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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Evolution and Future of Homeland Security Communications

An epiphany occurred while researching my annual public safety communications forecast: History is integral to future development. Trends projected long ago are now past, yet they paved the way to the present and will set the stage for what’s to come as communications continue to evolve.

The Evolution of Push-to-Talk

Land mobile radio (LMR) was once the predominant form of communications in both the private and public sectors. However, range and audio quality shortcomings, as well as cost-prohibitive infrastructure, eventually forced the adoption of alternative technologies. In 1996, the first commercial push-to-talk (PTT) service over cellular infrastructure (PoC) was introduced in the U.S. and users began augmenting LMR devices with PTT applications on smartphones, which often could communicate with radio systems when radios couldn’t.

Since then, PTT has continued to mature, primarily driven by the advent of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and other Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks, which evolved from digital narrowband technologies and its analog predecessor. When PTT became PoC and Mission Critical PTT (MCPTT), smartphones and tablets optimized by advanced PTT accessories were integrated by many agencies. LTE originally wasn’t thought to be a mission-critical network. However, thanks to MCPTT and PoC, along with open standards (Unit-to-unit, Priority, Group Calling, etc.), migration to true mobile communications is very much in progress.

Convergence and Consolidation

Until recently, first responders have used emergency communications systems that are often reliant upon disparate technologies that restrict interoperability between agencies and field personnel. Now, the federal government has established an Internet Protocol (IP)-based national alerting system in addition to investing in the FirstNet mobile network to enable interagency communications via voice and data.

However, as with most advancements, there’s a mix of both opportunities and challenges. Adoption of new technologies can be cost-prohibitive to upgrade or integrate into legacy systems. Consequently, for now and in the near future, homeland security communications will run on a convergence of systems to ensure interoperability and uninterrupted connectivity.

In the interim, the combination of networks continues to promote development of transitional hybrid technologies and gateways that enhance radio systems by allowing the use of commercial broadband networks. Perhaps some devices will be two-way radios with built-in LTE boards or vice versa. Either way, there is increasing demand for technologies that serve multiple purposes and allow users to consolidate programs and devices.

For example, law officers already wear a hundred pounds of equipment, and since most personnel also carry smartphones this creates development opportunities for public-safety-specific versions that are tied to a high-performance network and include a variety of mission-critical communications applications. Customized programs will be packaged together on one device, such as Infrared cameras, gunshot and facial recognition, hazardous chemical detection, and maybe even built-in fiber-optic lenses that function as body cams.

The trend toward government use of social media and group messaging is yet another “cross-communication” tool agencies are employing for rescue and response during crisis. It is proving to be very helpful in the event of catastrophic outages.

Regardless of smarter applications, purpose-built hybrid devices and more efficient communications technologies, it takes powerful network services to make it all work.

Next Evolution Network Resiliency

My philosophy is that, ultimately, it’s all about the network. Because network advances for future connectivity are continuously ongoing, I refer to it as “the next evolution network.” 5G mobile broadband services are the latest buzz. Third Generation (3G), Project 25 (P25), Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA), Long Term Evolution (LTE) and Internet of Things (IoT) are just some of the next evolution networks that have arisen over the years. We’ve seen critical communications evolve from analog to digital narrowband technologies, and now LTE is the top candidate for a nationwide system. Though LMR isn’t going away, public safety communications relying on PTT applications require the high-performance broadband connection that FirstNet will have to provide.

Complete network resilience is almost impossible to achieve, but agencies can vastly improve communications continuity, also known as “always available communications,” by identifying public safety network gaps and engaging new technologies for data gathering, connectivity mapping and other resource options. IoT offers public safety the ability to provide near-real-time decision-making. IoT-enabled devices will promote information sharing and collaboration about agencies, as long as cybersecurity and privacy are managed properly.

Among emerging networks of interest are a number of unlicensed spectrum offerings, which may extend 5G into new markets. Another network that addresses the hot topic of in-building cellular service is the 150 MHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which brings bandwidth support to mobile devices in buildings and public spaces. Manufacturing, utility and transportation sectors are exploring the use of CBRS for industrial IoT.

On an even larger scale, a select group of satellite companies are planning to deploy low-orbit constellations that could blanket most of the Earth and bring high-speed broadband service to areas currently without access. Though a worthy endeavor, these projects may face major funding and regulatory hurdles.

Remember, for any emerging intelligent technologies to support the transition to more resilient communications, they require rapid and reliable services, which is why I believe it’s all about the next evolution network.

Monitoring Emerging Technologies

The transformation to IoT over LTE and 5G is absolutely necessary for national critical infrastructure protection and resilience to support growing demands, particularly for monitoring or tracking personnel. Data services like these are taking more precedence over voice, and are driving development of unique smart devices with a variety of specialized sensors.

5G’s high-speed, low-latency wireless cellular network will play a significant role in connecting large quantities of sensors and smart devices. It will also enable leading-edge technologies such as Ultra-HD (4K) streaming, self-driving car connectivity, and virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) enhancements. The sixth generation of mobile technology (6G) is already on the horizon, driven primarily by artificial intelligence (AI) scenarios.

IoT Telemetry is next in line for fifteen minutes of fame. Telemetry predates the Internet of Things by many years. The word is derived from Greek roots: tele, meaning remote, and metron, meaning measure. An apt name to describe this automated communications process for collecting measurements and other data from remote places to monitor and analyze.

Sensors play a key role in telemetry as a source of data input. Albeit primitive, telemetry is already in use in law enforcement with sensors that monitor when an officer leaves the patrol vehicle, officer is running, etc.

Where does IoT fit into telemetry? Though the current data rate may be fairly low for reading measurements, once there are hundreds of thousands of field devices in play suddenly it becomes big data, which is IoT territory.

Meanwhile, I see early-stage development of new sensor peripherals that will enhance the usefulness of PoC/MCPTT devices. Most likely many of these sensor enhancements might become “untethered” from user communications devices via new networks like 5G. For example, a sensor in a patrol car might initially communicate through an officer’s FirstNet device, but later be able to communicate directly with the system through its own facility (i.e. 5G). At first, there will be transitional technology that relies on modems/routers. However, if able to communicate directly via 5G or other wireless network, separate modems/routers would no longer be necessary and the complexity and cost of sensors could be dramatically reduced.

Back to the Future of Emergency Communications

The communications landscape is ever-shifting, but it all ties together when you think about it. What was once the accepted norm in communication technologies became the impetus for the development of better solutions. This then triggered tangential technologies, which opened the door to even more opportunities. Never satisfied with the status quo, we are constantly striving to improve and build a bigger, better mousetrap, or network as the case may be. As the saying goes, “Hindsight is foresight.”

Dave George
Dave George, Chief Technologist and President of Pryme Radio, holds 29 patents and is the inventor of multiple award-winning products. An RF engineer for over 40 years, George is a key influencer in the public sector’s transition from radio to broadband. He is considered an industry thought leader whose keen insight is renowned in the communications technology field. Aside from running a successful communications accessory company, George also coaches a Southern California high school robotics team.

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