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2012 in Review: A landmark year for the D-Block

In a year that saw many important developments in public safety communications, there was one that really stood out

The year 2012 was a big one for first responder wireless communications. Just last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the big four wireless carriers announced plans to rapidly accelerate the implementation of next-generation text-to-911 services (something that was thought to be at least half a decade away will now apparently begin deployment in 2013). 

Throughout the year, myriad new technology devices were unveiled. Highlights for me were things like the Raytheon BBN TransTalk and the Motorola LEX 700. There are others — too many to name here — but those two devices are standouts in my opinion.

But amid the near-constant stream of press releases about new communications services, software, and backbone infrastructure coming online, a singular issue rose so fast and so far to the top that everything else pales in comparison: allocation of the D-Block to public safety.

Years in the Making
With the passage of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 came a long-awaited — and hard-fought — agreement on the allocation to public safety the portion of the 700 MHz wireless airwaves known as the D-Block.

The future of that swath of spectrum remained unsettled for nearly four years since it failed to get any takers on the reserve price of $1.33 billion in what was known as FCC Auction 73.

In February, allocation of the D-Block — a national public safety broadband communications network built on LTE technology — basically became a done deal. Many questions were left unanswered — hell, many questions are still unanswered — but a few important issues were settled:

1.) Funding: The buildout of the dedicated nationwide, wireless, mobile broadband network is estimated to require some $7 billion in funding. Congress set aside $2 billion for initial work, with an additional $5 billion in construction costs financed with the proceeds of future FCC auctions of wireless spectrum.
2.) Input:
As the network evolves from inception to implementation, there will be extensive opportunities for input (and influence) by public safety professionals who know what first responders really need, want, and will use in the conduct of their duties
3.) Governance: The agreement outlined the creation of the First Responders Network, a body comprised of representatives from public safety, commercial wireless carriers, as well as subject-matter experts whose specialized knowledge will be helpful in the creation of a national public safety broadband communications network.

Finally, after years of hearings, conferences, studies, proposed (and rejected) legislation, and all manner of handwringing on all sides, public safety professionals would be provided with the contiguous, 20 MHz of broadband spectrum necessary for a Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) capable of meeting current and future needs.

FirstNet Gets Going
For several months following that February news, casual observers may have concluded that not much was happening. But the fact is, many things were happening — they were just not making headlines.

Then, during the annual APCO Conference in August, Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank announced the 15 people selected to the FirstNet board. That inaugural group included four individuals from public safety, but the name that leaped off the list is my friend Chuck Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department.

Another person I’ve befriended (and with whom I also often speak for insight into what’s happening in public safety communications) is Harlin McEwen, and I was delighted to see his name in the most recent headlines regarding the D-Block/FirstNet.

In addition to the FirstNet board, another body which will play a vital role in the creation of the nationwide interoperable first responder communications network is the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), and McEwen has been named PSAC Chairman.

He probably should have been named along with Dowd to the FirstNet board, but in the end having one of those guys on each of these bodies is probably the most advantageous possible outcome for first responders. 

To say that McEwen is a leader in the D-Block fight is an understatement of massive magnitude. He’s served as Chairman of the Communications & Technology Committee for the IACP and as Chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust.

Like Dowd, he’s been a regular guest at Capitol Hill meetings and hearings on this issue, and in addition to being a former Deputy Assistant Director for the FBI and former Chief of Police for the Ithaca (N.Y.) Police Department, he’s served in numerous other roles affecting public safety communications issues.

Miles to Go, Before We Sleep
You probably require no reminder that the creation of a nationwide 20MHz PSBN had been the last remaining meaningful recommendation of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission made in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Last week there was a particularly alarmist newspaper article in the New York Times decrying the fact that the PSBN in its currently-proposed state will fall short of being a truly public-safety-grade system. The same article indicated that with resistance from broadcasters, the intended auctions meant to fund the buildout may not materialize.

The Times may be right, but my hope is that even these potential problems can be solved. We have, after all, solved a slew of problems even to get to the point at which we find ourselves today. 

The fact that legislation for D-Block allocation to public safety was passed, signed, and begun to be enacted is huge news which cannot be understated. It very well could have gone very differently (and very negatively) for us. 

But the fact remains that there is an amazing amount of work yet to be done before we’re done. I suspect that guys like Dowd and McEwen — along with everyone else involved in this massive undertaking — will be as busy in 2013 as they were this year.

And that, to me, is excellent news indeed.

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