage of both technologies for use in the field to address growing and changing threats. As we continue to mature effective measures using OPCON, or the best use of FirstNet, we know there will be a dual LMR and LTE environment and that we must optimize what both technologies offer.