The APCO ConferenceWednesday, August 26, 2009
This year's International APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) conference was held in Las Vegas the week of August 16. This particular conference marked the beginning, middle, and culmination of the Public Safety Community's groundwork project to revive the movement for public safety broadband spectrum after more than a year of stagnation.
It was the beginning of this project in that it was the first national gathering attended by many of the public safety organizations and people who have been driving the effort forward since last year, and unlike last year's conference, there was a common set of goals on the horizon along with a common plan as to how to move forward to reach these goals. Most of the infighting between various public safety groups, with the exception of NENA (National Emergency Number Association) has faded away. NENA probably shouldn't be involved in spectrum matters at all, but it seems to be trying to lead the public safety community in a different direction-perhaps being pushed by those who want their own wireless technology attached to the public safety efforts instead of the favored LTE (Long Term Evolution).
The rest of the organizations appear to be very focused on having the D Block, which was supposed to have been won at auction by a commercial entity and used as part of the private/public partnership, turned over to the public safety community to provide a total of 10X10 MHz or 20 MHz of spectrum for broadband. This amount of spectrum is vital to the success of metropolitan-area systems where capacity will be an issue. In more rural areas, the spectrum could be used on a shared basis between public safety, education, and remote medical assessment, wholesaled to the smaller power companies for their Smart Grid needs, and sold as subscriptions to end users for both fixed and mobile access to the Internet.
To accomplish this, the public safety community, with the backing of the commercial community, will have to convince Congress to release the D Block from the auctions and convince the FCC to turn it over to the public safety community. Once this is accomplished, the FCC will need to tackle the issue of licensing. Today, the 5X5 MHz license is held by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and a number of waivers have already been filed with the FCC. These waivers from New York City, New York State, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, and others, are asking for access to this spectrum so they can begin planning for their own systems, perhaps run some pilots, and gain some experience with LTE and its capabilities at 700 MHz. Certainly there are computer models that can be used help determine overall coverage and in-building coverage, but computer models are only guides to help design the systems. Actual field trials will be needed, and adjustments will need to be made during system build-outs.
Before any of this can happen, the FCC must decide whether it or the PSST will issue sub-licenses on a regional basis and establish a way to ensure that regional systems will be coordinated into a nationwide master system. There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and I haven't even touched on funding.
The public safety community is in the middle of this project when it comes to the technical aspects. Most of the major organizations, including the PSST, have declared that LTE will be the technology of choice for these networks, and that an IP back-end will be used to tie them together and provide the interoperability. It is important to understand here that we are not talking about a police officer in Los Angeles being able to communicate with a fireman in Boston, but that if equipment from Boston was sent to New York or even LA, the broadband network would work in the same way as personnel are accustomed to it working in Boston. To those on the commercial side of the industry, this may not seem like a big deal because your networks have been providing seamless roaming for many years.
However, except for working with commercial networks, the public safety community has not had to deal with all of the aspects of providing this level of interoperability along with interoperability with commercial networks. The first responder network will not be built in a day, and the mobile and handheld devices will have to include commercial capabilities. Further, even when the public safety network is built out nationwide, satellite and other commercial networks will be required for true interoperability.
It would be easy to run out of available spectrum (even with 20 MHz) during one of California's major fires, especially when a lot of the traffic is likely to be video. The Incident Commander and others need firsthand views of the situation with live images from the planes that are dropping water and retardant on the fire. I believe that in such cases we will still need to employ commercial networks to carry non-essential or administrative traffic. On the voice side of things today, this traffic is moved to commercial wireless networks and ham radio emergency communications systems put in place for major incidents.
NPSTC (National Public Safety Telecommunications Council) is well into its work on standards and guidelines for these 700-MHz systems. While at APCO, I attended one of its working sessions and was impressed by its members' understanding of LTE, the number of committees working on the various aspects of the issues, and their work with commercial operators, vendors, and the 3GPP, the worldwide standards body responsible for LTE and all of the standards surrounding it.
NPSTC still has a lot of work to do to finish and publish these recommendations-ongoing discussions include nationwide numbering of units, SMS and MMS capabilities, the inclusion of location-based services, roaming issues including needs of air ambulances, and one of the biggest issues, one-to-many communications that are essential in a public safety environment. It is also working on priority access, how to recognize a unit roaming onto a regional network, what resources to make available to the roamer, and providing access back to the "home" network. Most of this seems pretty straightforward to the commercial community which assumes that all of these components are present in their networks, but it was not too long ago when the commercial community did not support roaming from one network to another even for voice. It took a lot longer for data roaming, it took a number of years for SMS to become ubiquitous and even today, many MMS systems do not permit cross-network operations.
The best news about NPSTC's work is that it is actively talking to the commercial community and the standards body and not trying to "invent" things, though it may be trying to bend things a little to make them more public safety friendly-a challenge to be sure. But LTE and the LTE networks will remain a work in progress for a long time to come. Even though NPSTC is aware that there is no voice standard yet for LTE and there probably won't be one for awhile, it is still working on supporting voice and PTT as well as normal telco calls over the network, and I am sure all of this will be fitted into the LTE mold.
There are still some unresolved issues including the availability of chips for notebooks and handheld devices. However, there is some movement on this front and I am hoping we will see a resolution within the next few months. It will be pretty tough to deploy pilots without devices, so devices are a critical piece of the puzzle being addressed by the various public safety groups as well as commercial operators, device vendors, and chip vendors. This and funding are perhaps the last major obstacles (assuming Congress and the FCC follow the recommendations of the public safety community).
The culmination of this project is evidenced by the many organizations that have come out in support of LTE, including the license holder (the PSST). Obviously, this decision could be challenged by the FCC, especially if those who favor another technology decide that 700 MHz is key to or perhaps their only road to success. If they push Congress and the FCC too hard, things could take a bad turn, but I am confident that the right choice has been made and will withstand the scrutiny of both Congress and the FCC.
There was also a Town Hall meeting arranged at the last minute to discuss the waivers and to hear what others had to say. It was well attended and many of those who had filed the waivers were on hand to talk about their reasons and their needs. The meeting started out on the right track and there were no signs or loud protests like some other Town Hall meetings we have been hearing about. But soon the questions turned to engineering issues and the nitty-gritty of the technology. It took a few minutes, but the moderator got things back on track. What is needed now is to:
1) Remove the D Block from the auctions and turn it over to public safety
2) Approve the waivers-as sub-licenses or in some other form so pilots can begin
3) Obtain a commitment for device chipsets
4) Find a way to fund the program from various sources
5) Plan to use all 20 MHz of spectrum in major metro areas but perhaps make some of it available to other services in rural areas
The next step is to go to Washington, DC. Some meetings have already been held, but many more need to be scheduled, and a bill needs to be introduced into the Senate. Meanwhile, the FCC has all of its Commissioners in place and meetings need to be set up with them as well. The good news is that there were some senior people from the FCC in attendance at the APCO conference and I think they heard a common voice talking about a common goal.
On the heels of public safety organizations' meetings with government entities, commercial network operators will need to step up and support this plan for individual cities, counties, and states and send Ex Parte letters of concurrence. And each of us who has been working on putting this together for so many years needs to make his or her voice heard.
The culmination of the public safety community's groundwork is only the beginning of what could be a tedious and difficult set of meetings within the beltway. I am hopeful that we will be listened to, and I am concerned that if we don't move on this soon there will be more Katrinas and other disasters that won't have the interoperability that is needed among and between first responders. These next few months are critical and everyone needs to become involved.including you!
Andrew M. Seybold