Seattle Cuts Red Tape by Putting Public Safety Antennas Atop Public Housing

Seattle bypasses the bureaucracy of placing antennas in neighborhoods by striking deal with city's housing authority.

by / August 12, 2010

Placing wireless antennas and towers throughout a city can be a bureaucratic nightmare. Few citizens want 60- to 70-foot structures planted in front of their homes.

Some cities like Seattle are finding ways to altogether avoid this common "not in my backyard" conundrum. Seattle Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier struck a deal with the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) to install Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless antennas atop the SHA's public housing, many of which are apartment buildings. Fire stations in some parts of the city will also take the antennas. The 38-antenna network will power 1,500 wireless modems in police cars, fire engines, public utility trucks and devices used by building inspectors in the field. The antennas will use a slice of the 700 MHz spectrum the FCC recently released to 21 municipalities.

In exchange for building space, the city will extend the new fiber installations for the antennas to individual housing units within the SHA buildings. A third-party vendor will sell service subscriptions using those connections.

For blanket connectivity, LTE antennas must be placed in every neighborhood. Schrier said the city might need to erect a few antenna towers where there aren't any SHA buildings or fire stations in order to complete the network. Those would involve the normal bureaucracy of neighborhood approvals, Schrier explained. "I think we'll need only three or four additional cell towers," Schrier said. "Most neighborhoods have some sort of Seattle Housing Authority building."

LTE networks use a fourth-generation wireless broadband technology that enables law enforcement to give traffic priority to certain types of communications, like video and voice, over others, like Web browsing and e-mail. Law enforcement and public safety are often stuck using commercial networks for video and smartphones, which keeps them at the same level as commercial users. That becomes a problem during emergencies when networks reach capacity, and consequently responders get poor connectivity.

Schrier said another advantage of the LTE standard is that it could enable governments to buy cheaper communications equipment because the standard works with commercial devices. Law enforcement networks typically use a standard called Project 25, which isn't compatible with cheaper commercial devices.

"The typical radio you see a cop or firefighter using is at least $2,500 for that one device, and it could be as much as $5,000," Schrier commented. "Compare that to your BlackBerry, which might be $200." These more expensive devices offer ruggedized features.


Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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