Fighting for a national interoperable public safety communications network

The FCC still wants to auction off the D-Block to a commercial wireless carrier but the Public Safety Alliance, APCO, and others are gaining steam in opposition

The Public Safety Alliance — an organization headed by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and consisting of members of the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Emergency Management Association, and dozens of others — late last week issued a press release blasting a recent FCC whitepaper that sought to justify another attempt to auction off the D-Block to a commercial carrier. Frequent readers of this space will recall that the first attempt at such an auction (in Spring 2008) was a colossal failure, and that public safety officials have recently been seeking to have the D-Block of the 700 MHz band allocated directly to them.

The FCC document, entitled “The Public Safety Nationwide Interoperable Broadband Network: A New Model for Capacity, Performance and Cost” is almost cynical in its conclusion that “the 10 megahertz of dedicated spectrum allocated to public safety in the 700 MHz band for broadband communications provides more than the required capacity for day-to-day communications.”

Enter, The PSA
The stated purpose of the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) is to “ensure law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies are able to use the most technologically advanced communications capability that meets the difficult, life-threatening challenges they face everyday as they protect America.” To that end, PSA issued its own whitepaper in response to the “study” by the FCC. The PSA document, dubbed “House of Cards: FCC’s Capacity White Paper Built on Assumptions and Conjecture,” is posted in its entirety here, but the following passage cuts right to the quick of the matter.

With only 10 MHz of paired spectrum in the 700 MHz Public Safety Broadband Spectrum, public safety network operators could deploy only one 5 MHz x 5 MHz LTE carrier. However, with a D-Block reallocation, public safety broadband networks will be able to operate over one 10 MHz x 10 MHz LTE carrier, which would provide higher peak data rates and increased overall network throughput. The 10 MHz x 10 MHz LTE system would provide superior network performance, as compared to a 5 MHz x 5 MHz system.

Furthermore, reallocating the D Block would provide a more viable option to retain control over the network in public safety hands. Without such control, there is no assurance that public safety will have the reliability and flexibility needed.

A single wireless public safety broadband network containing the D Block and adjacent public safety 700-MHz broadband spectrum is the only logical choice to satisfy the public safety community’s wireless broadband spectrum requirements. Primary public safety access is critical, as demonstrated by the failure of the initial D-Block auction. Public safety cannot be relegated to roaming on commercial networks as just another customer.

Industry Giant
Andrew Seybold, one of the most influential observers of the wireless communications industry, also recently issued a response to the FCC’s whitepaper. Seybold stated, “It is time for the FCC to revisit its recommendations for the allocation of the D Block that it presented to Congress. If the D-Block is auctioned and the public safety community is short-changed once again, it will only be a few years before it will have to return to the FCC and Congress begging for additional spectrum. After more years of delay, perhaps the next FCC will find more spectrum for public safety, but it will be on yet another portion of the spectrum and cause needless increases in both network and device costs. The D-Block is ideally suited to being combined with the public safety spectrum and the costs associated with building out 20 MHz of spectrum will be much less than building out two 10 MHz bands located in different portions of the spectrum.”

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing time and again and expecting a different result. Still, the FCC remains set on auctioning the D-Block to one or more wireless carrier companies (none of which showed even a stitch of interest in buying this swath of bandwidth last time around). The assumption is that those commercial enterprises would turn around and give first responders “priority access” to that spectrum space when emergency networks are overwhelmed with traffic — such as might happen in a major natural disaster or large-scale terrorist attack.

“The Commission studied three tragic moderately sized real disasters in its white paper,” concluded the PSA whitepaper. “However, it failed to utilize data from more extensive real world situations like the attacks in New York on 9/11 or from Hurricane Katrina. The public safety community is left to wonder if anything has been learned from these disasters.”

How You Can Take Action
The PSA supports House Bill H.R. 5081 — the so-called Broadband for First Responders Act of 2010 — which would allocate directly to public safety the spectrum needed to establish a nationwide interoperable communications network. The PSA is asking for all interested first responders and emergency managers to contact their Representatives in Congress and voice support for the allocation of the D-Block to public safety. Simply click here, enter your state and zip code, and you will be taken to a form you can fill out to make your opinions known.

International Association of Fire Chiefs President and PSA spokesperson Jeff Johnson said, “Time is running out for Congress and the Administration to pass and enact into law the legislation necessary to fund the national architecture and infrastructure build out with the full 20 MHz of adequate spectrum for public safety, to include allocation of the D Block. We continue to urge Congress and the Administration to join with the overwhelming majority of our local and state leaders, and first responders, by actively advocating for allocation of the D Block to public safety, and moving to prohibit the FCC from any effort to rush an auction of this critical national asset.”

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