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Fixing A $7B Problem With A $200 Smartphone
By Tom Cox, President + Co-Founder, Coolfire Solutions

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

CoxFig1 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.

However, First Responders and NGOs across the country have needs and processes that are quite different than the Department of Defense (DoD). And, sometimes, a bigger hammer—or a more expensive radio—isn’t the best answer to the question.

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.

Hardly any of the 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 a 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 officials estimate that it could take up to $10B and 10 years to implement a push-to-talk (PTT) audio link capability.

TiVo’s First Responders’ Lesson
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 no one really 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.

Are the communications companies eyeing FirstNet attempting to solve the problem with ‘more VCRs’? If you read through what the suggested offerings from companies, you’ll see a lot of expensive hardware involving a do-it-all approach.

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

The correct answer may not lie in 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 Might Be The Correct Answer
We’ve come a long way in smartphone technology since 2007 when Apple introduced the first iPhone. Until that debut, smartphones were basically email readers with QWERTY keyboards that required half of the screen real-estate.

Take the Palm Treo 650. It was arguably one of the most advanced smartphones at the time with a large user base. 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 potentially a current generation Windows or Blackberry phone, you think of the consumer experience. Playing Angry Birds, sending emails, browsing the web, making phone calls, taking pictures and videos, and writing text messages—all without ever reading the phone’s user manual—it just works.

CoxFig2 While many software developers have attempted to build secure communications applications that encrypt voice, video and text messages, and send it securely to another (or several other) smartphone(s), these apps aren’t appropriate for First Responder and NGOs as 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.

Consider the dial tone on a phone line. When you lift the receiver of a desk phone, you get a dial tone that lets you know you have access to a working outside line. Well, actually, this isn’t so true anymore. A dial tone is a carryover from the years when we had analog powered lines from the telephone company coming into our homes. The dial tone is there because we are used to it and it is comforting, not because it is needed.

The same user experience needs to apply to users in stressful environments where they can’t look at a communications device when using it. That’s why the standard interface to a smartphone isn’t appropriate for first responders. They’ve become comfortable using radio communications (click to talk) over the decades and don’t have a great deal 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 are already used to using. However, 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 and have that connected to the smartphone being carried by the user.

The Forgotten Link
Alan Kay is a former member of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where Steve Jobs found 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. Alan once said that “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

The FirstNet solution should involve hardware and software, but not in the ways that the large defense contractor or the U.S. Government thinks about such.

First responders already have defined a highly functional and refined user experience. 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 release the button, another form of feedback informs them (and others) that their transmission is now complete.

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 radios (NFC, for example).

Why not replace the VHF, UHF, and other incompatible units with a universal radio that leverages existing nationwide networks built by companies such as Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint? This would allow first responders to use the standard networks in low-priority situations.

In certain situations it may make sense for First Responders to provide their own cellular network. Several systems integrators and communications companies provide mobile LTE base stations that could provide coverage across a 40-mile-wide range for thousands of users, allowing for the switch to the hardened private networks provided by their regional private mobile LTE network system on those occasions that warranted such an implementation.

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

Coolfire Solutions was founded in 2010 with the intention of building a product that could replace more than 120 lbs. of test equipment that is 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 an iOS device. The Reconn software allows a user to easily locate a satellite and provides users with step-by-step workflows to conduct high-level engineering tasks.

CoxFig3 The goal of Reconn is to allow technicians to 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.

A critical part of the software product isn’t software at all. It’s the 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 normally 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. There’s an extremely 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 three years getting the software interface just right, but without the hardware, the product could not truly meet the needs of the users.

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 U.S. Army and the Marine Corps that communicates with an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is not really possible for any number of technical reasons. However, by adding the microprocessor inside 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 in the in the ruggedized case allows an Android smartphone to communicate with a legacy tactical radio. Using this system, users can simply load an app that is specifically designed to work with any particular radio. All of a sudden, the difficult-to-use interface to the radio has now disappeared and “it just works”.

In addition to controlling communications, this smartphone case with embedded computer can also support plugging in peripherals, such as push-to-talk microphones, cameras, medical sensors, etc. Coolfire Solutions is currently exploring the idea of adding a few large buttons to the front of the case that would allow users to conduct simple tasks without having to look at the screen.

The goal here is to merge this new mobile device computing technology with user interfaces that are functional and comfortable for the user. Dragging fingers around a small screen isn’t always the best way to interface with technology, as many first responders will tell you.

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 into improved reliability, capability, and safety. Most of the money spent on communications technology over the past 10 years was probably wasted. First responders now have an opportunity to migrate to a technology that has nearly a trillion dollars of research and development and infrastructure behind it.

The government doesn’t need to pay a dime for any of the development. They simply need to purchase smartphones, and when appropriate, deploy radio hubs that can replace inoperable cellular networks. Current industry offerings in GSM, LTE, and 3G are already robust, secure, and available to the government today from leading Mobile Network Enablers.

All that’s left is to then find ways to attach those smartphones to user interfaces that first responders already know how to use. Just imagine how much money would be saved—and how many headaches would dissipate.

About the author
Tom Cox is the President and a cofounder of Coolfire Solutions, a software development company that creates mobile, web, and hardware solutions for defense, healthcare, and enterprise clients. Tom started Coolfire Solutions along with four other cofounders in 2010 after a 17 year career in the defense industry. Coolfire Solutions was founded with the goal of creating an organization that can look at long-standing problems from a unique perspective. Tom wanted to build a company that can rapidly field solutions far faster, and far less expensive, than other defense contractors. Primarily self-financed through project work, Coolfire Solutions also develops its own products such as Reconn, ViewPoint and CAMP. Before Coolfire Solutions, Tom worked in Business Development at General Dynamics C4 Systems, where he helped close more than $1B in Satellite Communications business with the Department of Defense. Tom also worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) as a satellite engineer, and in the U.S. Army as a Satellite Controller and a Combat Medic.