The FCC's National Broadband Plan (NBP), released March 15, aims to provide the nationwide broadband infrastructure necessary for EMS, fire and other public safety agencies to send and receive vital interoperable, voice, video and data communications.
"Unfortunately, the United States has not yet realized the potential of broadband to enhance public safety," the NBP says. "Today, first responders from different jurisdictions and agencies often cannot communicate during emergencies. Emergency [9-1-1] systems still operate on circuit-switched networks. Similarly, federal, Tribal, state and local governments use outdated alerting systems to inform the public during emergencies. … The country must do better."
Specifically, the public safety section of the plan promotes wireless broadband communications, including the creation of a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband communications network; promotes cybersecurity and the protection of critical infrastructure; and encourages the development and deployment of next-generation 9-1-1 networks and emergency alerting systems. The FCC estimates the plan will cost $12–$16 billion over 10 years and recommends that Congress allocate $6.5 billion in grants to deploy the network.
That the country must do better is without question. But there are turf and political battles being waged about how to move forward and who should control the spectrum.
"The broadband plan has a lot of very excellent points in it; there's a lot of stuff that has the potential for being a significant benefit to public safety," said Richard Mirgon, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International. "One of the things that is lacking, though, is significant, and that's sufficient spectrum for public safety. Currently, we only have 10 MHz of broadband spectrum. All the experts tell us we need 20, and there is another 10 out there known as the D Block that's set to be auctioned next year. We're asking Congress to allocate that to public safety."
The NBP recommends auctioning the D Block commercially, but allowing public safety priority access to the spectrum as necessary to support communications.
"Understand what our process was in making sure that the nation has an interoperable and nationwide public safety network," said Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett (Ret.), chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. "We started from scratch and said we're going to make this fact-based and data-driven. We looked at 27 different options for the network; it had to be viable from an engineering standpoint, and public safety had to be able to afford it. What we came up with is something that is, in essence, self-reliant. You've got 10 MHz of dedicated public safety spectrum. It's 10 times the amount of spectrum that you or I have on a commercial broadband network based on the number of users that will be on the public safety spectrum. It's a lot of spectrum, and we did a lot of engineering analysis on that.
"But we know there will be bad days when there will be high use, and that's why we came up with what I believe is an innovative program where we'll require that on both the D Block and other carriers in the 700 MHz -- the AT&Ts and Verizons of the world -- that they allow public safety to roam over onto those networks with priority access. That will provide perhaps up to 70 MHz, depending on the market, of additional spectrum."
Mirgon said he's concerned that the "commercial side doesn't give us the public safety-grade system that we need. It doesn't give us access to a full 10 [MGz]. It just allows us to roam on theirs. There are no requirements to guarantee we'll get spectrum when we need it, and the cost to get it from them is yet to be determined. It could be excessive and high.
"Clearly, there is a partnership that can occur with the commercial sector that absolutely needs to be there, but to guarantee public safety's access to sufficient spectrum when needed in a disaster crisis, we need to be able to control 20 MHz. It becomes very critical to providing service to the community. There's no guarantee that we would get the bandwidth to operate on the spectrum we need, because they would be running phone calls and other data on it. There's no mechanism to preempt that traffic to ensure that we're going to get the traffic."
However, Barnett said a system that would allow public safety to roam on commercial networks with priority access has a significant advantage. "It provides a lot more resiliency than just the D Block alone. If the public safety network ever fails -- as it did here in D.C. about three weeks ago -- they would be able to roam over on any other existing networks that were still operating and be in business. That resiliency and redundancy is important."
Regardless of who controls the D Block, some are questioning whether Congress will fund the ambitious plan. "Whether Congress will agree to that much spending at a time of heightened concern over federal deficits is unclear," wrote a reporter for The Wall Street Journal on March 3.
When asked if Barnett could estimate when Congress might fund the NBP, he said, "It will happen sooner if the public safety community states clearly that they are interested in funding the public safety broadband network. I'm not positive that message is getting through at this point. But I am very encouraged that even in this terrible budget environment, we already have members of Congress that are stepping forward and saying that they want to provide funding for the plan."
Time may be of the essence. "We have one chance in a technological lifetime to catch this 4G build-out of broadband," Barnett said. "If we wait, the commercial networks will go ahead and build out. If that happens, it will cost a whole lot more than we're recommending for public safety to build out; therefore, I don't think it will ever happen. We have to do this really soon. We're trying to press that as we talk to Congress and public safety."
"They're concerned about us losing the funding?" Mirgon asked. "We can have all the funding in the world, but if we haven't got spectrum to operate on, it doesn't do us any good. It's like giving you gas money but not buying you a car."
Mirgon did agree that participating in the 4G build-out is critical. "Absolutely, 4G is just right on the cutting edge. There are elements that have to go into the design of those chips to meet public safety needs." The savings could be tremendous if agencies could simply buy commercial devices over the counter, he said.
The public safety community is continuing its fight to control the D Block. On April 20, the Broadband for First Responders Act of 2010 (H.R. 5081) was introduced in the House of Representatives. If passed, it would allocate the D Block to public safety as the "only assured way of meeting public safety's needs for sufficient spectrum and would help reduce the complexity and future operating cost of public safety communications systems." Stay tuned.