Barbecue More Ready Than Radios for Convention Security

Nationwide Emergency Communications System
A Los Angeles police officer speaks on a radio at a command post. A nationwide network is to replace the Balkanized patchwork of emergency radio networks. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

The official barbecue sauces have been chosen for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September. The 3,500 stock-car sponsorships, starting at $5, are sold.

Plans for an advanced communications network to protect President Barack Obama and 35,000 other visitors are another story.

U.S. regulators under Obama on May 11 froze funds Charlotte officials were counting on to start a new local public-safety radio network in time for the convention. The freeze marked more turmoil in a decade-long struggle to construct a nationwide emergency-communications system that is to cost $7 billion or more.

“We were on track,” Steve Koman, a program manager for Charlotte’s network, said in an interview. “If you were to design a way to hit us at the worst possible time, this would be it.”

The nationwide network, mandated by Congress in February, is to replace a balkanized patchwork of emergency radios blamed for lethal miscommunication during the terrorist attacks of September 11, when firefighters died after failing to hear orders to evacuate the collapsing Twin Towers.

Public-safety agencies haven’t put in place a standard that will allow any vendor’s equipment to be used in first-responder networks, in the way that Apple Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and Nokia Oyj can sell mobile phones for use on networks run by Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc. and Sprint Nextel Corp., according to a 2010 letter to Congress from Federal Communications Chairman Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Incompatibility Concerns

Charlotte’s program and six other regional projects authorized in 2010 were frozen to prevent them from buying equipment incompatible with the eventual national network, according to Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who ordered the freeze.

“He’s right,” Roger Entner, an analyst with Recon Analytics LLC in Dedham, Massachusetts, said in an interview. Buying gear now risks using taxpayer money on equipment that will become obsolete within years, Entner said.

Winning localities can’t spend money on radio equipment, and may be able to spend in other categories, the agency said as it froze funds. The agency said localities could propose revisions that may provide ``potential paths forward'' for continuing with the projects.

The Obama administration by August must choose a board to design and run the new network.

“I don’t know what decisions they’re going to make,” Strickling told Representative Joe Barton in a May 16 congressional hearing.

Motorola’s Ire

Twenty-one projects, including Charlotte’s, in 2010 received permission to proceed with trial networks. The NTIA awarded grants totaling $382.5 million, including $16.7 million to Charlotte, and $341 million remained unspent at the beginning of May, according to a fact sheet distributed by the agency.

The administration’s decision drew the ire of Motorola Solutions Inc., which is competing to sell equipment in Charlotte with Harris Corp., device maker Calamp Corp. and Cassidian Communications Inc., a unit of European Aeronautic, Defence and Space Co. Motorola received its own $51 million grant to build an advanced emergency radio system in the San Francisco area.

“There is no basis for not moving forward,” Greg Brown, Motorola’s chief executive officer, said in a May 23 letter to Strickling. Motorola will pursue contracts for the nationwide network, Brown said March 9 in an interview.

Stranded Expense

Last year Harris told an investors conference that Motorola, based in Schaumburg, Illinois, has 65 percent of the market for land-mobile radios used by utilities and public agencies in the traditional networks that offer secure voice communications. Tom McMahon, a Washington-based spokesman for Motorola, in an e-mail said he had no estimate of the market share.

Barton, a Texas Republican, said he wanted radio projects to go ahead in Mississippi and Houston, both places where Motorola won a contract.

The reversal by Strickling’s agency may strand grant funds in partly built networks, Jamie Barnett, a former chief of the FCC’s public safety bureau, said in an interview.

“There is no technological reason why the recipients’ networks can’t be integrated seamlessly,” said Barnett, senior vice president at the non-partisan Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, an Arlington, Virginia-based group that examines technology and government.

Earthquakes, Fires

The national network and the regional prototypes are to offer new capabilities to emergency workers shackled to voice-only public safety networks, or renting time on high-speed commercial services that may fail under stress. Firefighters will be able to see aerial views of buildings, police can tap into databases from their squad cars, and medical technicians can transmit patient’s vital signs.

Congress grappled for years with how to link emergency workers from different services and localities. One issue was whether to auction the airwaves to commercial bidders that would share space with emergency workers, or to hand over frequencies to public safety. In February Congress allotted spectrum to public-safety users and directed $7 billion toward the nationwide network.

The San Francisco area, prone to earthquakes and home to the Golden Gate Bridge that carries 9 million people annually, “cannot wait for two years or longer” as the national network is built, the regional authority said in comments filed June 8 at the FCC.

“Fire season is in full swing” and an advanced system would help map blazes, Texas authorities said in a June 1 filing.

Bipartisan Criticism

Getting Charlotte’s system online is critical to preparations for the Democratic convention, North Carolina Governor Beverly Eaves Perdue, a Democrat, said in a June 6 letter to Strickling. She asked him to rescind the freeze, as did Representative Sue Myrick, a Republican who represents parts of Mecklenburg County that would share the network.

“I cannot understand” a decision to halt deployment as the expected start date of June 26 neared, Myrick said in a June 5 letter to Strickling.

The city of Charlotte isn’t concerned about any impact on event security, Kimberly McMillan, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

``NTIA is engaged in ongoing discussions with each grantee, including Charlotte, on how best its project can move forward,'' Anna Gomez, a deputy assistant secretary at the Commerce Department, which includes Strickling's agency, said in an e-mail.

Congestion Worries

Charlotte may be able to begin service with part of its new network, which would at least give advanced coverage in areas near the city’s convention center, said Koman, the project manager.

Officers elsewhere who want advanced services such as access to license-plate databases will rely on commercial networks that risk a familiar frustration, Koman said.

“We know from other events that these networks tend to get very congested, and slow down for events like this,” Koman said. “We may not have coverage all the time at speeds we’d like to have.”

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