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$140,000,000 Down a Subway Hole

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority just spent $140,000,000 to extend police radio coverage in NYC to the subway system.  According to the NY Times, the extension doesn’t work and the Police Department refuses to use it.  Oh, according to the Times, and the Fire and Police Departments won’t be able to communicate with each other on this network even if it does work because they’re using different frequencies.  Forget the incompetence and the fact that it might be fixable for another $20 million or so: this kind of system is the wrong solution for public safety today.

Today’s Internet technology can make public safety communication much more capable than yesterday’s voice radio systems, end forever the problem of police radios not talking to fire department radios,  and can better survive manmade or natural disasters.  Moreover it’s cheaper and can be installed faster.

So why aren’t we using Internet technology as the basis for voice and all other communications between first responders?  Part of the answer is that it has only been for the last few years that the technology has been available (the New York project started ten years ago).  Part of the answer is that most upgrades are incremental so there’s a value in being compatible with what already exists.  Part of the answer is that someone has to go first.

Quick review: The Internet was designed to be secure against nuclear attack in a very untraditional way.  Instead of burying it under a mile of concrete (early idea), it was made out of cheap and highly redundant components.  Instead of having a central intelligence that directed its operation (buried under two miles of concrete, presumably), it has no central intelligence: over-simplifying somewhat, packets of data find the way from sender to recipient on their own.  Although packet deliver is not guaranteed and sometimes doesn’t happen, applications can be built at the endpoints with almost any desired degree of reliability.

Any one part of the Internet is vulnerable to attack and certainly can fail on its own.  The network of all these cheap components is the toughest network ever built.  I had first hand experience with this at VoIP wholesaler ITXC: whether it was an earthquake in Turkey, the horror of 9/11, or the exuberance of Chinese New Year, the Internet functioned (somewhat degraded) when traditional phone networks ground to a halt.

The two paragraphs above are about the Internet backbone: now is the time to project from the lessons of the backbone to build an access network, at least for public safety but really for many of the rest of us as well.  It was an access network that the Transportation Authority was trying to build in New York.

For this post, let’s stick to an urban environment.  One simple answer is to make sure every outdoor spot (and all the subway system) is covered by at least two WiFi radios.  An alternative is to use the data portion of third generation cellular technology; but lets stick with the WiFi in this post. 

The radios are cheap and draw relatively little power.  They should have batteries for backup, of course.  The ones with a southern exposure should have solar collectors to extend battery life.

The simplest way to use these COULD be with a device that looks and operates just like today’s VHF radios.  It would be dumb to make such a dumb device on such a capable network but it could be done.

It would be much better to have a device that looks and operates something like a Blackberry or a Palm Treo (OK, like an iPhone).  Now first responders can have IM, email, maps, and a way to look at, take, and transmit pictures.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  No extra network cost.

How many frequencies?  Wrong question.  Any of these devices could be on any one of an essentially infinite number of channels.  Obviously, subnets would be carved out during an incident for use by people responding to that incident.  Since all the devices are WiFi-based, frequency incompatibility simply can’t happen.

Security?  VHF radio is not secure today certainly.  It’s harder (but not impossible) to tap digital data than analog voice communication, particularly when all sorts of stuff is mixed in the same packet stream.  However, end-to-end encryption between any sets of these devices that need security would work fine (for most applications) and not add much expense.

Using an Internet architecture with no controlling hub, cheap radios and easy redeployment of replacements provides better survivability than our legacy radio systems.  The technology is almost here to allow a mesh deployment so that nearby fixed radios create a backbone over the air between them.  Just a little further down the road using this technology, each radio carried can also create a net with nearby radios.  Since the mobile radios run off their own batteries, the network is even more survivable.

Inside a building is a problem for any radio system.  Another sad story from 9/11 was that the building itself blocked transmissions to those laboring up the stairwells (apparently, a fix for that problem had been installed after the attempted bombing of the WTC but was turned off).  Part of the certification of big urban structures should be WiFi availability; in many cases and in many places it already exists, but some invention is needed to open secured networks for emergency purposes.  Also mesh between devices will help cover dead spots.

But what about cost?  With no experience we have to take a swag.  The San Francisco Chronicle estimates the cost of WiFi covering all San Francisco at $12 million. Since New York has ten times as many people, let’s make that $120 million even though New York population is a little denser.   And let’s throw in $20 million for the subway tunnels and other assorted features. 

Funny thing is we come up with the same $140 million the Transportation Authority spent for a network that doesn’t work.  But this network can do data; this network survives disasters better; this network has no frequency limitations.  And, oh yeah, there’s room on this network for everybody else to access the Internet whether there’s an emergency or not.

Where do you think it’ll be built first?

More on a survivable network:

America’s Antiterrorist Network

America’s Antiterrorism Network – Distributed Data Storage

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Every problem looks like a nail. I'm sorry, but I have to disagree with both Tom Evslin and Sascha Meinrath on their analysis regarding this article in the New York Times and their posts about it here (Tom's) and here [Read More]

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