New spectrum policies could follow switch to digital TV

Some policy experts say local governments should not retain control of spectrum used for public safety communications

Radio frequency spectrum available for public safety will expand in 2009 when TV broadcasts go digital. How useful that added spectrum will be depends on whether policy-makers start planning now to manage those frequencies, some spectrum policy experts say.

Jon Peha, associate director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking at Carnegie Mellon University and a professor of electrical and computer engineering and public policy, said local governments have primary responsibility for public safety communications. But he said such diffusion of responsibility has led to the current patchwork of systems and standards that often hamper communications between different public safety agencies.

If the new frequency allocation — an additional 24 MHz — is to make a difference, new policies and assumptions must supersede the old ones, Peha said. “We’re talking about problems that are rooted in the DNA of public safety communications systems,” he said. He spoke last month in Washington, D.C., at a forum hosted by the New America Foundation.

Peha did not recommend that a specific policy be applied to the newly available spectrum. But he suggested several alternatives for policy-makers to consider. One might be establishing standards and a national architecture for government-run networks. Another would be to allow commercial wireless carriers to operate public safety networks.

The reason for rethinking policy now is to avoid a future in which the interoperability problems of the present persist, Peha said. The tradition of independent public safety fiefdoms operating their own networks can and must give way to standards-based, interoperable networks, he said.

One panelist said he did not favor having companies control public safety spectrum. Morgan O’Brien, chief executive officer of Cyren Call Communications, said local authorities should retain that control.

“If we’re actually going to say to public safety [organizations] around the country that the devices operating on this network are your first line of defense when bad things happen, they must be in control,” O’Brien said.

Robert LeGrande, deputy chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, said all municipalities might not be prepared for the next wave of spectrum-dependent services, such as data and video.

“Before we can talk about broadband, we have to talk about voice,” he said. “That’s what’s out there right now.”

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