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Taking Kentucky's Telecommunications Network Digital

December 8, 2004

In early April 1974, Kentucky was hit by the largest number of tornadoes ever experienced by a single storm system in American history. Now called the Super Outbreak, the storm system spawned 148 tornadoes covering 14 states and tragically killed over 300 people. One of the biggest challenges emergency and public safety officials faced was the capability to communicate with each other.  Phone and power lines were down statewide, making it impossible for public officials to ascertain the extent of the damage and coordinate their efforts to get help where it was needed the most. 
Headline news from the Courier Journal in Louisville in April 1974.
Today, if Kentucky faced a similar series of storms, the ability to communicate effectively during a disaster would be greatly improved.  Shortly after the 1974 storms, elected and public safety officials drew up a plan to create a statewide telecommunications network designed to be shared by a wide range of state agencies.  It’s called the Kentucky Emergency Warning System (KEWS), and it utilizes 144 wireless radio tower sites throughout the state with reliable battery and generator backup that provides an “always on” microwave backbone (transport) for state public safety agencies.  That same system, which was completed in 1980, is still in place today, and has proven its worth many times over the years.  The KEWS network has been a model for other states as well, including Florida, which reaped the benefits of investing in a public safety microwave network during the recent rash of hurricanes that swept through the state. 
Now, Kentucky is facing a challenge to upgrade the KEWS system to meet the growing and changing demands of technology, cost and customer needs.  A number of creative options have been proposed to support the KEWS network into the future.  They include:

  • Leasing space on commonwealth towers to commercial communications companies or public utilities.
  • Selling the tower infrastructure to include a long-term agreement for provision of service to the Commonwealth’s Public Safety agencies.
  • Outsourcing of maintenance for the system.
  • Sharing of towers with local entities for public safety purposes.
  • Using an upgraded system to provide data transport for state business systems. 

KEWS Tower
KEWS currently serves the Kentucky State Police (KSP), the Department of Military Affairs (Kentucky Emergency Management), Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Forestry, Kentucky Educational Television and others.  To meet the needs of these customers, the challenges to an upgrade of the KEWS network are significant, and include:

  • The state-owned towers are on land obtained through leases that were negotiated in the mid 1970’s.  These are long-term leases (50 years) and include a stipulation that the towers may be used for public safety purposes only.
  • Many of the towers are located in remote and isolated areas and would not cast an aerial footprint over commercial customers.  Therefore, any interest from commercial companies has only focused on those towers located in more populated areas of the state. 
  • While most towers are in good shape and have additional capacity, a few are becoming crowded with multiple customers and may not have a great deal of room for other equipment.
  • Many of the shelters that sit at the base of the towers are in poor condition or out of space for additional equipment.
  • Some of the current and potential public safety customers may have concerns about the ability of private sector organizations to provide the level of stability they are accustomed to from the current Commonwealth Office of Technology support team.
  • The tower infrastructure can be used for providing a coverage “footprint” for many services, however, the strategic purpose of the system is to provide a statewide high-speed wireless transport that can be used to provide multiple services such as statewide data and voice interoperability, possible 911 call transfer, possible transport of in-state long distance calls or transmission of state business system data.  This may not be feasible or affordable through a private sector company.

The current obsolete KEWS analog equipment will not support modern digital technologies that are rapidly emerging and necessary for high speed data capabilities.  A good example is the growing use and demand for encryption technologies from law enforcement.  These technologies require high quality, digital voice communications to ensure security from eavesdroppers.  Manufacturers of analog equipment have migrated to digital equipment and replacement or introductions of new analog products are nonexistent.
KEWS Tower Map
Public safety wireless networks are migrating toward digital technology for two main reasons: improved quality of audio and increased security via encryption.  “New product lines feature digital equipment and systems while most analog products are being phased out of production.” *   Radio equipment’s ability to support multiple communications protocols enhances its potential for interoperability as well as backward capability to older legacy systems.  State officials in Kentucky, who work closely with the KEWS network, see the move to digital as key because most manufacturers are moving toward support of digital standards to enhance spectrum efficiency and provide for encryption technologies.  

* Public Safety Wireless Network Land Mobile Equipment Market Analysis Report,

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Last Updated 12/14/2004