National Wireless Network for Public Safety Inching Closer to Reality

There is little debate that public safety personnel need their own nationwide, interoperable wireless network in order to communicate seamlessly and without competition from the private sector. There has been debate, however, over how to achieve such a goal.
While discussion has been underway on the topic for years, real activity has peaked in 2010. Experts warn that a network is still years away, but say a foundation is now solidly in the making.
Harlin R. McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, provided a rundown on where the effort stands.
The PSST is recognized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as representing the interests of the public safety community in regard to this project, and its board of directors is comprised of representatives from numerous public safety organizations including the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Officials (NASEMSO) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
The National Broadband Plan
The FCC released its National Broadband Plan this spring.
As part of its plan, the FCC has already licensed 10 megahertz (MHz) of 700 broadband spectrum to the PSST for the purposes of day-to-day public safety operations, McEwen said. This spectrum is located alongside the "D Block" of radio spectrum, which is another 10 MHz of spectrum that is currently up for grabs. Both pieces of spectrum were freed up as a result of the transition from analog to digital TV signals, and if aggregated would provide public safety with 20 MHz of 700 broadband spectrum.
"The public safety community is pretty unified that we need the 20 MHz to really do the job," McEwen said.
Issue of Auctioning or Allocating the D Block
The FCC proposes that it auction off the D Block to commercial telecom providers, and then in an emergency, give public safety users priority access. The commission already attempted an auction in 2008 but there were no takers at that time.
The first time around, the FCC tried to require that the winning bidder would build the network to share with first responders. This time, they propose using the proceeds from the auction of the D Block to help fund a public safety network on the other spectrum already set aside.
Instead, however, numerous public safety groups and authorities are calling for the FCC to allocate the D Block directly to public safety. Proponents suggest that if they get the D Block, there are other options for funding the network such as auctioning off other spectrum.
Three bills have been introduced in Congress in support of this goal: one bipartisan House bill, H.R. 5081 and two similar Senate bills, S. 3756 and S. 3625.
Though Congress is currently in recess, McEwen says he hears that efforts will be made to resolve differences between the two Senate bills to make one stronger bill.
On the flip side, McEwen says Representative Henry A. Waxman (D - CA), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has so far advocated the auction rather than allocation of the spectrum. "We're hoping that he will change his mind, but that's where it is today," McEwen said. "We're very encouraged by the activity I just described."
The Technology
The two primary broadband technologies that are being looked at worldwide are Long Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMAX, McEwen said, and the FCC has agreed that LTE will be the technology of choice for the public safety network.
"AT&T and Verizon have purchased spectrum in the 700 band adjacent to where we're going to be and announced that they are moving to implement LTE. That is a driving force for us to want to use the same technology," he said. "We chose LTE mainly because of that, not necessarily because it's better. We're convinced LTE will be the predominant technology of the future worldwide."
The Future
The benefit of the new technology is that "It's very fast," McEwen said. He noted the technology is still being implemented and tested, and he hasn't seen official reports, but says he is hearing good things.
One of the steps the FCC took this spring was to clear the way for several cities, counties and states to begin building their own LTE networks. Those approved included New Jersey, Los Angeles County, Boston and 18 other locations that could now become the first to begin to form a nationwide interoperable wireless network.
Chief Charles L. Werner of the Charlottesville, Va. Fire Department is involved with the effort through the PSST as well as the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC), the DHS SAFECOM program and a group called the Public Safety Alliance, and says that from his perspective, things are indeed moving in the right direction.
"Right now there are a lot of things up in the air and a lot of new activity... It's turning in the direction of favoring public safety," he said.
However, regardless of how the project goes forward, one issue that needs to be resolved is a clear definition of "priority access."
The next piece, he said, is to answer the question of whether public safety could roam over other commercial networks, as the FCC proposes, because there are legal questions if not technical ones. He sees this as an issue regardless of whether public safety is given the D Block, because sometimes, officials believe, 20 MHz will not be enough.
"In order to deal with those larger than life events, we're really going to need to be able to roam in addition to having the 20 MHz," he said. "So now if we go into roaming, what's that going to look like, how does it work, and how much does it cost? Those questions have to be answered... Public safety needs not only priority access but guaranteed access."
So does Werner see all of the pieces in this giant puzzle coming together, and in a way that best serves the public safety community?
"Yes," he said. "...I think this has been one of the most interesting and important public safety communications issues in my career. The opportunity for what we're able to do in the future is huge and we have to get it right."