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Are Clouds Getting in the Way?

June 22, 2011

Judging solely from the tweets emanating from the Urban Area Security Conference this week, two topics were at the forefront of discussion in and between sessions: cuts in the number of metropolitan areas receiving funding (and indeed the nature and extent of homeland security funding cuts generally) and issues attending advanced technology. I find it hard to separate the two topics, especially in light of the fact that much of the discussion about technology at the conference seemed to focus on the central role vendors played in the conference proceedings.

In some circles (certainly not here) the term networking almost always involves sophisticated technology and considerable cost. You know one of these conversations is spinning out of control when terms like “cloud” no longer refer to the things that shield us from the sun and occasionally deposit rain on our heads.

LIke real clouds, these terms and the discussions in which they get exchanged often obscure much more fundamental problems. My favorite example of this is the ongoing discussion about public safety communications interoperability, especially the push now on in Washington to get a sizable chunk of 700 MHz  spectrum allocated to a nationwide public safety service, the centerpiece of which presumably will include secure broadband data.

Now it’s quite possible that I have already lost a few of you, because, as I said, these terms often have meanings far different from what you might expect. Let’s start with interoperability. I once thought this meant making it possible for police, fire, EMS, public works, and other agencies at all levels of government to exchange information about an incident to which they had all responded and to do so in whatever way was most appropriate. The key was sharing information.

An optimist would tell you I was at least partly right about that. But I am not that optimist, since I have yet to see any evidence that such a system exists in the wild.

Instead, interoperability has meant marrying up sometimes terribly outmoded or outdated technologies so people from different agencies can get together and talk about an incident if they happen to remember to use the technology in the way someone set it up when the time comes to use it. In most cases, the systems have become too complicated for the users to understand, and because they cost so much they rarely keep pace with the commercial-off-the-shelf equipment people buy and use for their own personal communications.

How many of you have been to an incident where a frustrated officer has pulled out her iPhone and texted or called a colleague rather than using a radio? If you haven’t seen this, you have surely seen someone at an incident pull their smartphone out and snap a few pictures of whatever is happening.

These days you don’t have to look very hard or listen very closely to see and hear arguments about how D-Block spectrum will revolutionize public safety communications and make it easier than ever before to communicate in a crisis. While I have no doubt that devices and services designed for this new spectrum will have impressive features, I am much less certain they will improve communications.

My reason for skepticism comes back to the first problem receiving attention at the UASI conference: money. The people who have it and can afford to spend it will determine what the rest of us can buy later. Perhaps fortuitously federal fingers are finding it harder to reach the wallet in Uncle Sam’s deep pockets just as this issue comes to a head.

Oddly enough, the dark clouds of fiscal austerity might be just what we need to whisk away the airy, bright and lofty clouds of “technological progress” impeding or at least obscuring our efforts to communicate. When money is scarce, people have to be a lot clearer about what they need now as opposed to what they want later. In addition, they have to be more open to alternatives and willing to adapt as opposed to simply adopting.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: The argument presented here emerges from my own first-hand experience and a quick reading of handful of messages consisting of less than 140 characters sent by a handful of friends using an essentially free technology accessible to anyone. That strikes me as pretty effective communication for a very limited investment of time, money and effort.

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