Article published in Urgent Communications

Two college football games at Ohio State University last fall provided law-enforcement users and a group of vendors an opportunity to assess the benefits—and some of the challenges—associated with a 700 MHz Band 14 LTE network dedicated to public safety in a difficult communications environment.

With more than 100,000 fans in the stands, commercial carrier networks often become so congested near the Ohio State football stadium that they “won’t even ping” when users try to get a signal to communicate during a game, according to Kelly Castle, program manager at FirstNet Ohio.

But that was not a problem for certain law-enforcement officials utilizing a temporary LTE system operating on Band 14—the spectrum slated to be used by FirstNet for its proposed nationwide public-safety broadband network—during two games last fall. Leveraging spectrum secured by the state of Ohio on a temporary basis, Redline Communications deployed the LTE network quickly throughout the Ohio State stadium and surrounding areas, she said.

“It was awesome,” Castle said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “Redline Communications came in and put up the network inside the stadium and outside the stadium—in fact, we ended up getting a lot more coverage than we anticipated.

“[With a network] that is almost a deployable—low-profile, with a self-contained core—we wanted to see what kind of results we would get with something like that, simply because it is almost like a deployable. We did that on purpose. Performance wise, we didn’t notice any difference.”

Louis Lambert, vice president for Redline Communications, described the Ohio State trial of the four-site network as a “resounding success.”

“We were very pleased for the opportunity to take prime responsibility in delivering the full private LTE 700 MHz Band 14 network solution for this event,” Lambert said in a prepared statement. “The Band 14 network provided consistent, fast broadband speeds with strong coverage to public-safety professionals both inside and outside the football stadium, even when commercial networks began to bog down due to the very high density of fans.”

Law-enforcement users of the network—11 during the Nov. 29 game against Northwestern and 75 during the Nov. 5 game against Nebraska—were given rugged smartphones from Sonim Technologies that were loaded with an integrated software package of the ESChat push-to-talk application and Intrepid Networks’ Sting situational-awareness application.

“We wanted to keep it simple—push to talk, a situational-awareness app, and they could shoot photos back and forth,” Castle said. “We wanted to keep it simple on purpose, so those were the only apps that we loaded onto it.”

In addition, users of the LTE push-to-talk capability were linked via gateway to myriad land-mobile-radio (LMR) network to enable interoperability—an arrangement that “worked fine” throughout both games, Castle said.

Castle had expressed concern with the voice quality associated with a previous LTE pilot deployment in Ohio, but that was not the case with the network operated during the Ohio State football games.

“It was definitely better,” Castle said. “You can imagine the noise level in that stadium—it’s a little nutty. We had different people—myself included—take a device and go down on the field while the band was playing and the whole nine yards, and it was still pretty good [voice quality].

“We surveyed our end users, and we didn’t have the same issues with that [push-to-talk application] on the feedback.”

Josh Lober, president of SLA, which developed ESChat, reported that the LTE system was linked to four LMR networks. Overall, there were 510 calls placed and 825 received over the LTE system.

“It went really well,” Lober said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “This was our first experience working with Redline—I really didn’t know anything about them in the past. They worked within the constraints of the university to get the Band 14 system installed.

“Redline did a phenomenal job … The whole event, from my perspective, went incredibly smooth.”

Lober said that ESChat has participated in other Band 14 events and the is proud of the voice quality generated by the company’s push-to-talk application, but he noted that the user experience is impacted by hardware performance—from the LTE network to the handheld devices used by public-safety officers.

“These demonstration systems give us the opportunity to understand what the challenges are and get the feedback from the users. In my view, without the right hardware, the software doesn’t matter,” Lober said, adding that he believes the Sonim Technologies devices are the “best” in the market for Band 14 use cases.

Lober also noted the importance of ESChat’s integration efforts with Intrepid Networks’ Sting application, which provides situational-awareness to first responders.

“Sting provides enhanced situational awareness, real-time information and messaging,” Lober said. “It’s specifically designed for law enforcement and public safety, and it’s fully integrated with ESChat. In fact, the version that was used is called Sting PTT.”

Intrepid Networks CEO Britt Kane said that the company’s integration of Sting with ESChat is “part of our strategy that kind of separates from other guys” in the situational-awareness market.

“We’re trying to be a pretty low-cost provider to make it accessible to all of public safety … they can’t afford 4,000 or $5,000 radios, and they can’t afford million-dollar systems anymore,” Kane said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “Our game plan is to be that base system that they would use in any incident or any kind of public event.

“We’re not CAD [computer-aided dispatch]. We don’t compete with CAD. I don’t want to say we want nothing to do with CAD, because there is a potential for integration. We’re what comes after CAD. CAD gets the people there. We’re what basically allows the commander to take over and manage the incident with our tool. Because it’s on mobile phones, it can get at the tactical level.”

Sting lets first responders receive key information in a visual format that is intuitive and efficient, Kane said. By sharing location and directional information in a map interface and distributing relevant photos—of potential suspect or victims—agencies using the Intrepid Networks’ solution have realized an 80% reduction to the traffic on their LMR systems, he said.

“A lot of the radio traffic that’s out there is ‘Where is your location? Would you repeat your location?’” Kane said. “Now, it’s all visual. We find that a lot of users are astonished that the radio traffic goes down to about 20%.

“To me, it’s very complementary to a radio network, be it PTT on cellular or their existing radios, because it gets the radio to communicate only emergency information that can’t be communicated [otherwise]—not descriptions or locations—which is what radio is supposed to be for.”