Interoperable applications for a national wireless network: A case study of mobile video applications

Does a requirement for public safety video interoperability exist? According to first responders, the answer is 'yes.'

     An example: suppose a neighboring officer arrives on-scene in a camera-equipped vehicle to support the local police force during a crisis. Can the captured video be shared with the local command center? Routing and firewall hurdles set aside, sharing the video will be limited unless he uses the same applications as the local jurisdiction, or a gateway that converts his video and associated metadata to the local jurisdiction's format (a bit like a radio-gateway patches two different LMR systems to allow those two same guys to talk).

     Although one might think the in-car mobile video solutions are rather complex, they are built around commercially available components such as cameras, DVR, computers, GPS units and routers that are standards-based, and can interoperate smoothly together in a variety of different environments.

     Most in-car video mobile product vendors integrate the basic components in a unique architecture to provide their customers with what they believe is an optimal solution. Consequently, the product you are buying is proprietary. Although one vendor's components might be standardized, it does not mean you can swap these components for another vendor's brand without compromising the proper performance of the whole system.

     True, most solutions are based on standard IP routing protocols. However, the way one vendor integrated a GPS unit to its router and the format used to communicate this information to the DVR, may impede the use of any other standard GPS-equipped router within that solution architecture.

     These products propose standard video-codecs such as MPEG-4. However, another vendor may have enhanced the standard codec to optimize its performance in a mobile environment, and only its proprietary client software can read the streamed video. As a result, only visiting officers with the same software or an additional transcoder will be able to visualize the video in the field.

     In some cases, you might be able to swap a specific camera with another one, but flexibility is limited. You're basically locked into using one vendor should you want to extend your fleet without "ripping and replacing" the entire video system infrastructure.

     In all cases, the format of the metadata associated with the video, i.e. crucial information such as officer ID, time, location vehicle speed, which can make or break a case in court, are proprietary.

     Most vendors argue that the use of proprietary data formats and proprietary video and data viewing software enhances the security level of their products, and therefore, advocate the status quo.

     This added security might make it more difficult for "the bad guys" to access and tamper evidence information. However, besides being locked to a specific vendor for potential fleet expansions or replacement, interoperability with other agencies is not guaranteed, even if those other agencies are sharing the same access-controlled, public safety-dedicated interoperable network. Sharing video feeds would actually require them to use the same vendor for their mobile video solutions, and to invest the time configuring them so that they interact according to requirements. Should the agencies operate applications from different vendors, they would need to develop and implement an interoperable interface between the applications, which would be more or less difficult to undertake, depending on the specific applications and interoperability requirements.

     In both cases, an easy integration of additional video transmitters or viewers required in a crisis situation is not expected. On the other hand, it is probable that further developments — and additional costs — will occur each time there is a need to integrate a new agency's specific video solution within a local or regional public safety interoperable video sharing community.

A case study

     Does a requirement for public safety video interoperability actually exist? According to the first responders who participated in the District of Columbia's wireless broadband pilot network for more than two years, the answer is yes.

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