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Managed intelligently, smartphones and LTE could greatly improve military and public safety communications

David Kahn

Existing public safety communications systems are pretty dumb. Not dumb, as in a stupid idea, but dumb as in only able to do the one thing for which they were built.

A Land Mobile Radio (LMR) can transmit only voice and only to compatible radios. Once the first units of a communications system have been distributed, it is a costly decision to add features which will make new equipment incompatible with the installed base. Therefore, we largely operate at the lowest common denominator.

We have reached this place with the best of intentions. Public safety personnel who potentially can be thrust into life threatening situations depend on their communicators to work. Therefore, LMR radios, even those used by civilian police, fire and other first responders, are conservatively engineered to military specifications.

Interoperability -- the ability to communicate with other devices and systems, such as radio communications between fire and police responders -- has been a huge challenge because it had to be built-in when the devices were first manufactured.  The requirement that neighboring public safety agencies not interfere with each other necessitated that they operate on different frequencies, because analog radios had no other way to avoid stepping on one another. Multi-band radios that allowed communicating with other agencies were expensive and more complicated to operate, putting them at odds with this requirement for simplicity.

LTE’s bandwidth enables moving command center functionality to the field

Digital non-voice communication was added to cell phones in 1992. Initially, the data rates were so slow that it was used only for emails. By 2001, data rates had increased to 200 kilobits/second, which was fast enough to allow rudimentary, though painfully slow, Web browsing. When faster Third-Generation (3G) networks were rolled out around 2005 -- and data rates for the first time exceeded 1 megabits/second -- mobile devices could comfortably surf the Web, and audio and video streaming became possible. 3G networks were needed for smartphones to become possible.

LTE fourth generation (4G) networks are beginning to offer a substantial increase in throughput (10x to 1,000x, depending on who you believe) over existing 3G networks. This bandwidth will enable data rich applications on mobile devices such as command and control (C2) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), which currently are available only in command centers.

Smartphones offer flexibility and pose dangers

Along with fabulous features, such as multiple communications channels (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, CDMA or GSM, 3G and 4G/LTE), GPS, compass, still and motion cameras, and an accelerometer, smartphones also contain a high-powered computer and the ability to download “apps” to the device. For the first time, mobile communications devices can be re-programmed.

C2ISR apps could be downloaded to smartphones and use ultra-fast LTE networks to generate and share voice, map, position, pictures, video and other telemetry to make our soldiers and public safety personnel more informed and better coordinated. Next generation 911 (ng911) apps on smartphones could allow the public to not just speak with a dispatcher. They could send their location, pictures, video, and eventually biometric information.

Conversely, ng911 apps could constitute a powerful emergency response system that is able to locate and identify members of the public who need to be notified, and they could track and support them during major events and their aftermath.

The problem is that these applications need to be secure to protect privacy (e.g., the police should not be able to track locations, unless authorized) and to avoid interception of critical voice and data. If military and public safety applications run on Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) devices, they will need to adapt to ever changing hardware. Therefore, we need a methodology -- and ideally a software platform -- that can create secure, reliable and powerful applications that will run on COTS devices.

Covia Labs’ approach to voice and data services on LTE smartphones

One could target a single mobile platform, such as Apple iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, Blackberry OS or HP/Palm’s webOS. Covia Labs believes that a more pragmatic approach is to create a run-time engine, a “Connector,” that can be ported to each operating system, or run natively directly on COTS hardware potentially to support top secret data. This allows applications to be run without modification and utilize the unique capabilities of each device, effectively implementing Java’s “Write Once, Run Everywhere” promise.

The Connector can implement functions common to most apps, such as encryption, authentication and data transport, when connections are unreliable, and make hardware capabilities available. By requiring applications to run inside of the Connector’s sandbox, security is greatly increased because each software instruction can be scrutinized before it is executed.

“Connected Apps,” which must run inside the Connectors, share keys and code at the start of each mission, so that there can be no software version incompatibilities and data can be shared between organizations, when desired, and be guaranteed terminated when that is wanted. Connected Apps will run perfectly, without modification, on any device that has a Connector installed. Besides, smartphone connectors have been installed on surveillance cameras, drones, and flying pigs (see the video on YouTube).

Covia Labs has built a prototype C2ISR system that was named a “Top Performing Technology” in 2010 at the U.S. Defense Department’s Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstrations. We recently were awarded a DHS contract for implementing mission critical voice based on our unique “Voice Messaging” system, and SRI International was recently awarded a DARPA contract under which it will utilize Connectors.

Covia Labs is improving our software development kits to allow other organizations to create new Connectors and Connected Apps. We are in-process for FIPS 140-2 certification. Once that is completed, Connected Apps should not need to be reviewed by NIST for further FIPS certifications. Our company is working hard to build a foundation for reliable, secure military and public safety applications that can evolve as the world move from smartphones and LTE to whatever comes next.

David Kahn is CEO of Covia Labs, which enables secure interoperable communications for emergency responders and the military. He can be reached at:

[email protected]







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