Public safety: It's better with broadband

Public safety: It's better with broadband

Introducing NHSafeNet – a ready-for-anything broadband microwave network that’s built to keep New Hampshire safe.

Stewart Schley

In a state known for its mountainous terrain, a new broadband communications system is reaching for new heights in ensuring public safety.

It’s called NHSafeNet. Employing a technology that’s especially well-suited for the New Hampshire geography, this advanced, high-capacity wireless broadband network is now up and running to maintain critical communications links among multiple state organizations.

The NHSafeNet story is a testament to the power of broadband at large. By consolidating communications networks from five different agencies and organizations into a single, more powerful and more reliable network, NHSafeNet saves money and improves communications capabilities while contributing to the quality of life in New Hampshire.


NHSafeNet is one of five broadband projects being implemented under Network New Hampshire Now, the state-wide initiative to bring high-capacity broadband communications to New Hampshire residents and community institutions that are underserved or unreached by traditional commercial broadband networks. Approximately $6 million in grant funding for Network NH Now is devoted to SafeNet.

The project is a collaboration of the Department of Safety, Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED), N.H. National Guard, and New Hampshire Public Television (NHPTV). NHSafeNet combines the parallel networks of these organizations into a single shared network that delivers improved reliability and capability while consolidating (and reducing) equipment and operating costs. Now, instead of having multiple separate networks operated and maintained by five organizations, partners in NHSafeNet can now pool resources to eliminate duplicative tasks and expense.

“If a dish broke before, whoever the owner was paid for it,” says Brian Shepperd, a University of New Hampshire Information Technology Program Director who has been instrumental in creating NHSafeNet. “Now there are five parties splitting the maintenance costs. It’s really a model for collaboration and efficiency.”

NHSafeNet consists of 20 transmit-and-receive towers that shuttle data at up to 600 megabits per second to and from users including the State Police, sheriffs’ offices, Fish and Game offices, forest ranger offices, Bureau of Trails, and the state’s National Guard units. Beyond the connections it supplies across New Hampshire, NHSafeNet is connected to microwave-based public safety networks in Maine and Vermont to enable coordinated communications on a regional basis.

Microwave links 

The technology used by NHSafeNet is microwave, a wireless communications medium that connects dedicated sites – in this case antennas mounted on 160-foot and higher mountaintop towers. Unlike omni-directional radio waves, which traverse wide geographies and reach multiple reception points simultaneously, the NHSafeNet system uses highly focused “point to point” microwave beams for high-speed, highly stable communications channels.

Building towers on mountaintops optimizes the line-of-sight connectivity the microwave antennas depend on. It also contributes to a key feature of microwave: survivability in the event of a disaster. The microwave facilities built on behalf of NHSafeNet by New Hampshire-based contractor Green Mountain Communications are designed to withstand ground-based disruptions that can compromise other broadband networks. During emergencies, there are few more reliable means of keeping critical safety organizations connected.

That’s especially true in New Hampshire, where most wired broadband network facilities are hung on overhead poles, rather than buried underground. (It’s called The Granite State for a reason.)

“Because most of our fiber is aerial and we have frequent ice storms, you have outages with fiber more frequently than you do with microwave,” says Shepperd. “Even in ground-buried areas, a lot of natural disasters have proven that microwave systems can better survive floods and hurricanes.”

Shepperd points out the NHSafeNet microwave network uses a data-transport technique known as Multiprotocol Label Switching (or MPLS), which directs data from one network node to the next based on short path labels, rather than long network addresses that require complex lookups in a routing table.

The use of MPLS enables prioritization of traffic among the multiple users and applications. For NHSafeNet, the highest priority is assigned to traffic from the Department of Safety, which is guaranteed a minimum data rate of 50 megabits per second. As a backup, NHSafeNet is interconnected at five points with the University of New Hampshire’s high-capacity optical fiber network. In the unlikely event that a microwave connection is broken, data traffic will transfer to the UNH fiber network as an alternative path to reach its destination.

Uses and applications 

Paramount among use cases is the ability to quickly mobilize the NHSafeNet for emergency communications. The N.H. National Guard, for example, is prepared to roll up mobile communications command centers at any of the NHSafeNet towers in the event of an emergency. A separate mobile datacasting feature, using digital television bandwidth donated by NHPTV, enables the Department of Safety Incident Planning and Operation Center staff to deliver rich-media alerts and messages to public safety vehicles while they’re on the road. As drivers migrate from one transmission territory to the next, the network hands off the signal, maintaining a presence throughout much of New Hampshire.

Aside from enabling critical communications among safety agencies during emergencies, NHSafeNet will enable a wide variety of everyday applications by providing improved bandwidth and capabilities for its stakeholders. The DOT, for instance, will use NHSafeNet to carry video traffic feeds and to relay data that ends up on electronic highway signs, alerting motorists to weather and road updates or broadcasting Amber Alerts. For DRED, the network allows updated communications between the sites managed by its Division of Forests and Lands. For NHPTV, the microwave network enables an updating of NHPTV’s signal delivery and remote monitoring system from NHPTV’s Broadcast Center in Durham to all its transmitter sites. It also provides capacity to connect NHPTV studios with key sites around the state.

Beyond demonstrating broadband’s ability to improve the way coordinated government communications can work, NHSafeNet also is a testament to the sheer physical determination required to make broadband a reality. The first tower site erected by Green Mountain, at Mount Kearsarge, required 17 helicopter trips to transport equipment from the upper parking lot to the mountain’s summit. Green Mountain crews hiked the half-mile Rollins Trail to and from the summit several days thereafter to perform the installation work. That’s determination, broadband style.