The hope to establish a nationwide, interoperable, broadband wireless network for public safety died two years ago when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) failed to auction a swath of 700 megahertz (MHz) spectrum — aka the D Block — to commercial entities. Earlier this year, the commission unveiled a new blueprint for the much-anticipated network as part of its over arching national broadband plan.

The new strategy

Many aspects of the proposal are familiar: a public-safety broadband wireless network built on 700 MHz spectrum that would leverage commercial 4G technologies and economies of scale to provide first responders with access to the latest technical innovations and applications at prices that are more in line with commercial wireless offerings. But, the latest proposal includes some key contrasts to the first plan that FCC officials hope will attract commercial bidders to participate in a D Block auction in early 2011 — all of which would increase the likelihood that the public-safety network will become a reality.

The new proposal addresses several issues, including financing. In the original plan, the D Block winner would finance the proposed public-safety network. This time, the FCC has asked Congress to ensure that $12 billion to $16 billion is available during the next decade to help pay for the deployment and operation of the first-responder network.

In addition, the new plan has a decidedly different technical approach. Instead of a network licensed to public safety and the D Block winner, the proposed network would be dedicated to first responders, who would have priority access when roaming on commercial networks. That multiple-network strategy gives public safety additional capacity and redundancy that should result in greater reliability, according to FCC officials.

Furthermore, with the new plan, public safety can pursue a variety of partnerships — an approach advocated by several chiefs in major cities that have requested FCC waivers to allow early buildouts of local private broadband networks — instead of a one-size-fits-all national approach.

Uncertainty abounds

Unfortunately, the plan still is plagued by uncertainty in key areas. Two years ago, commercial carriers cited concerns over the business model for the public/private partnership with public safety as a primary reason for why they did not bid on the D Block. Public safety officials were concerned about reliability, redundancy and accessibility.

Today, carriers are not sure what the economic model for working with public safety will look like, and public safety is not sure how roaming with priority access will work and who will pay for it. And no one is certain whether the all-important funding component will happen. "Right now — without funding and without priority access — all you've got is an auction for 10 MHz [of D Block spectrum] that doesn't benefit public safety at all," says Richard Mirgon, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials.

For the most part, first-response officials have supported the over- arching concepts in the FCC's proposal but have stopped short of fully endorsing the plan until more information is provided about some of the key components. For example, priority access continues to be a concern because it places public-safety users to the front of the queue in voice networks, but a call still cannot be made until a call path is open and a dial tone is heard. During significant incidents, call paths are unavailable because consumers overload the network.

Charles Dowd, deputy chief for the New York City Police Department, says such a scenario is unacceptable for public safety, which needs immediate access to the network. "If it begins to fail, and cops and firefighters get a busy signal, they're not going to want to use it," Dowd said during a keynote speech at the recent International Wireless Communications Expo.

With that in mind, many public-safety officials want preemptive access, which would require carriers to cut off some users' access to the network to enable public-safety communication. That notion is "scary" to carriers that do not want to alienate customers with those actions, says mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold.

Public safety's disagreement

But, public safety's one point of significant disagreement with the national broadband plan is the FCC's recommendation to auction the D Block to a commercial operator. Instead, they would prefer that the D Block be reallocated solely for public safety use. In fact, many public-safety officials question whether 10 MHz will be enough bandwidth to serve the needs of public safety, much less other critical-infrastructure users.

Reallocating the D Block was not an option for the FCC because existing law dictates that the agency must auction the spectrum to commercial operators. Any change in the law would require an act of Congress. However, public-safety officials had hoped the national broadband plan would recommend that federal lawmakers reallocate the D Block to first responders or at least remain neutral on the subject.

FCC officials believe that auctioning the D Block could benefit public safety in several ways. For starters, an auction would generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury that could help offset some of the grant dollars the agency is requesting from Congress.

A more important argument for going forward with the current plan is that a commercial operator using the D Block spectrum virtually ensures that commercial devices will be built for their needs, which should generate the economies of scale necessary to keep device costs down.

There is time to address those issues, but not much. In addition to the political realities of congressional re-elections in the fall, the FCC's latest proposal needs to build out the public-safety broadband network in conjunction with commercial carrier deployments that will begin in earnest before the end of the year. Failing to build the network within that window would at least double the cost of building public safety's network, according to the FCC.

"We get one at bat and one swing," Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau, said during a February meeting. "If we do not execute this network with alacrity, we will miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

This feature was extracted from a recent story written by Senior Writer Donny Jackson, for Urgent Communications, a sister publication of American City & County.

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