Feb 16 2022

Radio Backhaul Could Enhance Police Data-Transfer Capability

The costs and restrictions of alternatives make excess radio capacity an appealing route for IP traffic.

In an increasingly connected world, public safety organizations need instant access to data.

“Probably everyone recognizes the importance of real-time access to information of all types. When we’re sitting in front of our computers and we’re connected to a high-speed network, these things come easily,” says Daniel Lopresti, a professor in the department of computer science and engineering at Lehigh University.

For police in the field, however, that mission-critical data may not be so readily available.

“Confronted by a chaotic emergency situation where lives are in imminent danger, they have mobile communication — their traditional police radios — but no access to the rich range of information you can get just sitting in front of a computer on the internet,” Lopresti says.

Police departments are bringing such data to the fight, but often in a piecemeal way. Public safety agencies typically run separate networks for tasks such as video surveillance, the Emergency Services IP Network (ESInet) and radio backhaul. These networks typically utilize separate facilities, and the resulting bandwidth constraints often mean delayed or inadequate access to anything beyond voice communications.

Some see a way forward. Radio traffic, after all, uses up relatively little bandwidth. Experts say it therefore makes sense for agencies to consolidate networks onto their radio backhauls. In essence, they could seek to make use of that excess capacity for other modes of data transfer.

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Law Enforcement Ponders Shift in Radio Communications

Public safety faces an ever-expanding need for bandwidth. Rand, for example, points to a number of key areas where enhanced connectivity would augment police operations.

There are communications “to the field” that provide officers with augmented situational awareness. Then, there are “from the field” requirements as departments track officers’ location and status. Rand also cites the growing need to transmit dashcam and other video feeds, fingerprints and other scans, and biometric data to track officer health.

In Los Angeles, public safety officials say they are exploring radio backhaul as a potential way to meet some of those needs.

“We’re talking about upgrading our radio in a way that it can carry a missing-person picture or similar graphic that police in the field would want to see,” says Duncan Angami, senior communications engineer for the L.A. Police Department.

Such a shift would require certain technical adjustments, and the city is considering ways to support that effort, given the potential for radio backhaul to augment its other avenues of communication.

“If we wanted to use the radio backhaul for things like email or documents, we would need routers and switches,” Angami says. “Right now, the city of Los Angeles has a contract with Cisco, with Cisco equipment in 400 square miles of buildings and clean room and control room environments.”

That vast physical footprint means technical leaders will need to strategize thoughtfully around a possible shift to radio-supported data communications. Most commercial equipment is designed for environmentally controlled surroundings, and the need in Los Angeles is somewhat more rigorous.

“Our radio equipment is located on over 200 sites in remote mountains, with no environmental controls,” Angami says. “We had a vendor attempt to use commercial switches there, but the equipment did not survive in that environment. So, we would need a manufacturer that has a focus on these kinds of remote mountain sites.”

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First Responders Eye Limitations of Cellular Networks

Of course, there’s always the cellular option. With 5G and the rising First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) broadband network, police departments have options. 5G has big capacity and low latency; FirstNet was designed specifically to support the data needs of first responders. Still, there are caveats to consider here.

Duncan Angami, Senior Communications Engineer, L.A. Police Department
We’re talking about upgrading our radio in a way that it can carry a missing-person picture or similar graphic that police in the field would want to see.”

Duncan Angami Senior Communications Engineer, L.A. Police Department

Sanjoy Datta, director of systems for the LAPD Emergency Command Control Communication Systems Division, says that while these are powerful mechanisms, they still leave room for radio backhaul as a useful and even necessary alternative.

Given the possibility that cell service may drop in an emergency situation, “I don’t think we want to put all our eggs into that cellular basket,” Datta says.

“We are still interested in trying to see what improvements can be made on the radio side,” he says. “Among other things, we are in earthquake country here, and we’ve got to make a system survivable. At times, a private radio network might survive better than a cellular network.”

Radio backhaul also may have intrinsic advantages over other modes of data transfer, especially when it comes to matters of cost and upkeep.

“With our radio system, the airtime is free because we own it. It also is very dependable, and we have our own in-house maintenance already,” Angami says.

He suggested the city could leverage that same maintenance team for radios that also carry data on their backhaul, without significantly impacting operations and without driving up additional expense.

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Police Seek to Leverage Excess Capacity of Radio Networks

Given all these factors, LAPD public safety officials are increasingly interested in the use of radio backhaul in support of data needs. They are developing a strategy to leverage excess capacity from their emerging radio network infrastructure.

“A private radio network is still a valuable alternative,” Datta says. “In fact, we’re already implementing a brand-new radio system that should come into operation in 2022, switching to a trunked radio system from our current conventional system. That could allow us to add things like GPS from the radios, for instance, so that we can locate officers using the radios.”

That modernized capacity “would also allow us to bridge the radio network over the internet into apps so that you can operate like a radio from a cell phone,” he says. “We’ve got to go live on the new system first. Then we’re going to try to figure out, working with our regional partners, what we’re going to be doing next.”

Cisco is already demonstrating the art of the possible. In Nepal, the company is helping address seasonal flooding by enabling river sensors to use radio bandwidth to broadcast signals. This disaster-mitigation effort seeks to improve the reliability of an alert system that could save homes and lives.

Experts say this approach could help achieve public safety’s long-term ambition of having more interoperable communications overall.

“Some of the original impetus for this came from the challenges first responders experienced during 9/11, where they were forced to fly blind, cut off from critical information,” Lopresti says. “More recent catastrophes are just as illustrative: the wildfires in the western U.S., recent hurricanes and the flooding they’ve caused, building collapses, and active shooter situations.”

These types of circumstances call for a solution that moves more data faster and that brings together real-time voice and data-driven applications.

“In all these cases, law enforcement and other first responders could make tremendous use of real-time video, building floor plans, the availability of safe rescue routes and other situational-awareness data,” Lopresti says.

Given its inherent resilience, security and interoperability, he says, radio backhaul offers “a way to bridge between those two worlds and could be critically important to lifesaving efforts in catastrophic events.”

DIVE DEEPER: How do police enhance situational awareness with real-time data?

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