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Charlotte, N.C., Launches Revamped Public Safety Communications Network

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, Fire Department and other responders now have access to 4G wireless speed in the field.

It took five years and a significant change in plans, but first responders in Charlotte, N.C., finally have a fourth-generation broadband network at their disposal.

The new high-end wireless network runs off of commercially available 4G provided by Verizon that was formally introduced late last month. The original project – where Charlotte would own and operate its own private LTE network – kicked-off in 2010, but fell through in 2013.

Work on the network was scuttled when Charlotte and the First Responder Network Authority – the federal group charged with delivering a nationwide public safety broadband network – failed to reach an agreement for wireless spectrum management. That led to the city’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant funding being halted.

As a result, Charlotte officials believed it would be increasingly difficult to get authorization from the FCC to use specific radio frequencies, so the city shifted gears to look at what options the private sector could provide. After a renegotiation with the U.S. Department of Commerce that allowed Charlotte to re-purpose its leftover $8.8 million in grant funds, the city was able to continue the project with the help of the private sector.

“We have built a public safety wireless environment over commercially-available 4G, using devices that allow us to put in a second wireless SIM card, that can accommodate FirstNet when it’s available,” said Charlotte CIO Jeff Stovall. “So, we have dual-network capability in our mobile gateways [that] will allow us to use Band 14.”

The Band 14 spectrum is the 700 MHz frequencies earmarked for public-safety broadband use in the United States.

The new 4G network cost approximately $11.2 million overall, with Charlotte putting in about $2.4 million, according to Stovall. The project's main benefits include enabling fire and police agencies to share data with units in the field at a much more secure and faster rate. It also gives responders the ability to use several high-end applications, such as GIS mapping systems and crime analytics programs, which were previously problematic on slower speeds.

The network is installed on 950 public safety vehicles, 42 fire stations and 14 police divisions. Other benefits of the network include giving agencies access to video, the ability to capture and see video and text alerts on social media, and the ability to complete paperwork remotely, allowing officers to spend more time in the field, instead of at their desks.

Charlotte completely overhauled its on-premise and wireline networks associated with public safety. The city also revamped a lot of its older network architecture and converted its entire public safety network to 10-gigabit Ethernet, which radically increases internal data transmission speeds.

That has also enabled Charlotte to prepare itself for what Stovall expects to be a big push in police body camera video needs in the future.

“We are already starting to deploy body cameras for all our officers and expect to have them on all of our police officers by the end of this calendar year,” Stovall said. “The network upgrade will allow us to move the video from those cameras to the cloud and on premise storage on the same network.”

Give and Take

Despite the benefits, Stovall admitted that going from a proposed private LTE network to one that relies on private-sector carriers has its drawbacks. The original project would have given Charlotte complete use of the frequencies the network uses in the event of an emergency. But that’s not possible with the city’s new network.

“We would have been able to set the prioritization for use of the network,” Stovall said. “In going across a commercial network, you no longer have that prioritization right anymore. That’s a big piece of functionality that’s left on the cutting room floor.”

The trade-off is worth it, particularly from a financial standpoint, Stovall added. He explained that had the city gone forward with its own private LTE network, it would have had to upgrade its technology assets roughly every five years to keep current and support new capabilities.

By working with the commercial providers, Charlotte reduces its dependence on the capital reinvestment that the original project would have continually required.

“Even though we don’t have exclusivity in the use of the frequencies, we still have a profile that looks pretty darn good in terms of the ability to use the data network at speeds that are commercially the best speeds available,” Stovall said. “If we decide we want to switch carriers tomorrow, that’s a relatively trivial change for us.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.