Both sides should win in public safety network battle

First responders need a dedicated spectrum, but they also need industry's deep pockets

A battle is developing over a choice swath of radio frequency real estate coveted by the nation’s public safety agencies and commercial networking companies. The nation could be best served by accommodating both sides of this battle.

At issue is the role, if any, commercial networks will have in the D Block of the 700 MHz band that has been earmarked for a national public safety network.

The Federal Communications Commission has recommended — and industry supports — licensing the spectrum for broadband commercial networks with the understanding that public safety agencies would have priority access during emergencies. However, fire, police and other safety agencies want the D Block to be dedicated to their needs.

“We’ve got to be able to control our own destiny,” San Jose Police Chief Robert Davis recently told the Senate Commerce, Science and Technology Committee.

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However, an analysis by technology consultants Roberson and Associates found that government agencies don't  need exclusive access. “Our study concludes that licensing the 700 MHz D Block space for commercial use is the best way to achieve the goal of having a nationwide, interoperable public safety network,” Roberson CTO Ken Zdunek told the committee.

The Roberson study was done for T-Mobile USA, one of the companies that would like to have a piece of the spectrum, so Zdunek might not have been an entirely disinterested witness.

A bill has been introduced in the Senate that would allocate the D Block for public safety while allowing some commercial access, but what the network finally would look like is still far from certain. The debate should be settled soon so the parties involved can get on with building an interoperable network that can provide broadband data and video capabilities to first responders. It would make good sense to take full advantage of the innovation and deep pockets that commercial networks can provide.

The public safety community has a legitimate point in asking for dedicated spectrum. It needs a robust network that will be available in emergencies and, just as importantly, one that will be available to first responders without having to compete with the public for bandwidth. And it must be available everywhere, not just where it is economically viable. Proponents point out that the interests of private industry are not those of public agencies. Companies have obligations to shareholders and customers, and they must make a profit.

On the other hand, private companies have billions to spend upgrading and expanding their networks, and they introduce new services and equipment at a rate that government can't match. There is a lot to be said for giving public safety agencies access to these resources rather than relegating them to a dedicated government network that could become a ghetto of expensive, outdated technology.

A look at the nation’s highways, bridges and subway systems will tell you that although government can be good at starting projects, it has a poor record of maintaining and upgrading infrastructure. Political pressures on budgets can be as devastating as business considerations. It is one thing to get politicians to appropriate money for a new project, but it is quite another to get them to approve money for maintaining an existing system.

Public safety does require dedicated bandwidth, and 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band has been set aside for that use. The D Block should be able to provide the additional capacity needed in emergencies while supporting commercial services if it is properly managed. The challenges are not technical.

The FCC offered industry a bad deal when the D Block went up for auction in 2008, and as a result, the spectrum went begging, delaying the public safety network. An agreement should be crafted well before the spectrum is allocated that secures the needs of the public safety community while making good business sense to industry.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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