Ottawa shells out to avert emergency radio interference

by Steven Chase

The Globe and Mail

January 22, 2009


Ottawa is spending more than half a million dollars on an electronic bloodhound to locate foreign wireless devices that play havoc with security or emergency radio frequencies during the 2010 Winter Olympics.


More than 5,000 athletes and officials - plus 10,000 journalists - from 80 countries will converge on the Vancouver area during the 2010 Games. They're bringing thousands of high-tech wireless devices with them - from short-range radio communicators to telephones to transmitters.


Not all countries assign the same radio frequency bands for the same uses, though, so it's possible that foreign wireless devices may interfere with important Canadian communications signals.


"There will be a significant increase in the number of licensed radios and wireless devices in the 120-kilometre Games corridor from Richmond to Whistler," Industry Department spokesman Jean-Pierre Roy said. "Unintended interference is likely, given what will be a high congested radio spectrum environment."


To curb this, Ottawa is spending up to $600,000 on direction-finding monitoring and surveillance systems. It's a sole-source contract awarded without competition on the grounds that other technology would not be compatible with the equipment that federal radio inspectors already own.


"With so many international visitors expected at the Olympics, it is entirely possible that a visitor could arrive with a wireless communication device that transmits on the same frequency used by Vancouver's police or ambulance service, thus interfering with emergency response measures," the Industry Department says on its website.


When combined with computer software, the MicroEagle spectrum monitoring equipment can detect and locate signals that are causing interference in the Vancouver to Whistler region during the 17-day games, whether it's affecting vital services or FM radio stations or taxi dispatchers.


The most likely source of serious disruption, Industry Canada says, are people operating two-way radios on channels already assigned to vital emergency or commercial services.


Industry Canada, the department responsible for clearing serious interference from the airwaves, has a team of radio inspectors who have the power to confiscate equipment if necessary. Often, however, users voluntarily adjust their equipment when asked, the department says.


The department says the equipment is not being purchased to guard against terrorism, but says that it would offer the service to security forces if necessary.


"Obviously in a situation where interference is intentional and possibly part of an illegal activity that poses a threat to public safety, it would be the responsibility of police and other related agencies, but Industry Canada would provide support to these agencies upon request," department spokeswoman Christiane Fox said.


The technology already exists for hackers or terrorists to flood digital radio systems with requests to open up channels, thus denying service to legitimate users. The department said its ability to pinpoint disruptions is broad.

"Industry Canada is equipped to locate interference from a wide range of sources," Ms. Fox said.


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