Texas public safety broadband program

The US is leading the way with the roll out of public safety LTE networks and Harris County, Texas is one of the first deployments so far. James Atkinson reports

Texas public safety broadband program

The USA is pressing ahead with the deployment of a dedicated 4G LTE network (FirstNet) for first responders. There is a long way to go yet, but as attendees at a Motorola Solutions roundtable at Critical Communications World 2013 found out, the state of Texas is forging ahead.

Todd M. Early, Statewide Interoperability Coordinator in the Texas Department of Public Safety, explained that the driver behind the deployment was born of necessity. 

Natural disasters

Texas declares more disasters than any other state and it was Hurricane Ike in 2008 that really brought home the need to Harris County officials for dedicated public safety communications beyond their existing LMR/P25 voice network.

During Hurricane Ike, the cellular networks were completely lost due to congestion on the network as citizens undertook evacuation procedures. Early said that LMR voice worked well, but mobile data applications via cellular were either lost or converted to satellite if available. Non-LMR responders were unreachable.

After the storm, cellular networks were down and responders were dependent upon carrier response. The carriers responded as quickly as possible, but based upon their own evaluation of priority. As a result of this Harris County realised that mobile data was mission critical, so an alternative was essential.

LTE network

Harris County began planning for Public Safety LTE in 2009 and funded the system through the Port Security grant program and local contributions. Eventually the FCC granted Texas permission for 14 LTE sites in Harris County in August 2012. Texas drew up its LTE system requirements, which included:

- Enable dedicated service to support first responders: essential for safety and efficiency

Deliver service even when carrier networks are most likely to be down or congested: evacuation of 3 million people plus in 36 hours

Redundancy and hardening: an infrastructure no less reliable than the regional public safety LMR/P25 systems

Enable group based services: interagency response and collaboration is crucial to a region with many shared resources

Deliver dynamic priorities to handle overload situations: dynamic and multiple local control; partitioning

Enable high bandwidth for data intensive applications: video especially key for port security and other applications.

Additional state requirements included:

Facilitate an open, standards-based environment

Serve all of Texas 

Enable nationwide interoperability

Strategically position Texas for the future. 

Early said: ‘We do not believe mission critical voice will go away with the arrival of LTE. We will still need mission critical voice radios. LTE will get there one day, but not yet. So, it will stay this way for some time until industry brings us to that point.’

The Harris County LTE programme has 14 sites. Early revealed that it will take 90 sites to fully cover the entire county. ‘The government and state of Texas cannot pay for a full private network, so there must be public private partnerships with tower providers, carriers and local agencies. We will use existing towers and establish partnerships for backhaul, as the requirements for that will be huge.’

Data trials

The County has trialled a number of scenarios to test the system. One involved a collapsed building and the broadband applications used included: pushing floor plans to rescuers; remote cameras sent into the rubble; patient data sent from the ambulance to the hospital; access to patient records; and a teleconference between the ambulance and the hospital.

Looking ahead, Early said Texas’s build out goals include getting more LTE sites approved for Harris County and allowing more LTE systems in other areas of the state to be deployed, as well as going after long-term licensing approval.

‘We believe we have the ability to move ahead now so that we can prepare for limited use PS LTE during the 2013 hurricane season,’ said Early.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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