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LEIM 2011: Update on D-Block allocation and 700MHz waiver requests

Harlin McEwen provided an update on D-Block allocation — which continues to move closer to reality — and other matters related to the nascent nationwide public safety broadband network

At LEIM 2011 in San Diego today, Harlin McEwen, Chair of the IACP Communications Technology Committee — as well as a friend and regular commentator on PoliceOne — addressed the issue of the nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. McEwen began by summarizing recent movement in a subject I’ve written on repeatedly in the three years I’ve been here at PoliceOne — the allocation of the D-Block of 700MHz spectrum to public safety. “The D-Block is the area of spectrum we need to have added to the public safety spectrum in order to have a robust public safety broadband network,” McEwen said.

A lot has been happening in the move toward making this a reality. Late last week, a significant milestone toward achieving D-Block allocation to public safety was reached. A landmark piece of legislation — dubbed S.911: Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act of 2011 — received an overwhelming majority (21-4) of Republican and Democratic members of the committee, and is now moving forward toward a vote in the full Senate that would enable it to be signed it into law by September, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

This significant development follows considerable debate, compromise, and negotiation, in the committee itself, as well as many months of hard work by organizations such as Public Safety Alliance (PSA), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), and myriad others.

McEwen said, “The vision for this network is simple and the main points to it haven’t changed in the five years we’ve been working on these activities. We need to have government funding and commercial investment to build out, maintain, and refresh the network. We’re going to need public-private partnerships to facilitate building this nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. We’re going be giving public safety access to the latest commercial technologies, so we’ll need network reliability, security, and coverage greater than anything currently provided by commercial carriers. We have to have priority access and adequate spectrum for public safety, and we’re going to need a satellite component that will provide coverage when terrestrial service is disrupted or not available.”

Here are some key provisions of the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act:

• Allocate 10 megahertz of spectrum, known as the “D-block,” to public safety
• Establish a framework for the deployment of a nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband network for public safety
• Direct the FCC to establish standards that allow public safety officials, when not using the network, to lease capacity on a secondary, but pre-emptible basis to non-public safety entities.
• Provide the FCC with incentive auction authority, which allows existing spectrum licensees to voluntarily relinquish their airwaves in exchange for a portion of the proceeds of the commercial auction of their spectrum. This provides new incentives for efficient use of spectrum. In addition, the funds from these incentive auctions, in conjunction with funds from the auction of other specified spectrum bands, and funds earned from leasing the public safety network on a secondary basis, will be used to fund the construction and maintenance of the nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband public safety network
• Direct the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct research into transformative wireless technologies
• Surplus revenue from spectrum auctions, estimated to be more than $10 billion, will be directed to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction

During the markup of S.911 last week, McEwen said, “We had about 30 uniformed police, fire, and EMS in the front of the room standing in support of that bill.”

McEwen said also that while public safety professionals enjoy strong support in the Senate — “I’d say that’s a real big plus for us,” he stated, “but we don’t have the same level of support in the House. During the summer, we’re going to be asking you for your help. We’re going to be asking you to contact your representatives.”

Longtime readers of this space know well that I am an ardent supporter of D-Block allocation to public safety. It is one of the very first topics I wrote about when I first came on board here three years ago, and it’s something I’ve covered a dozen times since. When the PSA and other organizations begin their campaign seeking support for passage of the legislation, you can bet you’ll read about it here too, so stay tuned on that...

Update on 700MHz Waiver Requests
From December 2009 to May 2011, some 50 petitions have been filed with the FCC requesting waivers for local, regional, and state build-out using the 700 MHz Public Safety spectrum licensed to the PSST. Just over one year ago, the FCC issued conditional waivers to 21 of the early ‘petitioners’ — including eight states, five regions, and eight cities. In September 2010, the FCC approved 20 PSST Spectrum Leases — Alabama was not ready to move forward so it was not granted a lease—but last month the FCC issued a conditional waiver to the State of Texas, bringing that number back to 21 successful petitioners.

Of the 21 successful waiver entities, seven of them used BTOP Grants (a.k.a. ARRA stimulus money) as part of the funding model (see the chart below). This, McEwen said, is something we’ll need to look at moving forward.

Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) Public Safety Grants 

City of Charlotte (N.C.)


State of New Mexico (N.M.)


Bay Area [Motorola] (Calif.)


State of Mississippi (Miss.)


State of New Jersey (N.J.)


Los Angeles RICS (Calif.)


Adams County (Colo.)


“We want people to get money, and we’re happy that these seven entities did get money, but you can see also that those others did not get [grant] money. We think this can cause some inconsistency in the build-out so we’d like to avoid this model in the future.”

In effect, the notion of funding and building a nationwide interoperable broadband system on grants is untenable and inconsistent. “It has to be a business model and the money needs to be spent across the system — and across the country — to be consistent across the network. There will have to be a different model,” McEwen said.

“Federal funds to build, manage and refresh a nationwide network must be based on a new and unified business based funding approach as opposed to a traditional grant program to selected localities and states such as the BTOP Program,” McEwen said.

“It’s not commercially viable for service providers to build a million dollar tower in areas where you have three people per square mile,” McEwen said. “But emergencies do happen in those areas and we in public safety have to serve those people at times. Consequently, we do have narrowband towers build out there, and we will have to have broadband capabilities there too. So we’re going to have to look at public-private partnerships where that makes sense.”

Ultimately, what we’re talking about is a fine balance between local and federal involvement, as well as a fine balance between the disparate interests of private enterprise and public safety. The goal is local management control, said McEwen, with a nationwide network approach that will avoid the obstacles to interoperability that we have in the LMR voice systems today.

“Hurricane Katrina was a multi-state event, but that is very, very uncommon. Even on 9/11, while you had people from across the country watching television and seeing how horrific that was, but the public safety response was local and regional, not national,” McEwen said.

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