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I guess I am too optimistic, or too naive, or both. The need is clearly there to provide communications to many segments of the population. Why can't we work together to make it happen?

Broadband: Services vs. Technology Deployments

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I thought some newspapers and other news publications would be interested in an article about the plight of the first responder community and the faux broadband stimulus package. So I wrote an op-ed piece and submitted it to several publications one after another (each says writings must be unique to their publication) and there were no takers. I don’t think I am a bad writer, after all, I have written several thousand articles and three books in the past 30 years, so I guess the topic was not of interest to the press or they believe most people simply don’t care about these issues. While what I write is usually well received by the wireless community, it appears to be of little interest to the general public.

It is apparent to me, and I am sure to you as well, that understanding what the first responder community needs and what we need to do to provide broadband to the underserved is a low priority for most people. Now that $7.2 billion has been thrown at broadband deployment, the public is on to other things and has long ago forgotten all of the fuss that was made over first responder interoperability after 9/11 and Katrina. The interoperability problems that plague the first responder community are not new—the first responder community has been discussing them for many years. However, there was hope after 9/11 and then again after Katrina that more attention would be paid to the issue. So far, we are still without solutions.

During the past few months, it has become clear to me that we have been focusing on the wrong thing. All of us involved in wireless and the government have been concentrating on deploying technology to provide broadband when we should be looking at broadband services and what they can do for us. In other words, if we concentrate solely on deploying broadband it will never happen, but if we turn our attention to enabling services that make use of broadband connections, it follows that we will extend broadband to provide these services in both underserved America and for the first responder community.

Below is the op-ed piece I wrote about this followed by some additional comments—I happen to think that this issue is more important than some of the op-ed pieces that have been printed in the past few weeks, but those inside the beltway and those who decide what news we should read seem to have forgotten about both first responders and those who are underserved or do not have broadband at all.

Op-Ed: We All Lose When First Responders Lose, by Andrew M. Seybold

After 9/11, and again after Katrina, the American public and the government learned something the first responder community has known for more than thirty years: When multiple first responder agencies are called into a major disaster, there are a number of command issues, the greatest being the inability to communicate from one agency to another, from a fire engine to a police car, and from the command post to many of the men and woman in the field who are trying to rescue people and save lives and property.

After these two tragic events, the federal government reports all pointed to lack of interoperable communications as a major problem that needed a solution, quickly. Everyone had ideas, and finally a plan was crafted: a new nationwide wireless broadband network that would be offered at auction where the winning bidder would work with the first responder community to build out a new, nationwide communications network that would be shared between first responders and commercial customers, with the first responder community having priority access. As part of this plan, the cost per first responder for communications equipment would be reduced from $2-5,000 to between $200-700 by using commercial technology which, due to the volume of devices, would sell for less than their specialized radios. No federal money would be provided so the winning bidder would have to fund the network construction and day-to-day operation.

The spectrum did not come to auction until early in 2008, seven years after attention was first focused on the problem. To no one’s surprise, not a single company bid on this spectrum and it remains in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission, awaiting a new chairman and commissioners who will have to review the situation and the needs of the first responder community before deciding what to do. First responders are, naturally, disappointed and resigned to the fact that if there is to be a fix for their interoperability issues, it won’t be coming from Washington anytime soon. We all hope it will not take another major disaster to trigger some much needed action.

Several new plans have been circulating to free up this spectrum and make it available. The Public Safety Spectrum Trust has a license for the same amount of spectrum adjacent to this commercial spectrum and the theory is that the two slices of spectrum could be combined to provide for both first responder and commercial operations. With current market conditions and the state of our economy, it seems reasonable to assume that this spectrum will not attract any bidders if it is put back on the auction block. The estimated cost of this network is between $15 and $20 billion to build, and not a penny of federal money has been committed to this project.

Meanwhile, there is a move to provide broadband services to all Americans funded with $7.2 billion that will be awarded as grants and matching funds for those who write the best proposals (rather than those who most need the funds). As usual, the government is missing the point. Several issues including the lack of broadband access in rural America and the lack of an interoperable network for first responders could be addressed at the same time. Instead of focusing on the networks, we need focus on what can be done with the networks.

Only the first responders need more broadband in urban America. What is also needed is to find a way to help those who cannot afford to connect to broadband services that are already there. In rural America, broadband is spotty. We can address these disparate issues in a cohesive manner since the common thread is wireless broadband.

We should be looking at the services that are needed in rural America and elsewhere. For example, the list of who needs connectivity is long: first responders, educational facilities and their students before and after class, the medical community for remote diagnostics, power utilities to better control their power grids and prepare for the smart grid concept we are hearing about, and many others.

Instead, we are looking at first responder needs and broadband for all Americans as isolated problems when in reality, there is a common solution. Each group that needs services brings some level of funding, some ability to pay for services and in the case of rural power and telcos, right-of-ways, towers, and personnel that could be used to drive down costs. The cost of building out this type of network would be less than to deploy a new network, the results would be seen almost immediately, not ten years from now, and people would be put back to work.

But it is a foreign concept in Washington to work across agencies, and stimulus funds doled out by a grant system for broadband will be awarded to those who write the best proposals. (By the way, $7.2 billion divided by fifty states, five territories and tribal lands, essentially means that if each state gets its fair share, it will receive a whopping $150 million and the result will once again be a failed piece-meal effort.)

It is time for a new mindset. Broadband is not about citizens and then first responders, it is about all of the agencies, communities, companies, and people who will be able to connect to broadband services, many for the first time, and it is about solving many of the first responder communications interoperability issues at the same time.

We don’t need fancy grant writers, we need a swat team that can access existing assets and determine area by area how to best extend existing networks, deploy new ones, or some combination thereof. We should not be trying to “fix” these related problems one by one when they could easily share a common solution.

Final Thoughts

So that is my op-ed piece that will never be published except as part of this Commentary and I am disappointed, not because I want to see my name in print—I have had that experience many times, including in Forbes—but because I believe we need to focus on the services broadband enables.

Fortunately, there are several groups that understand that there are funds available to provide services to underserved Americans—educational services, health care, the power grid, and many other “vertical markets.” So instead of focusing on deploying broadband, let’s concentrate on what can be done with broadband, from providing Internet access for individuals and businesses to educational needs, medical needs, power companies’ needs, and, of course, first responders’ needs. By concentrating on the solutions rather than the transport, we will accomplish a lot more, a lot more quickly.

Meanwhile, every week we receive a new request for proposal. One county after another is asking for help designing its own new first responder system that includes several levels of interoperability. Some counties and cities are looking at providing interoperability via their dispatch centers with IP switches, while most of the RFPs we are seeing are for full-blown systems that will include all agencies within the county: fire, police, sheriff, local government, state government, and federal agencies. Usually, the grants for the RFPs are being funded by Homeland Security, but there is no guarantee that these projects will be funded by other than the local governments that are already struggling under the strain of reduced budgets.

As I have stated before, it is not about the technologies required to provide broadband to those who don’t have it and the first responder community, we have plenty of technologies available. Rather, it is about providing the services that will drive the adoption of broadband by all.

I have to wonder what it will take to move forward. Will we have to wait until there is another major disaster and then throw together a set of solutions, or could we figure out a way to work cross-agency and include commercial entities to pool funding and put forth a concerted effort to solve a multitude of problems now, all at once, instead of focusing on deployment of broadband technologies? I guess I am too optimistic, or too naive, or both. The need is clearly there to provide communications to many segments of the population. Why can’t we work together to make it happen?

Andrew M. Seybold

COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

Peter Moncure - 05/13/2009 12:07:46

As usual, you've hit the nail on the head, the one on which to hang the "big picture". Suppose I infer from your blog that there's an irresistible nationwide Public Safety application (hey, I'm an optimist, so why not?). Then my question is this: how can the rural areas be enabled? Clearly, having been to the "hollers" of Eastern Kentucky, there is no possibility of deploying even one percent of the spectrum which can be underwritten by the metros. So let's have as a design principle that
1) A minimal access be possible everywhere, albeit slowly, and that
2) It be as independent of frequency as possible.

One could easily imagine 50 kHz of contiguous spectrum available nationwide in low band. That would cost less than 2% of the buildout of a nationwide 700 MHz system, and would meet many desirable criteria not otherwise obtainable IMHO. I know, low band Blackberry clones would be subject to sunspots, distance skip and other gotchas, but I'm just asking you to include other spectrum ideas in your picture frame, in case the 700 fine gilding turns to fool's gold or waits another decade.

BTW, expanding the too-narrow definition of public safety is also absolutely on target, for uncountable reasons. Do I want a policeman outside, or my power back on? Hmmm. Thanks, Andy!