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S.D. First Responders Consider Encrypted Broadband Network

Davison County, S.D., is pursuing a first responder-specific broadband network that personnel would be able to use to communicate on exclusive channels during emergency events in the region.

by Marcus Traxler, The Daily Republic / December 5, 2019
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

(TNS) — The Davison County, S.D., Sheriff’s Office is pursuing a first responder-specific broadband network to be able to communicate during emergencies.

Doug Penniston, the South Dakota consultant for FirstNet — a separate entity under AT&T, spoke to the Davison County Commission on Tuesday about the advantages of the system, which plans to equip about 30 county devices with the broadband network that would be exclusive to first responders and other public safety personnel without worrying about network congestion.

The FirstNet system can also preempt calls from regular commercial users, meaning the general public can be blocked from using the network to allow for public safety use. Penniston said that can be important in times of emergency or disaster, but also when there’s large-scale events taking place, such as Dakotafest or the Corn Palace Festival in Mitchell, or the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally or the South Dakota State Fair in Huron.

“Commercial networks can’t pass information in a crisis,” Penniston said. “First responders need more and it’s been clear they need their own mobile broadband network. Voice calls and transmissions need to happen.”

The initial cost is $646 per month for the next 12 months, before the cost goes up to about $1,000 per month, Penniston said. He said FirstNet tries to incentivize the program to keep costs down, and the price might go down in the future because of other commercial pressure. The network would be accessible through specific smartphones, such as iPhones and Samsung Galaxy.

The county’s monthly phone bill is about $1,200, Davison County Emergency Management Administrator Jeff Bathke said. The county didn’t make a decision on whether to accept FirstNet’s quote, because deciding to weigh how it would impact the county’s technology contract and price with TechSolutions.

The network setup would come with a clear downside for public transparency: the encrypted nature of the signal means those communications would not be able to be picked up via scanners, which have been a longtime way for journalists and citizens to monitor natural disasters and emergencies. Using data-based communications will cut down on what is communicated over public frequencies.

“That’s a huge plus,” said Commissioner Denny Kiner of the encrypted signal. “It sounds like a good program.”

The system also allows for drone use, and surveillance, recording and transmitting that video back to a central command area.

Davison County Deputy Sheriff Steve Harr said the county has done testing and didn’t have signal issues with reception or making calls in the most rural parts of the county. Penniston said the city of Mitchell has been on the FirstNet network for nearly a year now and has worked out kinks related to the rollout.

Penniston said there are a lot of benefits to government bodies, including that it’s not a contracted service and government bodies can cancel at any time without penalty. He said FirstNet also can’t increase costs on the county, either, and users aren’t subjected to throttling, which is the wireless phone industry’s way of slowing customers down when they use too much data.

FirstNet is a separate entity under AT&T, whose competitors such as Verizon are also attempting to offer similar services. Penniston said AT&T has done a lot of work in the last eight years to expand AT&T coverage in South Dakota, and expects to build more tower sites in the Mitchell area in the next few years. The FirstNet rollout is expected to be completed by 2023, he said.

“It’s not just used for crises,” Penniston said. “There are times where we don’t want crises to happen either, and we want to be able to communicate.”

©2019 The Daily Republic (Mitchell, S.D.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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