Progress for 700-MHz Private/Public Safety Network?Saturday, September 06, 2008
It is expected that during a meeting scheduled for September 25, 2008, the Chairman of the Federal Communication Commission will recommend changes to the commercial/public safety partnership. The D block, which is 10 MHz of spectrum (5X5), adjacent to the public safety broadband spectrum, was supposed to have been purchased by a single bidder to build out a nationwide network that would include the public safety spectrum and be built to public safety standards. But it was not sold at auction.
Since there was no single bidder, there have been congressional hearings, FCC requests for comments and a number of meetings to help determine how to make this partnership work.
The ideas have been all over the map. Some advocate a single systems integrator bidder with all of the commercial wireless networks building out portions of the network, some commercial operators want the FCC to issue a request for proposal rather than a simple auction for the spectrum, awarding the license(s) to those with the best proposal for shared use, and some advocate that the spectrum be split into local and regional licenses and that each area develop its own system.
It now appears as though there may be a consensus as to how to move forward. Reports are that the FCC (Chairman Martin) is favoring an approach of regional or statewide licenses woven together to provide a nationwide network, and it looks like the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), the public safety license holder, is at least willing to consider the concept to determine how it would work.
The issues are many, of course. For the first time, the FCC would have to mandate a single technology to ensure compatibility across all of the regional networks. While we do have chipsets that support different wireless standards, a common technology would make for the best possible network. I am certain that selecting the technology will be troublesome. The WiMAX folks will raise their hand, and the vast majority of the network operators will want LTE (Long Term Evolution), which appears to be the 4G technology of choice. A case could just as easily be made for CDMA2000 1xEV-DO and UMTS/HSPA since they are already in use and the related chipsets and devices are affordable due to the volume of devices in service. But a decision can be made, and even agreed upon by consensus.
There are also other issues, including how many organizations the PSST must deal with. Originally, the idea was to have a single license so a single entity would work with the PSST and decisions would be easier to make. I suspect in this model we would need some kind of national group to represent all of the license holders. Other issues are build-out timeframes, roaming charges between regions, priority access, who sets it when and how, and many other variables. All of these can be worked out if everyone trying to make this a success keeps in mind that even though there will be plenty of differences that will need to be resolved, we are working to help the public safety community better serve all of us. In fact, the ONLY way this will succeed is if that goal is kept in front of all of those involved.
I do have mixed feelings about this type of plan, but after looking at the options, listening to many different ideas and reading many of the comments filed with the FCC, it appears to me that only a compromise plan will provide the type of network that is needed. This one solves many of the problems cited by commercial operators as reasons they did not bid on the original single nationwide license. It spreads the cost of the network across many different operators, it provides many of them with access to spectrum they would not have had and it provides traffic on the networks, which generates income.
I will support this plan if it is the consensus solution. We know the public safety community needs help with interoperability and we know it needs access to commercial technologies that translate into less expensive equipment than is currently being deployed. After the APCO conference in August, I wrote about several companies that are making “command-and-control” handheld radios. These radios include almost all of the existing public safety spectrum allocations and are designed for an incident commander to be able to access almost any channel or group of channels needed and with those arriving on the scene. These are complex devices and will sell for about $5,000 per unit. While they help solve some of the interoperability issues, they do not provide the solution to every first responder in the field. The cost of the hardware per person for today’s first responder communications systems is in the $1,000-$5,000 range, and many vehicles are equipped with two or more different radios.
While the 700-MHz shared system will not solve the voice interoperability problems in the beginning, it will help with command and control and the ability to keep track of resources, obtain needed information at the scene of an incident and even provide video capabilities for those on the ground. We will still have to work on solving the voice interoperability issues over time.
The longer this system takes to become a reality, or even to reach the stage where licenses are issued and planning is set to begin, the more departments, cities and regions will move to build their own new systems—not that this is bad, they need new systems since much of the equipment is very old and needs to be updated. Many of these new systems are being designed for regional and statewide interoperability, which is also a good thing, and the management of some of these new systems doesn’t see any reason for the new 700-MHz nationwide network to even be built.
But we all know that in times of disaster the agencies involved include federal, state, regional and local as well as military and the National Guard. Providing communications to and from all of these agencies is a real problem even in normal times, but in a time of crisis when getting things up and operating is key, it becomes even more difficult.
This system will at least give our first responders a common network for command and control, video and other data applications. It will help incident planners keep track of who is on the ground, what is still needed, where it is and how long it will take to arrive. At first, this network will be used as command and control by the incident “bosses” who manage these events but, over time, it will become a pervasive network that will end up being built into virtually every first responder’s communications devices so they can be given information when it is needed.
If this cooperative plan is to succeed—and it must succeed—there is a lot of work to be done. Not only do we have to agree on the technology to be deployed, we need to determine what type of governing body will interact with the PSST and the feds. We need to make sure each region of the country has at least one bidder, whether an incumbent or a new entrant, and that once the bidding is over, construction can begin quickly.
It is time for the commercial operators to stand up and be counted, to be willing to give back a little, and perhaps there is a way to reward them with tax credits or other incentives. It is time for the first responders to understand that initially there will be limitations to coverage, back-up emergency services and redundancy that will have to be phased into the system, and that expansion of the system to provide coverage everywhere won’t happen quickly or easily. But it can happen if we remain focused on what needs to be done and WHY it needs to be done.
This “network of networks” is not a handout to the public safety community. It will have to pay for what it uses, and each individual network should be able to make a decent return on its investment. Further, in my view, the networks should be designed from the very beginning to include coverage to rural America, involving the companies that now serve rural America with wired and wireless phone service and even its power. This network should be built to both help solve the first responder issues and to provide broadband access for homes and businesses where today there is none. I wrote recently about “edge of the network” fixed broadband access and I still think this should be an integral part of any network that is built.
There are some who want the FCC to make use of AWS-3 spectrum for 95% coverage of the United States for broadband services, giving away 786-Kbps service to any and all. I don’t believe this type of network is either economically or technically feasible in the 2100-MHz range. If we put the resources this AWS network would require into the 700-MHz shared network, we can and will provide broadband to areas that are uncovered today. By pulling the resources together, we can build a great network of networks for first responders, commercial customers and those who currently have no broadband option. In the outlying areas of this network where broadband is not available today, there will be plenty of bandwidth for farmers, small towns and rural communities that only have satellite and/or dial-up access today. This network is our best opportunity to fix both problems: The first responder interoperability issues (at least for data to start) and access to broadband for rural America.
Whatever the battles over this spectrum, no matter how difficult it seems to put the pieces together, we have to make this work. But even when we do get all of the pieces and parts in place, it will still be a long time before the network is built, so I have a suggestion or two.
If there is to be a consortium of commercial networks putting this network of networks together, we don’t have to wait until the auction or until the network is built—we can start providing true data interoperability today. Many public safety departments are already using commercial networks for broadband data including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and regional network operators. There is equipment in the field and some of the networks already offer some type of priority for their first responder organizations. We could take this a big step forward if we were organized in this pursuit.
Let’s start with the federal agencies that have their own networks (yet another Commentary for another time). What if the federal government started buying notebooks with embedded wireless that worked on ANY existing broadband network? It could put together a nationwide agreement with multiple network operators so that no matter where they went they would have data access. Normally, they would stay with a specific network and would be switched to another provider when out of its coverage. This same idea could be used for state and local systems. Today there are notebooks and soon wireless modems that support Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and other broadband networks. These devices are capable of moving from one network to another, albeit not automatically yet, but that could be accomplished with a little software.
Perhaps the PSST could craft a nationwide agreement with the network operators and arrive at a method of giving every device access to every network, even smaller networks that are running slower-speed data at the moment. This would go a long way toward getting first responders up and running quickly and working the kinks out of the system for the new network. The transition could be made as each section of the country brought its section of the new 700-MHz network online. We don’t have to wait until after the bidding to put together a group of commercial operators to work with the PSST, and by the time the auction is held, many of the issues should have already been resolved.
As long as I am asking for miracles, let me ask for one more. A little history will help here: When the railroads first began using two-way radios, they quickly got together and came up with a standard radio control head and a standard set of cables. Then they told the two-way radio manufacturers that if they wanted to sell their radios into the railroads they would have to build them so they were interchangeable with the standard railroad set of cables and control heads. It worked and all three of the then major two-way radio vendors did just that.
So how about agreeing on a standard specification for a public safety radio that covers all of the 700-MHz and 800-MHz channelized spectrum, both analog and P25, and includes the 700-MHz broadband allocation as well? The radios could be built by all of the radio vendors and they would all operate the same way so any first responder could operate any radio anywhere. The feds would have them and, over time, federal funding could be made available to help equip the first responders (the DHS is spending a LOT of money on communications grants).
Every radio would have a button on the front that when pushed would put it in “local area” mode for day-to-day requirements in the field, but it could also be programmed over the air so when there was a major incident, those responding would arrive at the scene already on the proper channels and with the proper information on their screen and they would be ready. During an incident, if assignments changed, the radios could be updated over the air. Of course, they would all have GPS capabilities and alerts for distress calls, and mobile units would have the capability to be connected to a Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) or a ruggedized computer. The handheld units would be designed so that no matter what channels the radios were on, there would be a button that would provide for priority access.
If we could accomplish this and Motorola, M/A-Com (Tyco), Kenwood, Harris, Thales, Tait, Icom and others would build the same radio for everyone, the price for these devices would come down and I believe we would get much closer to both voice and data interoperability.
Let’s get the public/private partnership back on track. While we are at it, let’s not forget about rural America, how we can realize some of promise of the new nationwide system today, and that there will be differences on how to get there but everyone’s goal is the same: Making sure first responders have the communications tools they need as quickly as we can get them into their hands.
Andrew M. Seybold