Ken Bednasz, Vice President Application Engineering IoT Modules, America, Telit
The introduction of the Internet, cell phones, wireless communications and IoT devices have undeniably changed every aspect of modern life. Whether born out of need or convenience, these innovations are in large part the result of collaborative efforts from both the public and private sector working together to solve some of society’s most challenging issues. Consider the advent of 9-1-1, which was designated as the national emergency telephone number by AT&T in 1968 after a recommendation from the National Association of Fire Chiefs to provide the U.S. with a reserved number for reporting fires. A life-saving service that had once relied solely on a landline connection evolved quickly to expand coverage, even in more remote areas, and enable every type of emergency call—from fires to burglaries—via landlines, mobile phones and voice-over-internet protocols.
Today, with technology advancing at a rapid pace and increasing data clogging fixed and wireless communication networks, it’s understandable how the nation’s emergency system and first responders have fallen out of step, and why the public and private sector have teamed up again to transform both. To be sure, law enforcement and public safety agencies have long been aware of the liabilities of legacy networks and protocols, as well as the financial and technological barriers delaying a much needed systemwide overhaul of 9-1-1 in particular. But, it wasn’t until 2012 the tragic consequences of its vulnerabilities were laid bare when a nine-year-old child, who did not know a prefix was required to access an outside line, failed to reach a 9-1-1 operator from the hotel room where her mother was being fatally stabbed by her husband. As a result, Kari’s Lawwent into effect in 2018, adding to new initiatives that hold tremendous potential for first responders and law enforcement agencies. Among the most promising, two government systems, Next Generation 911 (NG911)and First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), are being developed separately but combining to create the future of public safety. Born in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001 and built with AT&T, FirstNet’s top priority is to ensure the reliability of a secure, high-speed wireless network exclusively for first responders, with police the highest priority in the service chain, while NG911 will enable citizens to provide additional information via text, photos and videos almost instantly.
Bringing the two together is an enormous undertaking and one with as many benefits as there are challenges. In November 2017, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) published a white paperoutlining five major areas of concern: governance, policy and workflow, training, funding and technology adoption. Since then, industry, academia and government have come together to find solutions that will minimize costs, set regulations and standards, simplify data analysis, provide education and training and enable devices to connect seamlessly. FirstNet has taken great strides, announcing in May 2019 that coverage had expanded to more than 7250 public safety agencies across 50 states, device connections had exceeded 600,000 and a consistent network speed 25 percent faster than any commercial network had been achieved.
Harnessing the potential of FirstNet with Education and Training
With more first responders and law enforcement agencies opting into FirstNet, training and education have become imperative. In addition to proprietary tools developed, institutions such as Texas A&M University’s (TAMU) Internet2 Technology Evaluation Center (ITEC) host and support training exercises to give police officers and other first responders hands-on experience with FirstNet capabilities. Equipped with devices and applications, they run through scenarios, such as search-and-rescue missions, building collapses, vehicle collisions and more. At the March 2019 ITEC Winter Institute, first responders were able to share live video from drone-based cameras during a simulated earthquake event, gaining first-hand experience with a technology that can significantly decrease response times for medics to attend to injured victims. Jared VandenHeuvel, program coordinator for the Texas Department of Public Safety, participated in the workshop and underscored the value of these training exercises in helping first responders and police officers learn the intricacies and functions of smart dedicated devices, something they previously did not depend on in the field.
With wide-ranging requirements among first responder agencies for connected devices, important considerations including design, functionality, size and use (indoor, outdoor, harsh climates, etc.) must be addressed well in advance. Since cellular radio technology is relatively new to mission-critical communications for first responders who have up until relied primarily on private radio systems, it is helpful to understand key criteria for procuring the right cellular module to ensure successful application, as well as FirstNet compliance. Cellular modules are electronic components packing the functionality of a complete cellular voice and data modem in less than a fraction of a square inch. There are essentially two types to choose from in the certification pipeline: data cards and embedded modules.
Packaged in a standard IT industry card form factor (mPCIe), these modules adhere to strict dimensions, with one of the ends of its printed circuit board terminated with a series of contacts which mate with a connector typically mounted on the main board of the host device that will use the first responder cellular communication. This card can be inserted into an EMS (Emergency Medical Services) handheld computer, a vehicular network router inside a fire truck or another device. Essentially, standard data cards work the same as a USB drive—just plug it in and the card is ready to be seen and accessed by the host system. A major advantage of these modules is that they are easy to connect to existing hardware and, other than making the proper software/driver adjustments, there’s no need to design a product specifically to accommodate them. They also deliver LTE Category 18 high data speeds, making them ideal for public safety routers and gateways with 150Mbps/1.2Gbps data rates.
It makes sense to choose a standard mPCIe data card if the goal is to get to market quickly or when integrators and OEMs already have devices that accommodate the specific type of card in consideration. The versatility of standard connections allows these vendors to leverage existing designs. For example, a variant for the first responder market can be created for a vehicular router that’s been designed for general commercial use.
A small square about the size of a stamp and slightly thicker than a credit card, the embedded module is designed to connect with a device’s mainboard via a grid of solder pads, the most popular of which is the land-grid array (LGA). To use it successfully, start with the specific module’s technical documentation, and design the product’s board to meet up with the LGA pattern to create the electronic pathways. While the process of designing products to fit this type of module is more time consuming, the embedded option offers several advantages for first responder devices. Embedded module electrical connections are not only solid and immovable but also resilient to vibration, heat, corrosion and dust.
Click image to enlarge
Figure 2. The LM960 is a form factor that’s compatible with a wide variety of first responder devices, such as gateways and network routers inside fire trucks, ambulances and other first responder vehicles
Since many first responders often face rugged environments and temperatures, special consideration should be given to determine if it makes sense to choose embedded modules. This is especially important for body cams and other wearable devices that will more likely be subject to shock, tumbles and vibrations. The ruggedness of these modules also makes them a perfect choice for on-board cellular devices mounted inside emergency vehicles that are often subject to bumpy roads and extreme temperatures like ATVs. Typically, devices integrated with embedded modules result in a smaller footprint and dimensions compared to similar devices based on data cards. Embedded modules are also the lowest cost solution in LTE Category 1 that supports 5Mbps/10Mbps data rates plus voice (VoLTE) & SMS, making them ideal for end devices such as low-resolution streaming video and certain types of tracking devices.
Click image to enlarge
Figure 3. The LE910C4 is an industrial-grade LTE Category 4 module, compliant with band-14 specifications and requirements for use in America's dedicated public safety, first responder networks
For agencies considering FirstNet, and in preparation for the transition to NG911, embracing new technology is just the beginning. Planning and bringing all the stakeholders to the table will help speed adoption while shortening the learning curve. It’s recommended that financial and tech resources are identified early. Involve key members of IT departments or outsource experts to help prioritize throughout the decision-making process. Through collaborative efforts of industry, academia and government, we hold the key to realizing a new era in public safety.