TAMPA — If thousands of visitors descending on Tampa for the Republican National Convention overwhelm the wireless network with calls and texts, it won't affect law enforcement.
Last month — more than a decade after 9/11 — federal lawmakers set aside a portion of the wireless spectrum exclusively for first responders, ensuring they won't be left in the dark if commercial networks shut down during a crisis.
And though it won't be running nationwide for a year, Tampa plans to roll out a pilot program in July — just in time for the RNC.
Law enforcement agencies in town will be able to use their smartphones to stream video and send data to each other in real time. And their communication won't be affected by other traffic, said Pam Montanari, a regional communications leader who's driving the pilot program.
"This is a huge step for public safety," she said.
The exclusive network was announced Wednesday at a news conference attended by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa; Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor; Montanari and Tampa Fire Rescue officials.
Montanari says she is testing some applications for the program now. One of them allows her to play a video on her iPhone and have it stream to another smartphone.
"What I see, you'll see," she said.
The pilot program costs about $750,000 and is funded through state and federal grants already allocated for communications upgrades.
This limited network will be expanded within the next year to be part of the national broadband network.
The pilot program is separate from efforts to get Tampa Bay agencies communicating with each other on their radios — which run on a separate 800 MHz band.
Tampa police plan to spend $6 million on portable radios for the RNC which will put every officer on the same system, no matter where they're assigned.
It also will allow Tampa's law enforcement agencies to communicate with the approximately 3,000 officers from other agencies who will be coming to help.
Though many officers have smartphones, these radios will be the officers' main form of communication during the convention, Tampa police say.
About five years from now, law enforcement officers will likely be able to use a device specifically engineered for public safety that integrates radios and smartphones — and uses the exclusive broadband spectrum.
"It'll be like Dick Tracy," Montanari said.
Not a wristwatch, but just as futuristic.
It'll be helpful for more than the RNC or potential terrorist threats. The threat of hurricanes make this especially useful in Florida, said Castor.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.