July Forum: 700 MHz Broadband For Mission-Critical Public Safety Data

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!” While this phrase often makes us think of a scam or sparks memories of timeshare-property pressure sales, in this case it is very true. Canadian emergency responders have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity...


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The issue is that Canada’s radio spectrum regulator, Industry Canada, has opened consultations on the 700 MHz broadband allocations (the result of spectrum availability due to the transition from analog television to digital) that will ultimately affect public safety agencies’ ability to deploy mission critical data well into the future. The chiefs’ associations developed a joint position on the issue and have been working with emergency management partners, including many provincial emergency management offices, to determine the exact needs and the optimal use of the soon-to-be-available spectrum.

This is truly a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, not just in Canada, but in the United States and beyond. Inaction poses significant risk as the upcoming allocation of spectrum will directly impact responder agencies’ and government’s ability to fulfill their most important mission over the coming decades. The current bandwidth is the waterfront property that everyone wants.

Aug. 30, 2011, marks the transition from analog TV to digital in Canada, freeing up spectrum for potential use by public safety. Emergency responder agencies are looking for 20 MHz to be allocated to broadband services (10 plus 10), 8 MHz of that 20 would come from the existing 24 MHz allocation to public safety. We are looking for a total of 36 MHz; these figures include the 4 MHz of guardbands within the narrowband block that have limited usefulness. Many private and public agencies are also vying for the additional (and very valuable) spectrum, and Industry Canada (our nation’s spectrum regulator) opened consultations on the 700 MHz broadband allocations on Nov. 30, 2010 (consultations closed Feb. 28, 2011). We had a very limited time to submit our response to Industry Canada and we are continuing to convince government that the best place for this spectrum is in the hands of responders!

In order to complete our response the committee met with stakeholders from across the country. After compiling all of our findings, we came up with the main themes in our response: to have Industry Canada assign the full 20 MHz for public safety broadband use; that we coordinate the 700 MHz Canadian public broadband spectrum with the U.S.; that the governance of the 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum for public safety for broadband use must reside with public safety stakeholders; and that current commercial systems will not meet the mission-critical requirements of our public safety community.

As the consultation response period closed, there were 88 responses to Industry Canada: 55 from companies and organizations, four from the federal government, 23 from provincial and municipal governments and six from private individuals. Overall, the Tri-Services and public safety stakeholders were pleased to see that the majority of responses to the consultation acknowledged the need to designate a portion of 700 MHz spectrum to be dedicated for public safety use.

Of the respondents, 44 advocated harmonizing with the U.S., 26 called for 20 MHz of spectrum to be dedicated to public safety, seven called for only 10 MHz of spectrum to be dedicated to public safety, six called for 10 MHz of spectrum to be dedicated to public safety now plus a possible additional 10 MHz after D Block assigned in the U.S. and three called for zero MHz dedicated to public safety. The remaining responses made no mention of public safety. Of note, one telecommunications company acknowledged the need to designate a portion of 700 MHz spectrum to be dedicated for public safety use.

In the U.S., a similar digital TV transition was accomplished on June 12, 2009. The U.S. spectrum regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has already dedicated 10 MHz to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust. Collectively, U.S. public safety agencies are now fighting for a second 10 MHz block in the critical band of 700 MHz spectrum known as the D Block. The FCC recently announced that the D Block may be sold at auction for commercial purposes instead of being allocated to public safety (currently under consideration by Congress). This move has caused U.S. counterparts to mobilize quickly on what is arguably the most important issue U.S. law enforcement, fire and EMS officials have faced in decades. Canadian responders may be faced with the same challenge.