Tech to plan
By David Nutter
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 38 - August 13, 1998
Virginia's Office of the Secretary of Public Safety has entered into an agreement with Virginia Tech to develop a plan for a state-wide wireless-communications network that would enable state and local public-safety, as well as emergency-services, transportation, and natural-resources agencies to communicate with each other and share data.
During the 1998 General Assembly, the legislature directed the secretary of public safety, in cooperation with the secretary of administration, to begin planning an upgraded emergency wireless-communications system which would meet the needs of state and local government agencies.
Major Jean Henries, deputy director of the Bureau of Administrative and Support Services, Virginia State Police, expressed the urgent need for an upgraded communications system. "Not only are we having problems adequately maintaining a 20-year-old system," Henries said, "but we are unable to communicate with different police jurisdictions or with other state agencies."
Henries said there are several independent state agency radio networks currently operating, including networks maintained by the Department of Transportation and by natural-resources agencies. In addition, a number of federal and state agencies use the Virginia State Police network.
"Many local police agencies have similar systems or worse," Henries said. "The State Police needs to be able to communicate with local police and emergency services and vice-versa. Unfortunately, none of the current systems can adequately accomplish this. This has to change."
Henries said an upgraded communications system will also enhance efficiency. An upgraded system would have data-transmission capabilities which would facilitate the installation of mobile computer terminals in police cars. "For every eight patrol cars with computer access, that is like adding one additional officer to the force. The officer can spend more time on the street rather than having to come to the office and fill out reports."
Virginia Tech researchers will make a detailed evaluation of the options required for developing a shared mobile-communications network among public safety and governmental agencies. The implementation plan is due to be delivered to Governor James Gilmore and certain members of the Virginia General Assembly by November 20.
The ability to respond within this short time frame was one reason for selecting Virginia Tech, but a more significant reason is the wireless expertise available at Virginia Tech.
"Tech has an international reputation in wireless communications," Henries said. "They have been involved with a breadth of projects that provides an invaluable set of perspectives for this task."
"Virginia Tech will assess both the feasibility and costs of deploying an upgraded state system," said Judy Lilly, director of Virginia Tech's Communications Network Services and project leader. "However, we will also evaluate the role which emerging commercial technologies, such as cellular telephone, personal-communications services, and mobile satellite, may play in meeting the communications needs of public-safety agencies."
To meet the tight timeline for developing the implementation plan, Lilly has brought together a team of 30 faculty members, professionals and graduate researchers from throughout the university. The team brings together the expertise of researchers from the Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group, the Center for Wireless Telecommunications, the Space and Wireless Business Center, and from the marketing and geography departments, as well as Communications Network Services.
Associate Professor Brian Woerner, director of the Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group, will lead the efforts to evaluate alternative radio technologies.
"There is a host of exciting new wireless technologies on the horizon," Woerner said, "but the important thing in the planning process will be to provide public-safety personnel with tools that are reliable, secure, economical, and enable them to do their jobs more efficiently."
Lilly pointed to Virginia Tech's previous experience in developing a far-reaching plan for the deployment of a Local Multipoint Distribution Service (LMDS) which will offer broadband wireless services.
The Virginia Tech Foundation successfully bid on a portion of LMDS spectrum for the southwest Virginia region when the Federal Communications Commission auctioned off the spectrum in January. As a part of this effort, it was necessary to develop topographical maps of the state which depicted radio coverage.
"We will generate maps illustrating radio coverage throughout the state using different communication system and frequency choices," Lilly said. "One of the key points will be the number of transmitter towers required to achieve ubiquitous coverage, since each tower represents a significant investment. We will then have to balance the deployment costs and availability of spectrum for different frequencies."
Henries said it is too early to say what features a new system could have once fully deployed. But he notes that requirements for the FBI's NCIC 2000 project mandate that patrol cars have the ability to transmit and receive photographs and fingerprints early in the next century.
"In the very near future, every police cruiser will be a mobile information center," Henries said. "That will save Virginia money and possibly lives."