May 21, 2009 By Andy Opsahl
New York City first responders have high-speed wireless connectivity anywhere across the city's more than 300 square miles, thanks to the newly deployed New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN). The price tag was $500 million, paid to vendor Northrop Grumman to build the network, then operate and maintain it over the next five years. The New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) initiated the project with the vendor in 2006.
NYCWiN allows responders to transmit large file transfers, including fingerprints, mug shots, city maps, automatic vehicle location and full-motion streaming video. As a fully interoperable, IP-based network, NYCWiN links the various responder disciplines to that information wirelessly. This means New York Fire Department and New York City Office of Emergency Management workers could utilize video being shot by the New York City Police Department (NYPD), explained Nicholas Sbordone, director of external affairs for the DoITT. The officials commanding the responders do so from remote sites using the real-time data and video feeds.
The DoITT and NYPD plan to install wireless modems in 1,800 patrol fleet vehicles, enabling officers in the field to access applications previously available only from their desktops. Mug shots and moving traffic violations information are prime examples, according to the DoITT.
Unlike many of the citywide wireless networks proposed in the past using Wi-Fi, NYCWiN is powered by a Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). New York's UMTS uses radio towers built throughout the city that keep a user connected as he or she moves from tower to tower. Wi-Fi, by contrast, would require users to reconnect as they move from one transmitter's field range to another's, explained Steve Harte, associate commissioner of wireless technologies at the DoITT. He said UMTS towers were similar to cell phone towers.
"We covered the city with 380 cell sites. If we did Wi-Fi it would have taken 20,000 Wi-Fi transmitters," Harte said.
Placing the UMTS towers required approval by zoning bureaucracies throughout the city.
"You have to go out and make multiple presentations to community boards, the elected officials across the city council and the outer-borough presidents to get approvals for some of the sites. That was the most challenging, but it also brought them into the process. It enabled us to really express the benefits of the network to the communities that the first responders and public service agencies serve," Harte commented.
DoITT Commissioner Paul Cosgrave considered the most challenging aspect of deployment to be alleviating community health concerns regarding the UMTS towers, which transmit radio frequency emmissions. Cosgrave explained that the towers transmitted radio frequency at a level far below the maximum permitted by the FCC.
"There is no more radio frequency coming out of a cell site than coming out of a microwave oven. In fact, people might be more exposed by having a cell phone at their heads all day," Cosgrave said.
The DoITT resolved the concerns with community education outreach efforts.
While Northrop Grumman will handle the daily operation and maintenance of NYCWiN, agency IT staff will be responsible for securing the network. Employees, like building inspectors, have already begun using mobile applications enabling them to submit inspection data from the field. Saving inspection employees from bringing that information back to the office physically has quadrupled their productivity, according to Sbordone.
"The same security rules and policies that are established for an end-user logging on to their desktop computer, whether they're accessing agency databases or the Internet or intranet, all of those rules apply to handhelds that are deployed in the field," Sbordone said.