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Is D-Block allocation to public safety is imminent?

Like the magic eight ball sometimes says, all ‘signs point to yes’

Frequent readers of this space know well that I’m a staunch advocate for the allocation to public safety of the so-called D-Block of 700MHz wireless broadband spectrum. This would, in my opinion, create the foundation on which a nationwide, interoperable broadband communications system could be built. I will assume for a minute that you’re presently up to speed on what all the above mumbo-jumbo means, but if you need a quick refresher on the issue, click here, or here, or here.

Now, let’s assume for a minute you watched the King’s Speech — uh, I mean the Presidential State of the Union Address — and that you were paying focused, purposeful attention for words like “public safety” or “broadband” or “wireless.” Even then, you may well have missed it. I nearly did, and I had been “tipped off” hours earlier to the fact that such turns of phrase were almost certainly coming. Even when I heard the following segment of the speech, I momentarily thought I was hallucinating. I had to ‘baloop, baloop, baloop’ 30 seconds back on my TiVo to be sure I really heard what I heard.

“Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about — (applause) — this isn’t about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.”

Vice President Joe Biden, left, has been point man in the White House behind support for public safety in the D-Block matter. Hours before Obama's State of the Union address, Biden said on a teleconference with public safety leaders that the President supports allocation of the D-Block for a nationwide, interoperable broadband communications system. (AP Photo)
Vice President Joe Biden, left, has been point man in the White House behind support for public safety in the D-Block matter. Hours before Obama's State of the Union address, Biden said on a teleconference with public safety leaders that the President supports allocation of the D-Block for a nationwide, interoperable broadband communications system. (AP Photo)

Okay, my personal feeling about the President aside (as always), this mention in what is typically the “most watched Presidential address of the year” on the same day as news that the Rockefeller bill has been reintroduced makes me get all warm and fuzzy. Okay, not exactly warm and fuzzy, but encouraged to the point of enthusiastic.

White House Teleconference
I mentioned above that I’d been “tipped off” mid-afternoon on Tuesday. Some more on that — without revealing my sources — is in order here.

A telephone conference took place in which Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke to a number of leaders in public safety. The call was reportedly hosted by the White House, and on the agenda was the issue of the D-Block. According to what I was told on Tuesday, Biden indicated that the Administration is now fully behind the idea of allocating the D-Block to public safety.

Biden, who really has been the point man in the White House behind support for public safety in the D-Block matter — well, actually, in just about every matter related to support for public safety at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — reportedly indicated that the Administration’s plan would be based on the template outlined in the legislation reintroduced by Senator John D. Rockefeller.

If that’s so, then this truly is outstanding news. The Rockefeller plan not only grants the “real estate” necessary for the build out, but also bankrolls the thing to the tune of between ten and twelve billion dollars. After all, you can have all the land in the world, but if you’ve got no money to build a house — or hell, pitch a tent — on it, you’re going to get wet when it rains.

The Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, which Rockefeller originally introduced last year, would allocate the D-Block in the 700 MHz band of spectrum to public safety and also provide some $11 billion for the construction, maintenance, and operation of the network.

The Real Experts Speak
Wednesday morning I connected with two of my go-to guys on the issue, both of whom shared my enthusiasm for the previous day’s events. Harlin McEwen is Chairman of the Communications & Technology Committee for the IACP and Chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. Chuck Dowd is Deputy Chief of Police for New York Police Department (NYPD). 

Harlin McEwan stated, “I am excited and very pleased that the Administration will be supporting our efforts to have the D-Block allocated for public safety and a funding mechanism to make it possible to implement a nationwide public safety broadband network.”

Chuck Dowd added, “It’s apparent from the President’s speech last night and the Administration’s extensive engagement with us over the past several months that they understand what public safety has been saying over the last three years. I’m convinced the Administration will now act to deliver to public safety the spectrum and funding needed to build a public-safety-grade, dedicated broadband network. We are also grateful to Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Peter King for their commitment on the Congressional side to introduce legislation to do just that.”

The Industry Chimes In
A statement issued by Connect Public Safety Now — an organization which is lobbying on behalf of wireless industry companies in opposition to reallocation of this spectrum to public safety — said, in part, “This is a great first step, but true interoperability requires not only that first responders can communicate with one another, but that they can also count on access to the 4G networks that the nation’s carriers are building out. This access to redundant networks is crucial in times of emergency, and will also ensure that first responders enjoy access to the same economies of scale in buying handheld devices as the general public now does. These essentials have been denied to first responders for too long. Public safety deserves the peace of mind that comes with redundant networks and reliable hardware.”

Vonya B. McCann, senior vice president of Government Affairs for Sprint — one of the top wireless providers in the United States — issued a statement shortly following the State of the Union that read, in part, “Sprint commends President Obama for his leadership in promoting nationwide access to advanced wireless services and working to ensure that our nation’s first responders get what they have long needed and deserved, wireless interoperable public safety broadband services. We look forward to working with President Obama, Congress, public safety, and the Federal Communications Commission to bring our nation’s first responders the competitive wireless broadband services that consumers are enjoying today.”

Period of Public Comment
The final piece of the puzzle was a move Tuesday by the FCC itself. The FCC released its Third Report and Order and Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) to advance the build-out of “robust, dedicated and secure mobile broadband networks for public safety.”

The Order and FNPRM requires all 700 MHz public safety mobile broadband networks to use Long Term Evolution as the common air interface to support roaming and interoperable communications.

It also seeks comment on many of the technical aspects of a public safety broadband network. These include:

• The architectural vision of the network
• Network robustness, resilience, and security
• Roaming and priority access among public safety broadband networks

Now It’s Your Turn
As always, I encourage all law enforcers to consider making your feelings on the matter know to the FCC. This is your opportunity to speak out and be heard. Do what you will, but you may not get too many more opportunities to have a personal influence on whether or not your communications gear can “talk to” the gear of another agency’s first responders, or whether your mobile communications gear can quickly download the building plans for the house you’re about to do a warrant entry on.

Or, as the President put it, “download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device.”

On the question of whether or not we’re really moving toward the development of a nationwide, public safety broadband network, all “signs point to yes” as the magic eight ball sometimes says. We’ve been shaking that thing for a long time, so perhaps it was inevitable we one day get a glance at a positive response. We’re nowhere near “there” yet, but by comparison to where we were this time last year, we’re indeed much, much closer to a purpose-built, public-safety-only, interoperable nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety communications.

As always, stay tuned. We’ll keep you posted.

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