The NY TImes  has called attention to the lack of a U.S. public safety network, nine years after 9/11 and despite $7 billion in federal grants and other spending over the last seven years to improve the ability of public safety departments to communicate with one another. The article states that many of the issues that helped shape the current dysfunctional public safety radio networks threaten the creation of a uniform standard for wireless broadband public safety communications – the emphasis of Washington policy makers and the FCC. For years, public safety communications has been done using a raft of incompatible networks. Will that change anytime soon? Only if disagreements between the FCC and public safety agencies can be resolved.
Public safety groups are associations of police departments, fire chiefs, law enforcement and first responders/ rescue agencies. With the backing of some members of Congress, they are arguing that they need to be given control of larger chunks of broadband spectrum — the airwaves on which wireless devices and radios communicate with each other — to ensure that they have adequate network capacity during emergencies.
The public safety agencies want to own that spectrum outright- at least 34 MHz that the FCC might auction in the future. FCC officials and some legislators disagree, saying that the best way to pay for and build a robust, affordable communications system is to auction some of the airwaves to commercial companies that can build a wireless broadband network and make it available to public safety agencies during an emergency. For several years, this plan was known as "the public-private partnership." Such a partnership is especially important now that wireless network operators are beginning to design, build and deploy their 4G networks (e.g. Clearwire's mobile WiMAX and Verizon's LTE). But the disagreement has stalled development of a unified broadband wireless public safety network.
Viodi View readers might remember that over two years ago the U.S. government held a 700 MHZ auction. After that auction, this author wrote an article  asking whether that 700 MHZ auction was a failure, because there were no minimum bids for the "D" block of 2 x 5 MHz of paired spectrum within the upper 700 MHz band. The D block was intended to be used for a nationwide network to be shared by private telcos and public safety agencies. At that time, we stated that the D block bidding failure underscored the financing dilemma given the stringent network build out requirements imposed by FCC and limitations of the 20 MHz designated for the shared public/private network. Before its demise, Frontline Wireless estimated D block network build out costs to be at least $10B. And that was in addition to costs associated with acquisition of the spectrum. Since then, the F.C.C. has proposed another auction with less onerous specifications, but it would still produce a commercial wireless transmission system on which public safety would have priority in case of an emergency.
The FCC says that building public safety networks in conjunction with commercial wireless networks would save $9 billion in construction costs and billions more over the lifetime of the network, through the sharing towers and fiber optic cables. Because of the specialized nature of much of the radios and other equipment, the nation’s 50,000 public safety agencies pay $2,500 to $5,000 a unit for the current generation of rugged, hand-held radios that allow different departments to communicate with each other. Only mass production of uniform broadband wireless equipment is likely to bring down the costs, officials say.
"For a brief moment in time, a solution is readily within reach," James A. Barnett Jr., chief of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau, told a Congressional hearing this summer. "Unless we embark on a comprehensive plan now, including public funding, America will not be able to afford a nationwide, interoperable public safety network."
"The history of public safety is one where the vendors have driven the requirements," Deputy Chief Charles F. Dowd, who oversees the New York Police Department’s communications division, said in an interview. "We don’t want that situation anymore. We want public safety to do the decision making. And since we’re starting with a clean slate, we can develop rules that everybody has to play by." But the NY Times article states that Obama administration officials acknowledge it will take years to build a nationwide public safety system. "We’re talking about an endeavor that will take 10 or so years to get completed," said one official. "We’re starting with a new generation of technology, and that gives us a much better chance to succeed than we had with the legacy systems."
With no agreements forthcoming, and the FCC's power over broadband communications in question, the window to plan a next-generation broadband system is starting to close. "There is nothing that is inevitable about having a nationwide, interoperable system," Mr. Barnett of the FCC told Congress this summer. "Indeed, the last 75 years of public safety communications teaches us that there are no natural or market forces" that will make it happen.
Why not use LTE for a public safety network to be built over the next two or three years? There have been some recent announcements by LTE equipment vendors that augur very well for its use in public safety wireless broadband networks . However, we caution that unless the needed spectrum is available for use by public safety agencies (either outright or in a partnership with private carriers) it will be all for naught.
In July 2010, Motorola announced plans to build a 700 MHz LTE transmission system that will serve a host of SF Bay Area public safety agencies including those in San Francisco, Alameda County/Oakland, Contra Costa County, as well as the cities of Santa Clara and Sunnyvale. This Public Safety system is to be funded by a $50.6 million US government grant as well as $21.9 million in investment from Motorola; The company stated it would be installed this year and is expected to be operational in early 2011. This first phase includes an LTE core, 10 sites and 330 Motorola Public Safety LTE user modems to provide Bay Area responders access to a host of media rich applications delivered over the new broadband network for increased public safety information sharing."
Last week, Alcatel-Lucent announced that it completed "the world’s first call" over an LTE network — albeit an experimental one — operating within public safety broadband spectrum. In making that announcement, Morgan Wright, an occasional contributor to PoliceOne who now serves as Vice President of Global Public Safety Segment for Alcatel-Lucent said in a statement, "This achievement represents an important step toward revolutionizing public safety networks as it establishes the readiness of LTE as a technology to enable broadband data applications… This call also demonstrates Alcatel-Lucent’s expertise in designing and deploying LTE solutions to address the unique needs of the public safety sector and marks an important milestone in support of the Public Safety solution that Alcatel-Lucent is delivering to this critical market."
On September 7th, 2010, Motorola and Ericsson announced a partnership to provide an LTE-based solution for public safety . That's truly significant because Motorola is acknowledged as the top maker of radio communications gear for public safety while Ericsson is the world's largest mobile infrastructure equipment vendor. Both companies noted that their platform will provide "advanced capabilities demanded by public safety," and will use LTE mobile broadband technology "to allow Motorola’s unified next generation platform to provide the advanced communications capabilities demanded by public safety with real-time information sharing between an integrated multimedia command center and a collaborative portfolio of rugged radios, in-vehicle terminals, and handheld LTE data devices."
Why did public safety agencies chose LTE? With the Motorola system and others, it seems LTE is more closely aligned with the public safety 700 MHz radio band than WiMAX or other wireless broadband technologies. Harlin McEwen, who serves as Chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee for the IACP and as Chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust explains, "The only reason we chose LTE over WiMAX was that we had spectrum at 700 MHz and WiMAX was not developing any standards for 700. Verizon and AT&T had both announced that they were going to use LTE in 700, so it wasn’t a hard choice for us to say, ‘If we’re going to move into the next generation, we’ve got to work on the coattails of these two big companies who are going to develop 700 MHz systems.’ Nobody is going to build WiMAX in there unless somebody buys some spectrum to do that, and the only spectrum left is D-Block. And that’s not enough to do a robust system — that’s why we keep telling people, ‘Give us the D-Block to add to ours and we’ll have enough [spectrum] to do a robust system. Alone, we don’t have enough and the D-block doesn’t have enough.’ So that’s the reason we chose LTE. It had nothing to do with the technology being better than WiMAX. I’ve been told that although they’re different, there isn’t a lot of difference in the way they perform or the quality of the service."
McEwen concludes, "We’re really talking about fourth generation — next generation, faster quicker, better, improved — broadband service, and LTE is the one we chose. But to the rank and file police officer or firefighter, they don’t care which one we use — they just want it to work."
Amidst all the controversy and confusion of available spectrum, owned outright by public agencies or shared with private carriers, there does appear to be a potential solution. But what will bring public agencies, FCC and government legislators together on this issue is beyond our comprehension.