NYPD Making Waves on Radios

Mar 29, 2011 Issues: First Responder Communications

By DEVLIN BARRETT
Wall Street Journal
March 29, 2011

In the world of emergency communications, New York City police officials say they have fallen behind not just the terrorists, but the teenagers.

Nearly 10 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center exposed major problems with police and fire radio systems—including the fact that many never heard the critical radio command to evacuate—emergency officials are trying to get Congress to help modernize the system.

The NYPD has been leading a push to get lawmakers to devote a special section of frequency to first responders. That's the only way, they argue, to ensure clear transmissions and data-sharing in a crisis.

"If you look at the terror attacks in Mumbai, if terrorists can use this technology to communicate, why can't first responders?'' asked Deputy Chief Charles Dowd of the NYPD Communications Division. His boss, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, has told lawmakers that the average teenager with a smartphone now has better communications capabilities than an officer responding to an emergency.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, much was made of the inability of fire and police officials to talk to each other at the scene, due in large part to the different radio systems in which the two agencies worked.

Mr. Dowd said most of the communications problems from 2001 have been solved. But he argued a major crisis now requires not just voice but data-sharing.

What Mr. Dowd and others envision is a new generation of police radios that go beyond simple-voice transmissions and allow the kind of information-sharing used by smartphones, including text, pictures, and in at least some instances, video.

Emergency agencies around the country echo that view, and say giving them a shared frequency in the spectrum called "D block'' is the best way to do it. Rep. Peter King, a Long Island Republican, is the author of legislation to do just that. "It's essential that everyone be on one wavelength, and this is the best way to do it,'' said Mr. King

The two biggest opponents of such efforts are T-Mobile and Sprint. Those companies and others have strenuously argued it makes more sense to auction the spectrum to commercial firms, and let the private sector create systems that first responders can also use.

Earlier this month, AT&T announced plans to acquire T-Mobile—a move that could, in theory, reduce the opposition to turning the D block spectrum over to emergency officials, assuming the deal is ultimately approved by regulators.

Ken Rehbehn, an analyst at Advanced Radio Access Networks, said he expects T-Mobile will continue to resist giving the D block spectrum to first responders but said that resistance may not pack as much of a punch. "Right now, T-Mobile has to operate as a competitor to AT&T, be at war with them so to speak, but they may not bring so many bullets to the battlefield,'' said Mr. Rehbehn.

Paul Gallant, a telecom analyst at MF Global, sees the merger cutting both ways—and said it underscores how hungry the wireless companies are to get more spectrum to handle increasing consumer demands. "The carriers see wireless demand exploding,'' he said. "No spectrum is going to come easy in the future.

Everybody looks at D block and says, 'I want it.'''