Harris County Super Bowl LI After Action Report, What Can Europe Learn?

The June Knect365 5G World Event in London included a full day of LTE public safety presentations and panel discussions. In the aftermath of multiple large-scale incidents -- including the massive Grenfell Tower fire on the day of the 5G World Event -- European government ministries are now taking stock of modernization options for public safety communications. As speakers from these agencies reflected on TETRA's functionality and timeline, they pointed to a compelling need to add mission critical mobile broadband into the public safety operational toolkit sooner rather than later. Early large scale public safety operations in the US using LTE networks can inform European policy makers as they look to modernize operations. Harris County, Texas conducted one such operation in February 2017 as they hosted Super Bowl LI. This note examines some of the key findings touched upon in the County's extraordinarily well-written after-action report.

Even before FirstNet awarded AT&T the US national public safety broadband network (PSBN) contract, local agencies around the US had opportunities to test out the FirstNet Band 14 spectrum by serving as Early Builders. FirstNet approved five Early Builder jurisdictions that held grant funding pre-dating FirstNet. The creation of FirstNet in 2012 forced agencies that had money to build networks to stop and seek permission from FirstNet to use of the spectrum.  In exchange for authorization to operate, FirstNet required these jurisdictions to support Key Learning Conditions that would help guide future public safety mobile broadband operations. Harris County, Texas is one of the Early Builders and produced the Super Bowl LI After Action Report as a deliverable in support of its commitment.  While intended for US consumption, the report insights apply as well to European and Asian agencies planning for modernized public safety communications.

On February 5, 2017, the city of Houston hosted the National Football League Championship Super Bowl LI (51).  Since the 1990s, the US government has classified these major sporting events as National Special Security Events (NSSE) due to the championship's significance, crowd size, attendance by dignitaries and challenges faced by local security forces. Given the scope of the Super Bowl activities, Houston incorporated its Harris County LTE (HCLTE) network into operational activity at and around the sporting venue.

Key Benefits

The After Action report points to many significant benefits. These include:

Reduced misinformation thanks to pictures and videos. In what is perhaps the most important benefit, the capability to flow original content in the form of pictures and videos sharply improved group understanding of what was being communicated. The report points to sharing functions for pictures and video as the "Killer App" for public safety.

Reduced radio traffic. As information flow moves to non-voice channels, the amount of air time consumed drops. The result increases the effectiveness of voice radio communications.  

The value of secure information sharing. Avoiding the broadcast of sensitive information over voice radio links protected the information being sent.  With multiple agencies operating within the trust framework, the secure information links enabled more efficient coordination. 

Quiet command post. Complex events are tough to manage in the best of times. The reduced voice traffic and more efficient transmission of rich information over LTE data links helped foster a calm and quiet command post.

Major Lessons

As much as a boon as HCLTE provided for Super Bowl LI operations, some issues did arise.  Key lessons that emerged from the experience include:

Ubiquitous coverage matters. Because Super Bowl activities extend to many different venues thanks to large celebrations, charity events and other activities, the lack of in-building coverage at remote locations poised significant challenges. The report flatly calls the coverage inadequate. As nations embrace mobile broadband systems for public safety, they must also extend Building Code requirements to ensure access to public safety broadband radio signals. Deployable systems can help. But early stages of a surprise incident -- unlike a carefully pre-planned and staged NSSE -- will likely not have the benefits of a deployable.

Mobile device management is a difficult challenge. Agencies have a hard enough time configuring legacy voice terminals for Project 25 and TETRA. The range of options for smart devices operating on LTE networks is wide, and provisioning takes too much manual intervention today.

Improved Identity Credentialing & Access Management (ICAM) is vital. In the absence of a FirstNet program in place for ICAM, each application vendor takes a proprietary approach. Multiple vendor-specific methods lead to multiple username and password databases that are extremely difficult to manage. Moreover, it opens the door to security risks.

It is 2017, and we do not have a NIMS/ICS framework for broadband communications. Yes, you can argue that the existing National Incident Management System (NIMS)/Incident Command System (ICS) framework is flexible enough to handle the functionality. However, a standard approach and terminology will lead to stronger operational impact. The Harris County After Action Report is a significant contribution to the discussion on what shape such a future framework will take.

Ecosystem Players Supporting Super Bowl LI

In the lead-up to Super Bowl LI, officials considered several vendors for solutions supporting public safety over the HCLTE network during the event. The winning vendors gained prestige from serving public safety needs during a National Special Security Event.  But just as important, these vendors gained critical insight into how their offers faired: what worked and what needs improvement. In the early days of public safety mobile broadband deployments, that experience is priceless.

The vendors engaged in Super Bowl LI operations include:

AT&T: Network SIMs for access off-net (note: HCLTE pre-dates the AT&T FirstNet deployment, AT&T provided service for locations/areas with no HCLTE coverage)

SLA Corporation: ESChat Push-to-talk application used by Special Response Group (SRG)

Haystax Technology: Mobile Indicator for field reporting of security observations into Digital Sandbox

Intrepid Networks: STING Outdoor location tracking and situational awareness offer for live Common Operating Picture (COP)  (leverages Google location service)

Moxtra: Moxtra Unified communications and collaboration

SpectraRep: IncidentOne dashboard for datacasting video (via TV Antenna and the web)

TRX Systems: Neon Personnel Tracker for 3D indoor location services

Wowza Media Systems: GoCoder App for sending real-time video to SpectraRep IncidentOne dashboard

Local Trial, Global Lessons

Europeans may have different interpretations of the word "football" than their American colleagues, but both regions have much to gain from the lessons that emerged from Super Bowl LI. The excellent comprehensive documentation provided by the Harris County Super Bowl LI After Action Report delivers essential information that public safety network planners around the globe should factor into future operations.