Homeland Security and Public Safety

Boston Bombings Highlight Need for Public Safety Broadband Network

The massive investigation demonstrated how first responders need to be able to securely share high volumes of data.

As law enforcement desperately hunted the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, the city’s reliance on commercial cellular wireless carriers became an escalating problem. Just like runners who had trouble reconnecting with their families, the city experienced major crashes in the aftermath of the deadly bombing.

"I called Comcast and asked them to open up the Xfinity Wi-Fi in Watertown," Boston Chief Information Officer Donald Denning said in an interview with Stateline.

The massive investigation demonstrated how first responders need to be able to securely share high volumes of data with partners in other law enforcement agencies. Denning said the city’s reliance on the capacity of commercial carriers reinforced the need for a dedicated national public safety broadband network that is now in its planning stage.

In comments that proved to be tragically prescient, the City of Boston offered advice to the builders of this national public safety broadband network in late 2012. “Time is of the essence,” it told FirstNet, the independent authority that will design, build and operate the network.

After the marathon bombings that killed three and injured more than 200, every layer of law enforcement scrambled to coordinate. Upgrades to communications technology in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks allowed for reliable voice contact among first responders. But problems emerged when they tried to quickly share data—including the videos that ultimately led to the apprehension of the Tsarnaev brothers.

Extensive disaster planning and standard police radios known as “land mobile radios” provided reliable service and more seamless voice communication between federal, state and local officials than would have been possible in many areas of the country.

“They had in place the means and governance to integrate the federal responders as the investigation moved forward and revved up,” Suzanne Spaulding, deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told FirstNet’s board April 23.

Still, Spaulding acknowledged there were other communications failures during the response to the bombings. “Significant problems really arose … with that essential delivery of big data packages, particularly the videos that proved to be so significant and important in the resolution of this event.” She said the challenges experienced in Boston are precisely the issues FirstNet is supposed to address.

In 2008, Boston applied for a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to build a dedicated citywide public safety network. It received the waiver in 2010, but has not been able to secure funding to build it, Denning said.

“We needed it then and we need it now,” Denning, the Boston CIO, said. “Broadband data five years ago would not have been in as high demand at the bombing scene as it was today, and we're only going to need more and more capacity.”

FirstNet board members said watching the Boston tragedy unfold has strengthened their resolve to complete an enormous task.

“What I was thinking about when I was looking at the TV coverage of Boston was, we made the right decision,” said Sam Ginn, FirstNet chairman and a telecommunications executive. “We're going put in place an infrastructure that's going to allow video transmission, that's going to allow downloads of camera information, downloads of pictures of people, all kind of things that I think will benefit public safety in an emergency situation.”

Daunting Task

The idea for this network is to leverage the collective buying power of law enforcement and first responders across the country to build a cost-effective system to share information ranging from voice conversations to high-definition videos and data with minimal fear of security breaches or network failures. It will be the largest network of its kind in the world, serving 60,000 federal, state, local and tribal public safety agencies.

Congress approved $7 billion in February 2012 to build the network and reallocated 20 megahertz of spectrum airwave capacity for it. A national network moves away from the longstanding “network of networks” approach to communications that made it difficult for first responders to communicate with one another in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. The legislation gives FirstNet broad powers as the sole licensee of the network.

An independent authority within the Department of Commerce, FirstNet is still in its infancy and just announced a general manager at its April meeting. Already it is grappling with difficult questions and facing criticism as it juggles the needs of its users.

The $7 billion is less than half of the $15 billion the FCC estimates the network will cost. To succeed, the network ultimately has to be affordable for state and local users, who will pay for operations and maintenance. “We’re very conscious that if we don’t have the right price point, the network will not be successful,” FirstNet Board member Teri Takai told Stateline.

But state and local governments will also have to continue paying for their existing “land mobile radio” systems until broadband-based voice functions have been fully developed and proven reliable. According to a February 2012 Government Accountability Office report, that may take a decade or more.

At a recent hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Ginn assured Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., that the network will be affordable for states; withstand power surges, terrorist attacks and natural disasters; and accommodate secure heavy use.