CTIA : Wireless aids homeland security, but IT gaps remain

The wireless technologies available to police, fire and other emergency workers have improved since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to a panel of government officials and vendor executives who spoke at this week’s CTIA Wireless 2005 conference.

But they said during the panel discussion and in later interviews that much work remains to be done to improve the interoperability of wireless devices for emergency responders and to set up effective warning systems in the event of another terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

The widespread lack of interoperability among public safety networks is one of the most serious homeland security shortcomings, panelists noted. “It’s going to take time to solve that problem, and it’s unfortunate,” said moderator Christopher Guttman-McCabe, assistant vice president for regulatory policy and homeland security at the CTIA, the Washington-based trade group that sponsored the conference here in New Orleans.

As an example of the disparities that now exist, the Tennessee Valley Authority has 38 different wireless networks used by various personnel, said one audience member, a communications engineer at the TVA who asked not to be named. The engineer added that 20 of the networks are now being consolidated into a single one based on Nextel Communications Inc.’s technology. The project with Nextel will hopefully simplify a complex system, although further consolidation would help, he said.

Some police and fire personnel are forced to carry several wireless radios or have to yell through bullhorns at emergency scenes, said Jim Dailey, director of the office of homeland security at the Federal Communications Commission. The problem is political as well as technological, Dailey noted; he and other panelists said that different jurisdictions in large metropolitan areas often want to retain control of their own networks.

Metropolitan regions might be able to increase cooperation among cities and towns by developing Wi-Fi mesh networks for transmitting information, said Ron Sege, president of Tropos Networks Inc., which has installed outdoor Wi-Fi routers in more than 125 cities nationwide. The problem with using Wi-Fi for emergency purposes is that the networks operate in unlicensed radio spectrum, which makes them vulnerable to interference, said Guttman-McCabe. But technologies could be developed to prevent such vulnerabilities, he added.

Wireless network operators responded quickly to a call from President Bush for Wireless Priority Service capabilities after Sept. 11, 2001, said John Graves, WPS program director for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Communications System unit. WPS lets an emergency responder using a wireless device equipped with a special code be put at the head of the line of wireless calls running over a network, Guttman-McCabe said.

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