Early Builders Blog: Harris County Demo at the Houston Rodeo

April 26, 2016
Harris County Demo at the Houston Rodeo
Harris County Demo at the Houston Rodeo

By Lynn Bashaw, Director of Network Operations

This blog is the latest in a series on FirstNet’s role in and observations from the five “Early Builder” (EB) public safety Long Term Evolution (LTE) network projects. The EB projects consist of four National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grantees that include the States of New Jersey and New Mexico, Adams County, Colorado, and the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority (LA-RICS), as well as The State of Texas and Harris County, which is being funded through other federal grants and local contributions. FirstNet has entered into a Spectrum Manager Lease Agreement (SMLA) with each EB that enables their project to access the public safety spectrum in the 700 Megahertz band to deploy broadband communications capabilities for emergency responders.

As we work toward deploying the FirstNet nationwide public safety broadband network (FirstNet Network or Network), we continue to look for opportunities to learn as much as we can about public safety use of broadband technologies in real-world settings. To assist us in focusing on and assessing broadband communications in the public safety environment, FirstNet is working with each EB project to exercise and explore a number of Key Learning Conditions (KLCs) as part of its SMLA. 

One of the KLC subjects being explored by the State of Texas and Harris County is the use of Band 14 (B14) Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless broadband communications in support of public safety operations during large-venue special events.  Specifically, Texas and Harris County selected the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) at NRG Stadium as their official “Special Event” KLC exercise because of its significant size, extended length of about one month, and roughly 2.5 million attendees.  In addition to the daily livestock shows and competitive rodeo events, the show includes a large barbeque cook-off competition, a significant amount of carnival rides and attractions, and daily concerts.

Select Statistics for 2016 Event

Visitors 2.48 Million (estimated)
Single day attendance peak 75,508 (new record)
Volunteers over 32,000
Rodeo Purse $2.1 Million

Prior to and during the 2016 HLSR, members of FirstNet’s technical team worked on-site with Texas and Harris County personnel to observe and document lessons learned that could be applied towards the upcoming roll-out of the FirstNet Network. For Texas and Harris County, this exercise served the purpose of exercising a required KLC, but it also served to advance the exposure of the B14 LTE network to public safety. 

In preparation for the event, Harris County staff engaged with the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriffs Office to plan and implement use cases for the application of the B14 LTE network in security, crowd control and emergency response. Niki Papazoglakis led the Harris County effort and worked with Harris County Sheriff Sergeant Doug Thomas to coalesce their efforts around two primary objectives: offload administrative traffic from the single Land Mobile Radio (LMR) channel provided to the Rodeo Security committee; and improve situational awareness in the command post.   

The Harris County communications team was collocated in the command post to provide technical and logistics support.  Being in the same room enabled the on-site support team to facilitate real-time situational awareness, quick device check-in/checkout and face-to-face issue resolution.  Further, collocating the support team with public safety leadership encouraged better feedback from the users on performance, technical issues, and product usability.

Multiple vendors provided over 90 handheld mobile devices in support of this exercise.  The team distributed the devices to approximately 60 users out of a pool of about 600 public safety staff including the Security Committee and the Directory and Assistance (D&A) civilian volunteers. Push-To-Talk (PTT) and situational awareness applications, along with tethering to laptops, were implemented to support the two primary objectives.  To enable use of smartphones to support administrative communications, the team demonstrated an application that interconnected the HLSR Security LMR channel with the B14 LTE network.

Harris County is still working to construct their B14 LTE network across the county, and their network does not yet provide coverage for NRG stadium. To provide B14 LTE coverage for the stadium grounds, Texas and Harris County temporarily installed three B14 LTE nodes at key locations around the event.  A Cell on Wheels (COW) with a 100 foot mast provided most of the B14 LTE coverage to the grounds and stadium.  The team installed two additional low-power nodes to provide in-building coverage inside the facility that hosted the command center and other support functions.  Over the course of about a month the team was able to configure and test a variety of coverage solutions and backhaul configurations, and the team observed and documented a number of important and interesting lessons learned. 

The Band14 network that supported the HLSR consisted of the following elements:

  • An LTE Evolved Packet Core (EPC) dispersed between Harris County and Texas A&M University.
  • Two small cell sites and a mobile Cell on Wheels (COW) provided B14 LTE coverage for the event
  • Over 90 handheld devices and accessories provided public safety staff with mobile communications
  • Several application servers connected to the EPC supported  situational awareness and PTT

Early Builder B14 LTE demonstrations are providing FirstNet with valuable real world experience by deploying and utilizing this technology.  Like prior events hosted by the Early Builder projects, many lessons were learned from this event about the usability, performance, and reliability of new network technology, devices, and applications in a live environment:

  • We observed many usability requirements unique to the public safety environment and use cases. Many public safety personnel have usability requirements that are much more challenging to satisfy than for a typical smartphone consumer, including a need for significant noise mitigation and reliable hands-free and single hand operation.
  • We found live testing in operational environments to be very useful in identifying various usability and performance issues that are challenging to simulate in labs, such as the noise levels and frequencies characteristic of a livestock show or carnival midway. 
  • We discovered that in a shared-device environment there is a requirement for lengthy battery storage capacity to support extended operation under heavy use.
  • We studied the team’s network operations and monitoring of this temporary network installation and recognized a need for end-to-end visibility across all network and application server elements to improve problem resolution and response time.  We also saw significant requirements for additional redundancy across all network elements including temporary coverage solutions. 

From the feedback and lessons learned, we identified device operation and utility in noisy and active environments as a key challenge.  For example, voice communications were severely impacted during the concerts and in the carnival ride areas.  In addition, when responders are working an incident, they must be able to communicate without holding a device and selecting features.  Much work remains to optimize the performance, usability, and reliability of these mobile devices and accessories for use in a noisy and active public safety environment.

As we continue the planning and procurement process for the FirstNet network, exercising, observing, and documenting the remaining KLCs for the Early Builder projects is critical to better understanding public safety’s needs for this new technology.  The State of Texas and Harris County demonstration of this technology over the full schedule of the HLSR created a significant amount of user experience and feedback, and FirstNet was able to observe and record many significant and valuable lessons learned. 


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