March 2010 MHz Update: FCC to unveil D-Block plan

Chief William Bratton, LAPD (ret.) says of the effort to build a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network, “If we don’t get that D-Block now, we’ll never get it.”

The Federal Communications Commission has officially unveiled an audacious $20 billion, 10-year plan to build a new, low-cost national wireless broadband network. The newly-revised FCC plan includes a proposal to spend as much as $16 billion in the next decade to build and operate a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network through which police officers and other emergency responders would share information during routine patrols and in incidents requiring multi-agency response. To help fund the public safety network, the FCC has asked Congress institute to a user fee for the nation’s roughly 70 million broadband subscribers.

PoliceOne spoke recently with Chief William Bratton, LAPD (ret.) and during that discussion — which will be published in its entirety in coming days — Bratton talked about the need for a wireless broadband network.

“Over the past 20 years, we have gotten much better at working with each other at the local, state, and federal levels. The Fusion Centers — particularly the all-crime fusion centers that came into being after 9/11 — are a significant step forward. We are learning the benefits of sharing information among ourselves. I think that as departments face personnel issues, while at the same time no diminishing of issues that have to be addressed, the need to work cooperatively — the need to work in partnership and in task forces — is going to become more critical than ever.”

The good news, says Bratton, is that officers and agencies have begun to “overcome the parochialism that is so much a part of the history of American policing.”

So what’s the bad news? Bratton says that we’re now at a vital inflection point for making the technology available to police to be able to digitally share information. He says that this communications issue, which has been simmering for many years, speaks to both the worsening shortage of personnel within departments as well as the ability for agencies to work together in times of crisis.

Critical Time
“If ever there was a time to respond to American public safety forces in terms of giving them the capabilities to coordinate among themselves, now would be the time,” Bratton explains. “If we don’t get that D-Block now, we’ll never get it. It’ll make it more difficult in years ahead to coordinate our activities among each other when there’s going to be increasing need for a variety of reasons.”

According to numerous reports, including this one from the Wall Street Journal, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski dispatched a team of aides to visit with telecommunications industry representatives and consumer groups to pre-brief them before the official unveiling of the new plan.

As we’ve previously reported, the effort to build a nationwide interoperable broadband communications network for public safety has been a 15-year process. When the FCC’s wireless spectrum auction came to a close two years ago, the D-Block had garnered just one bid of $472 million, far short of its reserve price of $1.33 billion. In that same FCC auction, the four remaining Blocks of available spectrum raised nearly $20 billion.

At that time, a small handful of industry watchers — yours truly included — advocated for Congress to pass legislation that would allow the public safety network to be funded (at least in part) through proceeds of that $20 billion federal windfall from “Auction 73” or other FCC auctions to be held in the future. The FCC is warming up to that idea, but as the Journal  points out, Congress has historically used “money raised in spectrum auctions ... for deficit reduction or to offset other spending. It isn’t clear if lawmakers will agree with the FCC on how to spend proceeds from future auctions.”

Glenn Bischoff of Urgent Communications — who I think is spot-on target in his assessment of this stuff — has been arguing for nearly half a decade that “Congress should reinstate the telephone excise tax and charge the nation’s 250 million wireless subscribers a monthly fee to pay for this network.”

I agree with the concept, but doubt any such new “tax” would pass in our current political climate.

Critical Need
Whether it’s a mass casualty incident with hundreds of agencies responding (think 9/11 or Katrina), or an ongoing investigation involving a handful of agencies and disciplines, the creation of a national wireless broadband public safety network is of critical importance for their collective success.

At the APCO meeting last year, 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.”

“The issue of a successful resolution from a public safety standpoint,” Chief Bratton tells PoliceOne, “is very much in doubt. The momentum that had been building in our favor has been lost. And again, the irony is that right when we could use it most — more than any other time in our history — we’re watching it slip through our grasp. I don’t know if there’s a full appreciation of how critical this issue is.”

TMCnet, a widely-read online journal for the technology industry, points out that the “existing U.S. public safety wireless infrastructure consists of thousands of disparate systems built by separate local agencies. Problems with interoperability, cost, spectral efficiency, and limited functionality plague these systems but could be significantly reduced through the deployment of a single nationwide network that serves all public safety personnel. This can be achieved by having a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband network in place and the cost of deploying such a network is more or less going to equal to the cost of maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructures.”

Uncertain Conclusion
Ultimately, however, the new FCC plan — which was mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in February 2009 — is about more than the issue of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network (for a three-minute summary, check out the video above in which Rebecca Arbogast, an analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus and Co., talks with Bloomberg reporter Margaret Brennan about the FCC proposal). In short, the FCC aims to “connect 100 million households to affordable 100-megabits-per-second service, building the world’s largest market of high-speed broadband users and ensuring that new jobs and businesses are created in America.”

In so doing, the agency proposes to spend a great deal of taxpayer money, and as a consequence, the acceptance of the current FCC plan remains anything but assured. Regardless of where the money comes from, a nationwide wireless broadband network in 700 MHz is as imperative as adequately funding our nation’s armed forces.

“I am certain,” concludes Bischoff in his excellent article today, “that it will be worth the expenditure, as the nation’s first responders who risk their lives for us on a daily basis deserve nothing less. I am equally certain — and have been from the beginning — that it is entirely appropriate to ask Americans to pay for this network. After all, it is they who will benefit from it the most.”

A hearing is expected to be held by the House subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet on March 25th. If you’re sufficiently motivated, you can write to your Congressional representative by visiting the U.S. House of Representatives Web site and entering your home zip code.

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