Steuben Scraps Statewide 800 Plan

steubenLike many critical communications users operating in the 800 MHz band in the early 2000’s, Steuben County, Indiana, started thinking about their options as the FCC-mandated rebanding efforts began to take shape. The county had enjoyed more than a decade of reliable service from their now-aging radio system, but it was becoming increasingly apparent that the time might be right for a total system upgrade. The fact that they would have to replace all of their old radios without gaining the advantages of a next generation, IP-based network seemed like a wasted opportunity.

“It just made more sense to use the replacement funds provided by Nextel to help offset the cost of a new system rather than to replace our old radios without upgrading the infrastructure,” said Cindy Snyder, Director, Steuben County Communications.

It wasn’t that they had been unhappy with their existing EDACS analog communications system. “After more than ten years, we felt we had really gotten our money’s worth from the EDACS system – it was the first 800 MHz trunked system in the region and has served us exceptionally well,” Snyder said. “We loved the system. But we wanted to move on to an IP-based digital network that would better support our planned use of mobile data, improve coverage in fringe areas and increase our interoperability with the many different radio systems in the region,” Snyder said.

A 27-year veteran in public safety communications with the state, Snyder had taken part in the selection process for the county’s EDACS system in 1992. After a three-year hiatus from the commission, she had returned to assume the directorship of county communications in 2005. As the new Director, she would be responsible for the implementation of the new radio system to serve the county’s police, fire, emergency medical and other services.

“The County Commissioners were very responsive in making the decision to upgrade,” she said. “The former Director had already presented the option of upgrading to OpenSky to the Commissioners and the final decision was made soon after I arrived in 2005.”

Before making that final decision, Snyder said that she and a communications team had talked to all of the user groups, drawn up a list of requirements and hired a consultant to help with the technical review. “Then we reviewed our options,” she said. One of those options was to join the 800 MHz Indiana statewide public safety system, as about one-third of the state’s 92 counties have chosen to do. Ultimately, the county made the decision not to join the network.

ISSUES WITH COVERAGE, DATA RATE

There were three primary issues that led us away from the statewide solution,” Snyder said. “First was coverage. Statewide, the system was designed to deliver 95 percent mobile coverage over 95 percent of the state. We’re a small county of only 308 square miles, but within that small area we have 101 lakes, which pose a significant problem with our coverage. We are a rural county with an agricultural base, yet we’re also a key recreational area with both winter and summer attractions. The Indiana Toll Road, a major artery between Chicago and the East, runs through the northern end of the county and we attract a lot of visitors. We felt that the lack of coverage available to us on the statewide system was a serious issue. We also wanted to achieve 95 percent in-building coverage with our portables, rather than just ‘on-the-street’ with mobile units.”

The second issue was the relatively low data rate of the statewide system. “Our goal is to implement mobile data, including GIS, for all our users, and the statewide system is very slow compared to what was available with other technologies. We expect our new system to serve at least as long as our EDACS system, and higher capacity mobile data seemed essential,” said Snyder.

Third, and perhaps most significant, was the fact that the statewide system was reserved for public safety use only. “We need to provide communications for all our county services, including the school districts and highway division, as well as police, fire and emergency medical services. If we’d joined the statewide, we would have had to fund – and maintain – a separate system for the rest of the county services. That was not an economical solution as far as we were concerned,” Snyder said.

OPENSKY MET ALL REQUIREMENTS

In assessing their options, Steuben County was attracted to Tyco Electronics’ OpenSky solution because it provided a standards-based digital IP network, fulfilled the needs for coverage and a higher data capacity, and would easily serve all county user groups while allowing ample room for growth. In addition, its four-slot TDMA technology would provide four times the number of talk paths on the county’s existing 800 MHz channels, and will also support 700 MHz channels as they become available.

“In addition to the usual scarcity of frequency allocations, we have to contend with the restrictions placed on us as a border state. TDMA – and the ability to add 700 MHz channels in the future – were important considerations for us,” said Snyder.

The county also valued their long relationship with Tyco Electronics’ M/A-COM business and the local dealer, Williams Electronics, headquartered in the county seat, Angola.

“We have always received excellent service and support for our EDACS system, so that relationship was certainly a factor in our selection. The only questions we had once we learned of OpenSky’s capabilities were about interoperability with the statewide system and eighboring counties and jurisdictions, and cost. The Sheriff’s Department was especially concerned about interoperability with the State Police, and so we asked for a live demonstration,” noted Snyder.

Tyco Electronics responded with their mobile VIDA network solutions demonstration vehicle, which promptly demonstrated live, system-level interoperability with the State Police and other first responders operating on a mix of radio systems. “That convinced the Sheriff’s Department,” said Snyder.

The next concern was the issue of cost. “We are a small county with a small budget. But even though we were asking for increased coverage and greater system capacity, there were inherent efficiencies in the OpenSky technology that helped to reduce cost,” Snyder said.

One of the efficiencies was the use of low profile Cell Sites that could be cost-effectively deployed in areas where increased coverage was needed. “They are very compact and can be mounted on poles or existing structures, eliminating the need for a traditional tower site with all its environmental impact and high cost,” said Snyder. Cell Sites are also budget-friendly because they greatly reduce the time and cost of system planning and implementation.

Another help was the use of Vehicular Tactical repeaters (V-TACs), which are really mobile TDMA sites that will allow the county to extend coverage only where and when required for specific emergencies or special events. Taken together, these features can have a significant impact on overall cost. So much so that Snyder said, “We found that the rebanding funds covered more than 85 percent of the total, with the remaining cost being offset by federal grants. In the end, the OpenSky network was a very good buy for the county.”

MULTIMODE RADIOS EASE TRANSITION

P7200 PortableWith final planning completed in August, 2007, system implementation began immediately thereafter. The first user group to migrate to the new system will be the School District. “We’ll begin with voice for schools and highways, then progress to other groups,” said Snyder. Easing the transition will be the use of the 7200 series mobile and portable radios (M7200 and P7200, respectively), which provide multimode operation. “Users can operate over both the EDACS system and the OpenSky network on one radio, which will make the transition much smoother than usual,” she said.

In addition to operating on EDACS and OpenSky systems, the radios also operate in P25 mode, primarily for interoperability with the State Police statewide radio system. “So actually,” said Snyder, “we have tri-mode radios.”

The P7200 portable radios have been tested over the existing EDACS system and Snyder notes that they have already seen a benefit: “We’ve already found that the P7200s have better range than our old radios, with no change to the existing infrastructure.”

M7200 MobileAnother key element of the county system is the use of VIDA Broadband for system backhaul. “VIDA Broadband is a 4.9 GHz broadband data system built to WiMAX, or IEEE 802.16, standards. The 4.9 GHz band is licensed for public safety use, virtually eliminating the interference that is so common on unlicensed broadband channels such as WiFi,” explained Paul Kennedy of Williams Electronics, Tyco Electronics’ local dealer responsible for the sale, implementation and ongoing maintenance of the system.

“VIDA Broadband provides data rates from 4 to 19 Mbps in a 5-MHz channel and can be used for many data applications as well as LMR system backhaul. It’s a great alternative to T1 lines or microwave links and provides guaranteed Quality of Service, known as QoS, that helps ensure highlevel security and management functions necessary for critical communications,” said Kennedy.

KEPT EXISTING DISPATCH CONSOLES

Another important consideration in the selection of OpenSky was the fact that the county could keep their existing investment in dispatch consoles from another manufacturer. “We wanted the freedom to keep the consoles we had,” said Snyder. “They worked well, everyone was already trained on them and they represented a major investment. Having the ability to keep what we liked – and were familiar with – was a major plus.”

When asked what she thought she had learned about the evaluation and selection process, Snyder had several observations. “We considered this a major upgrade and went through all the steps necessary to do a thorough job. That meant talking to every user group and making sure that we knew their concerns. We also talked to other users who had chosen OpenSky, and that was very valuable. I would urge that anyone going through this process go in with an open mind. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed a certain way by others. Think about what your users need and want, not what others think they want,” she said.

When complete, the eight-channel system will consist of six sites (two high profile and four Cell Sites) and 15 V-TACs. “The original eight channels will now, with TDMA, increase the capacity of the system to 32 talk-paths,” Kennedy said. “The county can also add capacity as 700 MHz channels become available. The V-TACs will be distributed to each fire department, plus one for the Sheriff’s Office and one for a mobile command vehicle. In all, the Steuben County system proves that OpenSky is not just for big cities or statewide systems. With TDMA, Cell Sites and V-TACs, it is an extremely cost-effective solution for any critical communications network, regardless of size.”

Source: "OpenSky selected for coverage, high data rate." Channels. 9.1 (2008): 6-9. Print.