Public Safety, Commercial Communities Come TogetherThursday, June 18, 2009
We are finally seeing some movement toward a nationwide public safety system that will provide interoperability across towns, regions, and the nation on an as-needed basis through a series of regional networks employing both public safety and commercial 700-MHz broadband spectrum.
For awhile, prospects for moving ahead with these networks looked bleak. No one showed up at the auction to take ownership of the commercial D Block, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) has not received funding beyond what it was able to borrow, and there has been a lot of in-fighting among organizations with different ideas about how to proceed with the spectrum and network build-out.
So the FCC drafted a new notice of proposed rulemaking or "Third NPRM" asking for comments. This document called for new auctions-both a nationwide auction where the winner would decide which technology to deploy, and separate regional auctions for WiMAX and LTE. Before any comments were received, the FCC took the item off the agenda, and on January 20, the make-up of the FCC changed. The chairman left, Mr. Copps took over as acting chairman, and we still don't have a full set of commissioners, so it is not likely the FCC will act on anything anytime soon.
However, some important work is finally being done in the first responder and commercial network communities and I believe that by the time the new FCC is in place, there will be a consensus as to how to move forward.
Beginning just before the International Wireless Communication Expo (IWCE) in March, there was some activity surrounding how to proceed. At the conference, Steve Zipperstein Verizon's general counsel and vice president, gave a speech in which he stated that Verizon Wireless favored giving the D Block to the first responders and combining it with the 10 MHz of spectrum for which the PSST holds a license, and offered up its backhaul and back-end systems, which are hardened and rated as five-nines reliability (99.999%). The result could be regional networks for which the first responder community would have to fund only the radio system itself and then connect it to the Verizon Wireless backhaul.
It should also be noted here that AT&T Wireless had already been floating the same idea, so by the end of IWCE, we had the two largest commercial networks making almost the same proposal. We had an idea on the table, but there were a number of unanswered questions including how the D Block could be turned over to first responders. Would there be a single license, if so, who would hold it, and how would the network be funded?
In late May, a group of eight public safety organizations got together and arrived at a couple of important decisions. The first was to endorse an effort to have the D Block taken off the auction table and turned over to first responders. The second was to support the PSST as the major license holder for the spectrum and to seek ways to fund the PSST going forward. But what is most important is that for the first time in many years, the entire first responder community is speaking with a common voice. It has been difficult to convince the FCC and others in the federal government of exactly what the first responder community needs when the community itself could not agree. Now we have a consensus.
If congress and the FCC were to release the D Block from auction and fund the PSST, regional systems that are already in the planning stages could proceed as part of a nationwide plan with network guidelines and not as piecemeal systems with, perhaps, different technologies.
Within the past month, the light at the end of the tunnel grew even brighter when the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) issued a joint press release endorsing LTE as the technology of choice for all of the regional systems. This was followed by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) which, although it endorsed LTE, left the door open for other technologies in case APCO and NENA changed their minds, but I don't believe there is any compelling reason to do so.
These endorsements for LTE are important for a number of reasons. First, there is a question within the portion of the chipset industry that builds chips for base radios and devices as to whether these two segments of spectrum will be held by first responders, and if they will use the same technology as AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless. With the announcement that this 20 MHz of first responder spectrum will make use of LTE, chances are much greater that first responders will be able to obtain equipment that will operate on the two largest commercial networks in the United States as well as on their own 20 MHz.
We are getting close, but now we need to focus on the objectives that have been agreed upon-handing the D Block over to first responders, licensing it to the PSST, funding the PSST, and convincing congress and the FCC to act in a timely fashion. The good news is that first responders are now presenting a united front for both the spectrum and the technology. The next steps, as I see them, are to:
1) Develop a set of network guidelines for regional networks. (NPSTC has begun this process.)
2) Convince chip and device vendors to develop and build products that will operate on ALL of the 700-MHz LTE spectrum. (A major stumbling block these recent agreements may help to remove.)
3) Have the PSST "sub-license" spectrum to regions or counties and work with them to build out networks (in place of the waivers that have been and are being filed by various agencies).
Because the devices will be capable of operating on both commercial and first responder networks, first responders can begin using Verizon Wireless and AT&T Wireless commercial LTE networks as they are deployed and transition to their own networks as they are built, perhaps retaining agreements to use the commercial networks to fill in coverage, or in the advent of network failure or overcrowding due to a major incident. It would not be difficult to create software that always looks for a first responder network but will find a commercial network as a back-up when needed. It would even make sense to use a commercial network on a priority basis in areas where there are no resources to build out a first responder network.
We could get this moving quickly if enough pressure is put on Washington, which has been promising a solution to the interoperability problems since 9/11 and every major storm since then. What is great about this solution is that it comes from those who really know what is needed, and they have come together for the good of all. I really believe this can work.
The best way to begin is to build these regional networks in rural America using commercial operators' spectrum on a priority basis and for the PSST to work with rural providers that can help build out first responder networks. This would also solve many of the rural broadband access problems. Some of these rural network build-outs could be funded by the education community, power companies, medical device companies and organizations, and a slew of others that would like to be able to use broadband services in these areas. I have long believed that the approach for rural America is a network that is shared by the various groups that need to move data, including individuals and businesses.
For the first time, the public safety community could have the upper hand. Until now, the government has tried to "fix" the problem of interoperability, typically, by the FCC asking for comments and receiving thousands of ideas. This time around, the public safety community can to go to the Hill and the FCC and say, "We agree on how to solve this problem. Congress, all we need for you to do is give the D Block to the FCC with a mandate to license it to the PSST, which you will fund at a reasonable level. FCC, all we need you to do is work with the public safety community to come up with a plan to issue sub-licenses to regional systems and how to administer those licenses."
"We, the public safety community, will take it from there and build these networks, ensuring they are built to our standards and that they all interconnect. We will also work with other 700-MHz network providers and develop a plan that incorporates some of their network services (e.g., backhaul) and the ability for first responders to roam across their networks with priority, when needed. Further, we will work with rural services to ensure that rural America's first responders are able to take full advantage of broadband services."
The commercial network operators stand ready to support the public safety community and momentum is building. Now let's capitalize on this opportunity by asking the government in a united voice to act on these two simple requests. The first responder community will take it from there and make it all work.
Andrew M. Seybold