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Feds stall Charlotte plan for DNC emergency network

Federal funding has been suspended for a special communications network Charlotte officials had hoped to use for emergency and police communications during the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

City officials say they’ve got a backup plan, and don’t expect emergency communications to suffer during the convention.

The funds were part of a grant that would have provided a wireless broadband network for police and other emergency personnel in Mecklenburg County, said Chuck Robinson, the city’s director of business support services.

Altogether, the program cost $21.1 million, with $16.7 million provided through the grant and the city providing $4.4 million in matching funds, according to a memo from city spokeswoman Kimberly McMillan. The city’s funds came from a $3 million donation from Alcatel-Lucent and a $1.4 million “in-kind” match.

Robinson said Charlotte needs a separate high speed data network for emergency personnel, particularly whenever there is a large event and thousands of people are using the same cell tower at once.

Public safety agencies, like first responders, fire departments and the police, use the same towers and don’t have priority to maintain service if a cell tower is overloaded.

A separate 4G LTE data network, which was what the initial project involved, could be used on laptops to transmit live video to police cars, transmitting patient data from ambulances to hospitals and building plans to fire trucks en route to a fire, Robinson said.

The group that had funded the grant, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, worried that Charlotte’s network would not be compatible with a new national network being created as the result of federal legislation passed this year. That network, at best, could be installed in four years, Robinson said.

Rep. Sue Myrick sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce urging the agency to allow Charlotte’s plan to proceed.

Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling responded to Myrick Tuesday saying the project might be continued, but not in the immediate future.

Installation of the city’s planned network “could add costs to the nationwide network and negatively impact the ultimate business case and deployment of the nationwide network,” Strickling wrote.

But, Robinson said the city already has a backup plan in place to ensure that emergency personnel will not get their broadband services blocked by an overload during the DNC.

He said the city has set up several cell on wheels sites with commercial service providers for the week of the convention.

“There will be enough of those in the downtown area not only to support additional people but to support our data needs as well,” Robinson said. “We’ll have plenty of capacity during that time. We’re set.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294On Twitter: @lruebens
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