The smartphone phenomenon

First responders of all types are wearily familiar with the frustrating inability to communicate between agencies and different levels of government in the current “narrowband” system of public safety communication. Tragically we saw this during the September 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina when this inability to communicate cost lives and complicated rescue efforts, but we see it every day in the normal performance of our duties. It is essential to implement communication best practices that foster efficient communication both locally with our colleagues in neighboring jurisdictions and holistically among state, federal and local agencies.

The digital divide is often described as the difference between those individuals and communities that have and do not have access to the information technologies that are transforming us today. Law enforcement and the public sector are finding itself the victim of a digital divide due to the vast difference of technology use and availability. It is a reality that must be addressed in order for law enforcement to continue to meet the needs of the population. The way forward, as so many public safety organizations and unions have recognized, is to enact legislation establishing a Public Safety Broadband Network that would be truly national, interoperable, and cost-effective, as well as utilizing the full capacity of wireless broadband. But, even with rapid Congressional action, building this network will take time. At the same time, the private sector and ordinary citizens are racing ahead in embracing the wireless broadband future, particularly with regard to the dramatically increasing use of smartphones. This creates the digital divide between the private sector, the public sector, and law enforcement. This is further exacerbated due to the general public embracing smartphones as a key component of daily life and are taking full advantage of its additional efficiency.

Therefore, it is critical that law enforcement have access to the same or similar smartphone technology the population it serves. I believe smartphones and smartphone technology can and will have a major impact on law enforcement, however, this depends on two things: the allocation of spectrum and the right policy mix regarding the intersection of smartphone technology with law enforcement requirements.

Consider spectrum allocation first  

In our private lives, many of us have experienced the frustration of dropped calls and yearn for faster, more reliable wireless service.  Commercial operators have every desire to provide that service and are already moving to deploy fourth-generation LTE (Long-Term Evolution) technology. But more advanced technology, and greater numbers of users for current technology, all require more spectrum devoted to wireless use. Thanks to their greater functionality, smartphones use 10 times as much spectrum as an older cell phone, and tablet computers use up to 120 times as much spectrum. With demand rising by thousands of percent in just a few years, the available spectrum is becoming crowded, particularly in major cities. And no wonder there is such demand: there are already over 350,000 apps for the iPhone alone – a six-fold increase from just two years ago. People and businesses are taking the initiative to move more of their lives and business processes to the mobile environment.

Law enforcement, therefore, should be quite interested in the fate of debates over the amount of spectrum allocated to the wireless industry for both commercial and public safety use. The most important debate, of course, is that over the fate of the “D Block” in the 700 MHz block of spectrum – a debate that has continued for far too long and needs to be resolved quickly and favorably to public safety.

Many public safety organizations, including NOBLE, unions, and other concerned parties have recommended that the D Block, an additional 10 megahertz of adjacent spectrum, should be added to the current allocation to public safety. This will permit public safety to enjoy a dedicated 20 MHz of spectrum to build the truly nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband network that public safety needs. Operating on one spectrum will enable law enforcement agencies to not only communicate more efficiently, but will alleviate potential cost burdens associated with the purchase of multiple equipment needed to operate across varied spectrums. Narrowing the broadband spectrum restricts not only daily use, but the creation of apps that will help law enforcement function more seamlessly. 

But if the D Block debate is not resolved favorably to public safety’s interests, we will face an increasingly crowded spectrum and the likelihood that we will be asked to share some of that spectrum with commercial operators on an untested system of “priority access.” That system would be uncertain in times of crisis, potentially degrading the ability of citizens to complete calls. This scenario would be disturbing to both law enforcement and the public. The right decision on D Block is therefore only one step in an important process of spectrum reform that should see a much greater share of spectrum devoted to wireless broadband uses that are important for the economy as well as public safety.

Trending to mobile

Strictly speaking, of course, the devices to be used on the proposed Public Safety Broadband Network will not be identical to the smartphones that are for sale to the public (indeed, they will likely be far more powerful and robust). But they will very likely be similar and share some characteristics.  In fact, in many industries, there is a growing trend towards making devices for business and commercial use share similar technological platforms and user interfaces to devices with which people are familiar in their private lives.

There’s no reason this trend cannot extend to law enforcement and public safety as well. By taking advantage of the technology revolution being experienced largely by consumers, law enforcement has the opportunity to utilize these advances to increase its ability to community with and serve the public. It will reduce training costs and provide an added benefit by strengthening the platforms themselves. It will be cheaper to develop the devices themselves because of the common technological foundation with 4G efforts for the commercial market. This development of common technology for public safety on the fourth-generation LTE platform will lead to economies of scale that will reduce public safety costs and ultimately save taxpayers’ money.   

Of course, from a law enforcement perspective, we also need to look at the ways in which smartphones can help law enforcement do its job. Application software used in personal smartphones currently provides consumers easy access to a multitude of services and is growing at a dramatic pace. With greater law enforcement or public safety demand, the app market will respond to develop apps for specific law enforcement use. That process has already begun as today there is an application for basic Spanish phrases that police officers or emergency workers can use. Other law enforcement apps will come with time.

Law enforcement professionals need to understand the phenomenon of smartphones and how it intersects with our work. Smartphones provide a ready way to communicate information quickly to the police or other public safety workers.

For example:

  • GPS systems can help locate stranded motorists or stolen vehicles
  • Phone cameras take pictures of weather or motor vehicle incidents
  • Applications help route traffic around major delays
  • Provide a ready way to communicate information quickly to the police or other public safety workers
  • Postings on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter can provide crucial evidence that can make or break a case
  • Remote monitoring of patients by doctors can help those with chronic diseases and permit earlier calls to medical services when lives are at risk 

Developing and implementing a valid policy regarding the appropriate use of smartphone technology with law enforcement requirements will take time and require close cooperation between government and commercial operators. It can be expected that in the near future, smartphone technology will play an increasing role in the daily work of law enforcement professionals, just as it does in the work of many other industries. It will help make the work of law enforcement professionals more efficient and accurate.

This is the best way to think about the use of smartphones in law enforcement – a tool, an increasingly important tool for law enforcement that will take its place among the tools officers use every day to protect the public. 


More information

Further information on smartphones, smartphone technology and their use in law enforcement can be found through the following resources:

PSA First Keyword: Public Safety Broadband Network” - App-Store