National safety communications network touted
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WASHINGTON -- A Carnegie Mellon University professor yesterday urged the federal government to use an upcoming opening of broadcasting space to develop a national safety communications network.
In 2009, all television broadcasters will shift to digital signals, a change that the federal government is requiring to release frequencies for public safety agencies.
Jon M. Peha, a professor of electrical engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, says the shift is "potentially revolutionary."
"You can develop something entirely new," he said yesterday during a panel discussion on Capitol Hill. "And we're all very much hoping the policy makers get this right, because it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity."
Dr. Peha, associate director of Carnegie Mellon's Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking, argues that the federal government could take the lead on creating a national system that relies on powerful broadband technology, potentially improving responses to local and national emergencies like Hurricane Katrina or the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Over the next several months, the Federal Communications Commission will devise rules for the new frequencies and begin to issue licenses.
Currently, local governments use a patchwork of different systems. That's especially true in Allegheny County, home to 130 municipalities.
"We're all over the board with radio systems," said Bob Full, chief of the county's emergency services. "Our neighbors are even more convoluted."
Some of the networks are more than 30 years old. And the cost of significant upgrades is too great for many local governments.
Pennsylvania has received an approximately $34 million federal grant to develop a strategy for using the new bandwidth space. Mr. Full says that's an encouraging sign.
"The only way we'll do this right is if there's a common plan and enough money available so we can all get into the system at the same time," he said.
The new frequency space, Dr. Peha said, isn't burdened with antiquated equipment. Instead, policy makers could consider mass-produced technology from the private sector that could significantly cut down on costs, provided that technology meets the requirements of public safety agencies.
Some local governments are already doing that. Every justice agency in the United States makes use of Nlets, the International Justice and Public Safety Network, which allows local governments to share criminal history records and other information. Nlets, which has existed for decades, eased its operations in recent years by making use of over-the-counter Internet Protocol, or IP, technology, according to Steven Correll, its executive director.
Many police departments, including Pittsburgh, are relying increasingly on laptop computers in patrol cars to exchange information.
"What we see in the future is that the police officer will get in the car and there won't be a radio there. Everything will be on the laptop," Maj. Dean Hairston of the Danville, Va., Police Department said during the panel discussion.
First Published July 23, 2007 11:08 pm