Public safety broadband network: Boon or boondoggle? 

click to enlarge The goal is to link emergency responders across the whole Bay Area. - SF EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • SF Examiner file photo
  • The goal is to link emergency responders across the whole Bay Area.

A catastrophic earthquake strikes the Bay Area, and Oakland’s emergency responders can’t communicate with their San Francisco peers. Firefighters are called to a burning apartment building, but can’t see flames approaching across the complex. A child or Alzheimer’s sufferer is missing, but police in other cities lack a photo.

City officials hope to prevent such scenarios by implementing a $100 million regional broadband network that might eventually link all Bay Area first responders with smartphones or computers that can send photos, texts and streaming videos.

The federal government has contributed $50.6 million to the program, which was conceived after New York police and firefighters had difficulty communicating after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. While public communications networks often clog during disasters, the proposed BayWEB system would operate on a frequency exclusive to public safety organizations.

The federal grant is going to Motorola, which is investing another $45 million that it presumably hopes to recover, in part, through monthly fees from subscribers during its 10-year operational contract.

But the project has critics. San Jose and Oakland — the two other major cities involved in the effort to increase Bay Area first responder “interoperability” — didn’t sign the agreement. San Jose officials questioned the absence of competitive bidding in the decision to award Motorola the contract. But their biggest concern was cost.

“We don’t know if this is a $50 million project or a $250 million project,” said Michelle McGurk, an adviser to the San Jose mayor who sits on the board of directors for the joint powers authority overseeing BayWEB. “We believe this project has significant flaws.”

In the first three years, San Francisco hopes to have 875 devices on the network, at an initial monthly cost of $43 per device. San Francisco estimates it will pay between $3 million and $4.6 million total for its involvement in the contract, including permits, staffing and property lease payments.

Some San Francisco supervisors also expressed cost concerns, but in the end they approved the contract 9-1, with only Jane Kim voting no.

“There are unknowns, I won’t deny that,” said Department of Emergency Management project manager Barry Fraser. “But at the same time, there’s the potential for tremendous benefits for public safety. I think whenever you’re given $50 million to build something, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”

Mayor Ed Lee acknowledged The City had to meet federal deadlines to use the grant. “We were in a hurry to do it,” Lee said.

One rap on the project is that it lacks any capability for “mission critical” voice communication. The system will overlap with law enforcement’s traditional push-to-talk radio communications. Although the new network will allow some voice communication, it will likely be five to 15 years before that technology is equal to what first responders currently possess, Fraser said.

Fraser said the system will give firefighters access to maps, floor plans and information about where hazardous materials are stored. Police SWAT units will stream video back to central command for quicker decision-making. Officers will file police reports remotely instead of having to come back to the station.

Police Chief Greg Suhr looks forward to sharing mug shots and criminal histories of suspects regionally. He also cites the increasing likelihood that a major quake will strike the Bay Area.

“As the odds grow — and it would be a regional event — we’d be able to share pictures of addresses, locations, whatever, to determine priority, triage resources with the Fire Department,” Suhr recently told city officials.

Last December, during a five-alarm fire in The City, 911 dispatchers in the Department of Emergency Management were watching the flames getting closer to firefighters on TV.

“We had a lot of challenges that day,” recalled fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White. “To be able to see a live video feed at our command post certainly would be a benefit.”

Officials hope BayWEB, one of the first such networks of its kind, will come online by the summer of 2013.

“The rest of the country will be looking at what we do here,” Fraser said.

Santa Clara County balked over Motorola misgivings

Due to concerns about Motorola’s contract to build, operate and maintain the BayWEB network, Santa Clara County officials ultimately declined to participate in the network.

A Jan. 12 report from Deputy County Executive Emily Harrison, a director of the authority overseeing BayWEB, cited technical deficiencies, legal risks and “significant unknown current and future costs.”

Her report said the proposed network would not ensure better performance than today, could be bogged down by heavy use during a critical event, and suffers from a lack of redundancy should it suffer a catastrophic failure.

The report also noted that use of BART’s fiber-optic network would leave the South Bay, North Bay and parts of San Mateo County uncovered. That network doesn’t provide enough sites to allow “reliable, strong coverage” over the entire system, it added, and other sites would have to be negotiated with Motorola, possibly costing millions more.

It added that additional costs could come from roaming charges inside and outside the network “if, as expected, the system is not robust enough to provide uninterrupted coverage.”

The report expressed concern over Motorola’s unwillingness “to even discuss” technology upgrades for the network unless it has at least 35,000 users.

Conservative estimates for infrastructure replacement range from $50 million to $80 million, which would significantly raise monthly costs, the report said.

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