How a $200 Smartphone can fix a $7B Problem

How do you get more than 3 million personnel across 30,000 fire departments, 18,000 police departments and thousands of other law enforcement, municipal departments, and other concerned officials to use the same communications medium?

If you ask the federal government, or the defense industry at large, they will most likely give you an answer that involves using legacy radio technology across several radio frequency (RF) spectrums.  Then they will suggest adding expensive bridging technologies, or using radios that have multiple frequency bands inside them. 

This is how the defense industry has solved problems for decades. 

But the First Responder and NGOs across the country have needs and processes that are different than the Department of Defense.  And sometimes a bigger hammer – or a more expensive radio – isn’t the best answer to the question.

FirstNet – A Great Idea With Great Big Problems

After the incidents of September 11th, 2001, Congress created a commission to review ways to improve our homeland security.  The most important recommendation to come from that commission was to improve the communications systems that First Responders and NGOs use to communicate in crises. 

This stemmed from the fact that hardly any of the disparate responders to the disasters in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania had the ability to communicate across departments. 

In 2012, Congress created First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) as an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  FirstNet was created to establish a single nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network. 

FirstNet is approaching the problem of creating an nation-wide interoperable network through allocation of frequencies and an attempt to realign the way radios have been used for decades.  The New York Times recently published an article that defined the challenges FirstNet faces.  In that article they note that that officials estimate that it could take up to $10B and 10 years to implement a push-to-talk (PTT) audio link capability.

Using a legacy approach to setting up a PTT network would potentially involve a 10-year and $10B rollout.  However this isn’t how FirstNet should be rolled out.

TiVo’s Lesson to First Responders

In 1997, if you asked people how they would record two television shows at the same time, they would tell you that they would need two televisions, two cable boxes, and two Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs).  And probably a smart tech-type to program the VCRs as nobody knew how to use those things.

Then TiVo changed the way we thought about recording television programs.  Now it’s nearly impossible to find a cable box that doesn’t include a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) as part of its base capability.

So are the communications companies eyeing FirstNet attempting to solve the problem with the analogy of two VCRs?  If you read through what the suggested offerings from companies like General Dynamics C4 Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Harris, SAIC and Raytheon, you’ll see a lot of expensive hardware involving a do-it-all approach. 

Worse, these solutions will undoubtedly be difficult to use, impossible to understand, and involve expensive maintenance contracts.

The answer may not lie in continuing to use legacy solutions.  To truly address a problem of this magnitude, a new technology – one that all of us use on a daily basis – may be the answer.

Why a Smartphone is the Only Right Answer

We’ve come a long way in smartphone technology since 2007 when Apple introduced the first iPhone.  Until then, smartphones were basically email readers with QWERTY keyboards that took up half the front of the phone. 

The Palm Treo 650 was arguably one of the most advanced smartphones at the time.  Yet it had a limited number of applications, required the use of a stylus, was single-touch only, and a notoriously short battery life.

Now when you think of an iPhone or an Android phone, or even potentially a current generation Windows or Blackberry phone, you think of the consumer experience.  Such as being able to play Angry Birds, send emails, browse the web, make phone calls, take pictures and videos, and write texts.

A lot of software developers have gone about building secure communications applications that encrypt voice, video and text messages and send it securely to another (or several other) smartphone(s). 

But these apps are limited to the inherent user interface of the smartphone.  They rely on the user being able to look at the screen and see where they are pressing buttons.  Additionally, there is little to no haptic feedback (the feeling of pressing a button, for example) that makes a user wonder if they’ve performed the necessary function.

Think about the what the dialtone on a phone line is.  When you lift the receiver of a desk phone, you get a dialtone that lets you know you have access to a working outside line.  Well, actually, this isn’t so true anymore.  A dialtone is a carryover from the years when we had analog powered lines from the telephone company coming into our homes. 

Now these tones are generated by your Internet Protocol (IP) phone converter sitting next to your cable modem at home, or the public branch exchange (PBX) in the closet of your IT room at your office building.

Without that dialtone, we don’t really know if we have an outside line.  Smartphones don’t even use dialtones anymore, but they do show a “Connecting…” message.  But for some reason we just feel better about hearing that dialtone when picking up a phone.

The same user experience needs apply to users in stressful environments where they can’t look at a communications device when using it.

So the standard interface to a smartphone isn’t appropriate for first responders.  They’ve honed their interface to radio communications over decades and don’t have a lot of interest in abandoning that interface.

This is part of the reason it is so hard to get first responders to adopt a new technology – they like what they use already.

But here’s the really important part.

You can marry existing user experience with a new radio interface.

There’s no reason you can’t use the existing Push-To-Talk CB-esque interface but have that connected to a smartphone backend system carried by the user.

The Forgotten Link Between Hardware and Software

Alan Kay is a former member of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where Steve Jobs famously got his idea for a Graphical User Interface (GUI).  Alan invented the GUI, along with the concept of Object Oriented Programming (OOP).  Both of these concepts dominate the way we write and interface with software code.

He once said that “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware”. 

A solution like FirstNet should involve both hardware and software, but not in the ways that the large defense contractor or the US Government are thinking about it.

First responders already have a highly functional and refined user experience defined.  In many cases they use shoulder-mounted two-way microphone/speakers with a large push-to-touch button.  When they push the button, a slight chirp or some other form of feedback (audible or haptic) signals that the radio is working and they are now transmitting.  When they let go of the button, another form of feedback lets them (and others know) their transmission is now complete.

So why can’t we use that same user experience, but connect it to a different radio?

Smartphones are, generally speaking, small computers with several radios, sensors, and an intuitive user interface.  They have data ports in addition to bluetooth, WiFi, LTE, 3G, HSPA+, and sometimes other (NFC, for example) radios. 

So why not replace the VHF, UHF, and other incompatible radios with a universal radio that leverages existing nationwide networks built by companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint?

Better yet, why not attach a radio to the smartphone that does provide VHF, UHF and other frequencies in addition to those that are a part of the smartphone?

How to Combine Hardware with Smartphones

At Coolfire Solutions, we’ve been working on combining hardware and software in unique ways for the past three years. 

Back in 2010, Coolfire Solutions was founded with the intention of building a product that could replace more than 100 lbs. of test equipment carried into the battlefield by field engineers for setting up and testing satellite communications systems.

Reconn, a joint collaboration between Coolfire Solutions and Harris Corporation, is a software application that runs on iOS devices.  The Reconn software allows a user to easily find a satellite and provides users with step-by-step workflows to conduct high-level engineering tasks. 

The goal of Reconn is to allow technicians conduct the work of engineers (saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per box in Field Services Engineering costs).  This is done by embedding tribal knowledge of field engineers into software-based workflows, and simplifying the user interface to highly complex test equipment.

But a critically key part of the software product isn’t software at all.  It’s hardware.

Reconn embeds an iPhone directly into a box that houses 10 separate sensors, instruments, and test functions in a single 10-lb. box.  Individually, these sensors and functions would take up 120 lbs. of equipment.  Before Reconn, field engineers carried this equipment around the world with them as they went from site to site to setup, troubleshoot and maintain satellite terminals.

So there’s a very tight integration between the hardware and software.  In fact, the hardware doesn’t function without the software.  And the software is pretty much useless without the hardware.

Coolfire Solutions has spent 3 years getting the software interface just right, but without the hardware, the product could not truly meet the needs of the users.

This type of integration between hardware and a smartphone goes way far beyond sticking an iPhone on top of an alarm clock.  There’s a sort of symbiosis between the hardware and software that you don’t normally see. 

Reconn is the smallest possible hardware packaging of test equipment needed by field engineers.  And the iPhone makes it simple to use.  Coolfire Solutions has turned the smartphone into a useful tool, not just an interface to a software app.

Smartphones in Battle

In addition to Reconn, Coolfire Solutions has also built a rugged case for Android phones that houses a microprocessor.  That microprocessor makes it possible to interface an Android phone to several legacy military systems. 

Directly connecting an Android phone to, say, a VHF radio used by the US Army and US Marine Corps that communicates with a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), is not really possible for a number of technical reasons.  But by adding the microprocessor in the case, the Android phone has a “go-between” to which both it and the radio can communicate.  It’s like plugging both devices into a laptop and having software on the laptop do the multi-device communications.

The microprocessor was embedded in the ruggedized case to allow an Android talk to a legacy radio, but after realizing how users were interacting with the Android phone, Coolfire Solutions decided to also add two buttons.

The Android phone was being worn on the wrist of soldiers in the battlefield wanting to see video streamed directly from an overhead Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).  This was a revolutionary new way to use a smartphone in the battlefield.

However the engineers at Coolfire Solutions realized that the users sometimes had trouble switching between the video feeds.  Even though this Android-based interface was a huge improvement on what used to be a series of commands on complicated laptop-based software, the users had issue with having to look down to their wrist and press a button on the touch screen.

By modifying the hardened case with the microprocessor to include two buttons, we gave the users what they wanted – an easy-to-understand user experience (UX) in a battlefield environment.  They could easily locate those two buttons without having to look for them. 

That made all the difference to the users.  All of a sudden, the technology behind the capability disappeared and “it just worked”.

A New Way to Look at Communications Problems

One of the benefits of the upcoming budget changes for the federal government – and local municipalities – is the ability to critically look at every dollar spent and determine if those dollars actually translate to improved reliability, capability, and safety. 

Most of the money spent on communications technology over the past 10 years was probably wasted. 

But first responders now have an opportunity to migrate to a technology that has nearly a trillion dollars of research and development and infrastructure buildout behind it. 

And the government doesn’t need to pay a dime for any of that.  They just need to buy smartphones, and occasionally radio hubs that can replace inoperable cellular networks.

And then find ways to attach those smartphones to user interfaces that first responders already know how to use.

Imagine how much money – and how many headaches – would be saved.


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