DHS Keeping Close Eye On FCC Broadband Plan

Speed, capacity, infrastructure and mobile delivery all keys for Homeland Security

Broadband speed, capacity, infrastructure, and mobile delivery are all priorities for the Department of Homeland Security, according to an FCC field workshop on broadband's role in public safety communications and emergency response.

That means the FCC's national broadband plan must take into account the needs for real-time video and upstream pushing of complicated telemetry. It also must have the infrastructure muscle and ubiquitous reach to make that readily available wherever it is needed, said various panelists at Georgetown University Medical Center.

The Department of Homeland Security is monitoring the FCC's broadband plan, according to Rand Beers, under secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, which he suggests will need to take into account sufficient infrastructure to handle real time video for command center situational awareness, mapping systems, censors for emergency medical response, weather status, and more.

Citing President Barack Obama's declaration of broadband infrastructure as a strategic asset, he called the FCC's broadband plan a "unique opportunity" to improve communications and coordination in an emergency.

Beers said that DHS believed mobile broadband would be a key to reaching emergency and other field personnel in border or remote forest areas where it is currently not available commercially, and even in other pockets around the country, like in Rappahannock County, Va., where he has a farm. Filling in those pockets, he said, is "critical."

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who delivered opening remarks, said the FCC was at a "unique crossroads" in delivering broadband, and said she hoped that the commission's plan would insure access to the kind of technologies, including mobile wireless broadband, that their work requires. She said it was important to determine whether broadband as currently constituted is sufficient to meet their needs.

Beers pointed out that emergency medical treatment relies on speed, communications and coordination. Citing the Fort Hood shooting, he praised the soldiers on site who provided immediate medical attention. But, he said, what if that shooting had occurred somewhere without hundreds of trained personnel, without cell phone or broadband?

He said that the FCC's broadband plan, due to Congress in February, would need to take into account the availability of broadband interoperability of communications at all levels. DHS has its own emergency plan, which has already been delivered to Congress, but will update it with information gleaned from the FCC's effort, said Beers.

To speed adoption, he said DHS wants the commission to promote standards-based and vendor-neutral technology, both wired and wireless.

The benefits of broadband-enabled applications, he said, include greater situational awareness, faster decision-making, and better coordination, as well as economic efficiencies.

Beers said that legacy voice communications would remain an important factor in the transition to a broadband-based system, so that needed to be robust and interoperable as well.

But a representative of the emergency medical community pointed out that voice was now a bottleneck, and what paramedics and doctors need was a network of databases that could be accessed and updated in real time, including medical quality video, diagnostic imaging, and complex biotelemetry.

Dr. Howard Federoff, executive VP of the Georgetown Medical Center, said that broadband could be a force multiplier for emergency medicine, improving diagnostics, reducing medical errors due to inaccurate patient information, reducing misdiagnoses and allergic drug responses. It could also improve cost savings, including reduced mortality due to better treatment in the first, so called "golden," hour. He emphasized the need for infrastructure that would handle applications.