Battle Stations

WNET conducts tests to aid first responders

There will be talk at the Republican Convention about the nation's readiness for another terrorist attack. But behind the scenes, WNET New York, the public-TV station, will be using the convention as a test site to enhance our security.

The station will be trying out its second-generation Smart Nets technology, which holds the promise of improving two-way communications between first responders and their commanders at emergency-operations centers.

"When you put this system together with emergency broadcasts over the DTV spectrum," says Stephen Carrol-Cahnmann, WNET director, digital convergence, "public safety steps into the digital age."

The upcoming tests enhance an earlier round of federally funded tests held in May, with input from the New York police and fire departments. They used WNET's Instructional Television Fixed Service (ITFS) transmitter at the Empire State Building to send out data to emergency-response teams throughout the city. The results were promising but did reveal cracks in the model.

"There were certain problems that did not lend the system to first responders," says Carrol-Cahnmann. "We found that it required line-of-sight and a fixed-receiver site during the initial tests." The system was suitable for vehicles stopped at an incident site, but it didn't help first responders en route to a fire or crime scene.

Despite the problems with mobile reception, the test was deemed a success. It proved a basic point: Two-way data could be sent to and from the field. As a result, the project has received funding from the National Technology Alliance (NTA) for a second year of development, and WNET, working with partner companies Rosettex, KenCast, NextNet and Grey Island Systems, has solved the mobile-reception problem.

Two new components helped make the difference.

The first is a non–line-of-sight wireless modem from NextNet that can receive signals sent out using COFDM. This is a transmission method ideal for mobile delivery and areas with tall buildings or mountains. The second is KenCast's Fazzt software, which ensures that files and content are received properly.

"The latest generation delivers content not only to a PC or laptop but to handheld devices like PDAs," says Carrol-Cahnmann. "Now we can deliver signals to PCs and other devices on a fire truck, ambulance or police car."

The system also uses an automatic vehicle location (AVL) system from Grey Island Systems. Department personnel use it to call up a Web site on a browser and get real-time information on the location of vehicles. It is also helpful in finding personnel, who could wear ID tags with radio frequencies to transmit their location within a building.

Rosettex CTO David Ihrie is optimistic about federal support. "We have interactions going on between our sponsors and the Department of Homeland Security," he says. The expectation is that by next year, funding for the project will be shared by DHS and NTA."

Helping that rollout is the ITFS spectrum, which is plentiful in most markets. Ihrie says ITFS is licensed to organizations whose mission lines up with Smart Nets. Plus, the 9/11 Commission's report recommended dedicating more spectrum to first responders. Ihrie admits that neither Smart Nets nor the new DTV-based Emergency Alert System (EAS) are perfect: "But if they're put together in a synergistic way, we get a 90% solution."

WNET has begun a second round of tests, and early signs are promising.

Two antenna systems, similar in size and weight to cellular-phone transmitters, were placed on top of the WNET facility, and test signals were broadcast. Carrol-Cahnmann then put a small antenna on top of a car and attached it to a wireless receiver connected to a PC. He measured signal strength while driving in Manhattan. It was acceptable, even with interference. But reception can be improved with the installation of transmitters or hubs at more locations. Carrol-Cahnmann says it would take about 30 to cover New York.

Since ITFS spectrum is plentiful, Carrol-Cahnmann says it's time for stations to begin discussions with local public-safety agencies. The DHS will take a closer look at how well the system works, given the interference issue, during the convention. If it manages to stand up to that challenge, it could be rolled out nationwide. Says Carrol-Cahnmann. "We're prototyping a system the government hopes can be the model."