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Datacasting gives first responders better, more timely information during emergencies

Program transmits data via public television broadcast frequencies

Video: DHS Science and Technology Directorate

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have teamed up for a program that could change how first responders access important information during emergencies.

The program uses technology called datacasting to send encrypted information using the broadcast frequencies of public television stations, which have expansive and reliable coverage. This allows first responders to access important information without depending on cellular networks, which can be unreliable.

"During an emergency, cellular networks become congested and strained from use by the public," says John Contestabile, APL's datacasting program manager. "Emergency voice communications are currently good, but they aren't designed to handle large amounts of data."

The large amounts of data sent over the television waves to first response agencies include images and videos of developing emergency situations. First-hand information allows police and medical personnel to better plan and coordinate a response.

"Once low-impact hardware is installed at the public television station, the first responders can use their existing computers to get all the data and video that the local emergency management agency sends out," says Mark O'Brien, the president and chief technology officer of APL's subcontractor for the project, SpectraRep. "A big issue during emergencies is getting the same information at the same time to a wide group of responders, which may all be using slightly different traditional communications systems. Datacasting helps to solve that."

SpectraRep began outfitting television stations in Chicago and Houston for datacasting program trials in 2015. The Houston datacasting trial received an award as the year's best security technology innovation from a leading industry group. DHS plans to further explore the capabilities of datacasting in pilot programs conducted this year.

"Every television station operates on a six megahertz channel," O'Brien says. "Twenty megabits [are] coming out of every transmitter all the time at every television station all over the United States. The process of datacasting is allocating a portion of that 20 megabits to sending out encrypted computer data."

As more television networks switch to digital signals, more unused bandwidth becomes available for programs like datacasting.

The program also boasts increased security capabilities.

"The broadcasting agency can precisely target who gets the information, and even retains control over it after it's been sent," Contestabile says. "That means they can delete data from remote systems if a breach or theft occurs."