What Would I Do?Monday, August 11, 2008
My Blog and Commentary this week are both about the first responder community, mostly because I spent last week at the APCO (Associated Public-Safety Communications Officials) conference and exposition in Kansas City. This is also because my observations indicate that all of the activity so far to address interoperability has come from the first responder community itself without any real help from the commercial wireless industry. Yes, many first responders are now using commercial wireless broadband, but the 700-MHz public/private partnership did not happen with the last auction. Now it looks as though the next auction won’t be until next year when I suspect we will have a very different FCC, at least when it comes to its commissioners.
After the hearings and request for comments, we will probably see a new Report and Order from the FCC in September, but then nothing much will happen until after the election and we will have lost another year. Both Verizon and AT&T seem to favor a Request for Proposal method of handling the issue instead of another auction, and as you know, I favor a consortium of wireless players all contributing to the network build-out on a regional basis (which could also be done via an RFP). My concerns are that if there is to be a public/private agreement to build and share a network, then it should happen sooner rather than later.
If this public/private network is not put together until after the auction winners for the A, B and C blocks have started construction on 700 MHz, I think it will be an even more expensive network to build. If it was built at the same time, it would be less expensive since the system could be installed simply with more broadband channel cards and using the same antennas the commercial operators will be using. But even that would be years away and it has already been a long time since 9/11 and Karina when everyone was focused on the interoperability problem. The need didn’t go away, this year we are likely to have more fires, perhaps a few earthquakes and certainly more hurricanes. Things are better in certain parts of the United States when it comes to interoperability, but in most places it is business as usual. Or should I say “unusual” given the state of the economy and the cutbacks in dollars for cities, counties and states?
Budgets are being trimmed yet again and that means it will be even more difficult for first responders to find money for more systems and equipment that could help solve more interoperability issues. In the meantime, there is a fairly easy way to put interoperable data into the hands of those who need it, and that is a nationwide wireless broadband system that offers seamless roaming across all of the networks, regardless of the technology being used. I realize as I write this that not a single one of the commercial wireless operators will like this idea―they want to be able to touch their customers and provide the level of service their customers expect, and certainly don’t want anyone in the middle of that. But it is one of those things that could be and should be done. How would it work?
First, we’d need a universal wireless modem, built into a notebook or mobile data terminal or in a USB, PC Express and/or PC Card form factor. The chipset is available from Qualcomm in the form of Gobi (and I suspect we will see others on the market soon). These chips support both 850 and 1900 MHz and both CDMA2000 1xEV-DO and GSM/EDGE/UMTS/HSPA. The next generation of these chips will include LTE, AWS and 700-MHz support as well, but supporting the two major bands and all of the technologies in use today would be a great start.
I am not exactly sure how the next part would work. Perhaps first responder organizations could sign up with Verizon, AT&T, US Cellular, Sprint Nextel or any other broadband network but then be able to roam across all of the networks. Perhaps there could be an MVNO (not-for-profit perhaps?) that could issue cards and activations and then take care of the billing and distribution of funds to the various networks. This might be the area where this idea could fall apart, but I think it could be worked out. Each department would have its “home” network operator but would also be able to roam on any network within range of where they are when they need connectivity.
Of course, all of these data connections would have top priority on the existing networks, but the use of multiple feeds of wireless video would not be permitted unless the network operator agreed. Occasional video for a major incident would be permitted, but using the commercial networks for multiple video feeds would have a huge negative impact on the bandwidth available for others.
A special software client would need to be written to manage these connections and to keep the roaming units on the “home” network as much as possible (or until there was congestion, as there was during the recent earthquake outside of Los Angeles). Companies such as Smith Micro are more than up to the task and have already come up with clients that could handle this type of network interoperability.
The first step would be to enable notebooks and mobile data terminals, but this could be expanded over time to handheld devices that could include the broadband chip along with the other first responder voice technologies that are needed (see my Commentary for this week).
I really believe that if we could figure out how to put this system together it would get the first responders on the air quicker and take some of the pressure off the public/private sector partnership. And it could be constructed in a manner that would make it attractive to the commercial community and provide first responders with the first level of data interoperability. Many within both the first responder and commercial communities will be quick to tell me that this type of system could never work. Well, I don’t believe that. If the commercial networks are really interested in helping the first responders (they all say they are) and the first responders can handle the existing coverage (many of them already do), then I see only a few problems and they have to do with system management and billing issues, which can be handled with a few tweaks to some software.
There is nothing wrong with the commercial wireless broadband networks operated by Sprint Nextel, Verizon, AT&T and the new network being brought online by T-Mobile. The chipset exists and provisioning and billing can be handled in software. All that has to be agreed upon is pricing, which, for the first responder community, should not be based on roaming rates but rather on providing the ability to move from AT&T to Verizon and back, for example, and not having to pay a penalty for doing so.
Anyone want to step up to the plate and take a swing at this first pitch?
Andrew M. Seybold