Experts address hot communications topics at APCO
A dozen state and regional entities have filed waiver applications with the FCC to get permission to build their own regional 700 MHz broadband networks, ahead of any effort to create the long-awaited interoperable national broadband network. PoliceOne has heard "off the record" rumbling that other regions will also file waivers. Send us an e-mail to let us know what’s happening in 700 MHz in your area.
D-Block, 700 MHz, LTE, and mobile broadband take center stage
It’s a fairly good bet that the estimated 5,000 people arriving at the annual meeting of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials Conference in Las Vegas this week had a long list of to-do’s and must-attend meetings (only a handful of which involved the terms D-Block, 700 MHz, LTE, and mobile broadband). In fact, with such a compelling program of keynote addresses, business meetings, education sessions, member voting, and various vendors to visit in the exhibit hall, it was a little surprising that these topics were the buzz of the event.
During one of the sessions on the topic, Chuck Dowd, Deputy Chief of Police for New York City, called the 700 MHz Nationwide Public Safety Shared Wireless Broadband Network “the hottest topic in public safety today.”
To be sure, there have been dozens of sessions in which participants discussed other topics as varied as the "top 10 mistakes made in the procurement process" and "the impact of next generation 911 on CAD and records management systems." They were told about the correlation between global warming and an increasing number of 911 calls, and taught valuable leadership skills to be applied as they rise through the ranks. APCO has members ranging from the most junior call takers to Presidential and Gubernatorial appointees.
Even with all that activity taking place, issues related to the public safety spectrum dominated much of the conversation.
Many people said that there is a “perfect storm” of simultaneous activity which spurred a somewhat sudden increase in interest in the spectrum debate. Included here are FCC waiver applications filed by a dozen agencies to build their own regional 700 MHz broadband networks, an accelerated process to set minimum standards and determine technical specifications for the nationwide network, efforts to have Congress pass a law to reallocate the D-Block to public safety, and a cascade of endorsements of LTE by a host of public safety groups (including APCO, Public Safety Spectrum Trust, and the National Emergency Number Association).
Think National, Build Regional
In the past several months, a dozen public safety agencies have sought permission to build wireless broadband networks in 700 MHz. In the aftermath of the D-Block’s failure to sell at Auction last year, followed closely by delays related to changes in leadership at the FCC, many state and local organizations began to grow impatient. Since no public safety broadband network exists, agencies must rely entirely on commercial carrier solutions. At $50 per month per user, these can be an overwhelming budget burden. Consequently, various entities are “seeking authority to deploy public safety broadband systems on a local or regional basis in the 10 megahertz of 700 MHz public safety broadband spectrum currently licensed to the PSST,” according to documentation from the FCC.
Those entities seeking an FCC waiver are the City of Boston, the Bay Area (the City and County of San Francisco, the City of Oakland, and the City of San Jose), the State of New Jersey, the City of New York, the District of Columbia, the State of New York, the City of Chesapeake (Virginia), the City of San Antonio in conjunction with area counties Bexar and Comal, the State of New Mexico, the State of North Dakota, the City of Charlotte (North Carolina), and several counties and the City of Cedar Rapids (known as the Iowa Coalition). In addition, one commercial entity, Flow Mobile, has filed a petition.
The number of interested people who showed up at a town hall meeting about these waiver applications illustrates the topic's popularity. The conversation was led by APCO’s Bob Gurss, and included comments from PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen as well as representatives of several of the waiver applicants, including Laura Phillips from the San Francisco Bay Area, Chuck Dowd from New York City, Don Denning from Boston, and Victoria Garcia from New Mexico.
Deputy Chief Dowd said that there is a rapidly growing consensus among many chiefs across the United States — not just those who are waiver applicants — that the FCC should move quickly to grant at least some of the waivers for local build-outs.
The town hall was called because of a press release issued late last week by the FCC indicating that the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau seeks public comment on the aforementioned thirteen petitions for waiver. The FCC wants to “develop a record that will enable the Commission to explore the full range of alternatives for addressing the waiver requests, while also avoiding prejudgment of pending issues in the Commission’s rulemaking proceeding addressing the 700 MHz D-Block and public safety broadband allocations.”
APCO Executive Director George Rice Jr. told PoliceOne in an exclusive interview that “the examination over the last several months has definitely led to the conclusion that there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of deployment [of wireless broadband]. Agencies that have needs in the immediate are looking for ways in which to fulfill those needs. Thus obviously the waivers have been filed around the country. That’s something has been an individual action by each of those agencies and jurisdictions. What has come to fore subsequent to that is that those individual actions have built more of a collective approach. What we’ll have then is everybody moving in concert to hopefully deploy and our position is still our position from the beginning — we’ve espoused the public private partnership and we’re still of a mind to support that. If there’s a way in which the collective can still be served, these agencies fulfill their immediate and long term needs, and we still reach the goals of the entire national network, I think that’s the approach that everyone will want to take and APCO will take that approach.”
The comment period is between October 16, 2009 and November 16, 2009, and any entity with a concern or observation on the matter is encouraged to send their remarks to the FCC.
McEwen, who has been one of the leading voices on development of the nascent national broadband network, suggested that the effort by these locales to build a handful of local networks is not incompatible with the goal of eventually having a nationwide interoperable network.
NYPD’s Dowd said that the early build project will be something that can be shown and shared with municipalities and regions that follow. Echoing those sentiments , Laura Phillips called these waiver applicants “pilot projects” that will do a lot of learning along the way.
To emphasize this point, McEwen also said that some form of a “users group” consisting of representatives from these local build-outs be formed so that information can be shared.
The comment period announced last week by the FCC can be a vehicle that will illuminate a variety of issues — not all of which are directly related to the waiver requests.
“This is the first opportunity in more than a year for public safety to speak up and make their opinions known about all issues related to 700 MHz,” McEwen said.
Another hot topic at APCO was the effort to get the entire D-Block allocated to public safety, increasing two-fold the spectrum available to public safety from 10 MHz to 20 MHz. Earlier this year, eight major public safety organizations met to discuss the future of the nationwide interoperable broadband network in 700 MHz, and agreed to petition Congress to reallocate the D Block, rather than auctioning it, creating a single 20 MHz block of broadband spectrum for public safety.
The Major Cities Chiefs (led by Chuck Dowd of NYPD) is among the groups taking the lead in lobbying Congress to have a bill passed that would shake loose that 10 MHz of spectrum in the D-Block and give it to public safety. Some attendees expect this to dominate the agenda when Congress returns from its recess in mid-September, as long as the current debate over health care reform has concluded by then.
If these lobbying efforts are successful, three things would happen in relatively rapid succession: Congress would pass a law to remove the D-Block from auction; the FCC would create a set of rules adding the D-Block spectrum to the nationwide PSBL (still allowing for the possibility of Public Private Partnerships originally intended in the Auction); and the FCC would grant some number of waiver requests allowing local and regional build out according to the nationwide minimum requirements created by the NPSTC 700 MHz Broadband Task Force, NPSTC, and submitted by PSST to the FCC. Yes, that’s an alphabet soup of acronyms, but there are a considerable number of moving parts.
Standards Coming Into Focus
Speaking of acronyms and moving parts, some of the leading experts on the technical aspects of the national broadband network (as well as those local waiver applicants) gathered for a two-hour working session led by the NPSTC 700 MHz Broadband Task Force Chairman Dave Buchanan. During this meeting, a roomful of attendees began to hash out some very important details to be included in the recommended system requirements to be presented by NPSTC to the FCC in September. These suggested technical specifications will then be presented to PSST, which will in turn adopt them during their upcoming Board meeting this fall, and formally present them to the FCC.
NPTSC saw an immediate need to develop interim standards that would allow the waiver applicants — should they be successful in obtaining FCC approval to build out their local regional networks — to develop networks that are compatible with the nationwide network, when that is eventually built. “The 15 organizations of the NPSTC federation appointed this task force to define requirements for state and local networks that will ensure interoperability in a system of systems approach to a national broadband network. Under a regional model, it is the expectation that any region deploying its own system will define the requirements to provide operability for that respective area,” according to NPSTC documents.
During a June 2009 meeting, the Governing Board of NPSTC set the goal of having these standards by the end of August. At the time, many participants viewed that goal with skepticism but with a massive amount of work undertaken in the past 60 days, the objective appears now to be all but achieved.
Among the many items discussed during this session — which are entirely too numerous and too technical to be covered in panoply — were some of the “minimum requirements necessary to enable roaming between LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks built by multiple, independent public safety organizations and commercial service providers.”
LTE the 4G Technology of Choice for Public Safety
A variety of public safety communications organizations have endorsed LTE as the Common Air Interface for public safety broadband. The importance of this cannot be overstated. By eliminating competing technologies (most notably WiMAX), some of the very fundamental technical work can begin. Separately, Verizon Wireless recently announced that the company has successfully completed LTE calls (based on the 3GPP Release 8 standard) over Verizon’s 700 MHz spectrum in Boston and Seattle. The experimentation reportedly involved file downloads/uploads, streaming video, Web browsing, and voice transmissions using VoIP, and is a fairly clear indication that LTE may not be as far away as some have speculated.
As its name suggests, this technology is truly thought to be a long-term evolution. One participant joked with PoliceOne, “It’s a very good thing that public safety has chosen to take an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, approach. Revolutions tend to have lots of unintended consequences.”
PoliceOne will continue to follow-up on our coverage of APCO 2009 in coming weeks and months, and we’ll keep a close eye on the specific subjects touched on in this initial feature article. Add your comments below or send us an e-mail with your thoughts.