FCC Establishes Auction Orders To Benefit Public Safety

On July 31, 2007, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made a monumental decision and voted in favor of setting aside additional 700-MHz radio spectrum for a public safety broadband network.

The following is an excerpt from a press release issued by the FCC: "In a Second Report and Order adopted today, the Federal Communications Commission revised the 700-MHz band plan and service rules to promote the creation of a nationwide interoperable broadband network for public safety and to facilitate the availability of new and innovative wireless broadband services for consumers.

"Today's Order establishes a framework for a 700-MHz Public Safety/Private Partnership between the licensee for one of the commercial spectrum blocks and the licensee for the public safety broadband spectrum. As part of the partnership, the commercial licensee will build out a nationwide, interoperable broadband network for the use of public safety. This network will facilitate effective communications among first responders not just in emergencies, but as part of cooperative communications plans that will enable first responders from different disciplines, such as police and fire departments, and jurisdictions to work together in emergency preparedness and response. Under the partnership, the public safety broadband licensee will have priority access to the commercial spectrum in times of emergency, and the commercial will be preemptable, secondary access to the public safety broadband spectrum." (To access the full FCC press release, access http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-275669A1.doc.)

From the Commissioners

The following excerpts are from statements by the FCC commissioners:

  • Chairman Kevin J. Martin — "With this Second Report and Order, the Commission takes an historic step towards two goals that have been priorities of mine as chairman: one, creating a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network; and two, furthering pro-competition broadband policies designed to increase penetration and ensure that consumers benefit from innovation and technological advancements.

    "First and foremost, we have no greater responsibility than meeting the needs of public safety. And I appreciate the presence of so many representatives of the public safety community here today. During a crisis, public safety officials need to be able to communicate with one another. We are all aware of problems that have been created by the lack of interoperability for public safety communications during recent crises like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Emergencies — natural or man-made — do not make distinctions among emergency responders. It is imperative that the commission recognize these challenges and provide a communications solution for our nation's first responders that is available to everyone, regardless of the uniform they wear or the towns in which they live and work.

    "The public safety-private partnership we adopt today will ensure that public safety keeps pace with the advances in communications and gives first responders the broadband communications capabilities they need to protect safety of life and property of the American public. It has been almost six years since brave police and firefighters ran into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon without an effective emergency communications system. We should not make these brave men and women wait any longer.

    "While I also would have supported a network exclusively for the use of public safety, the simple reality is that there currently is no way to fund such an enterprise. The use of a public safety-private partnership, however, creates an opportunity to provide state-of-the-art technologies to our Nation's first responders in a timely and affordable manner. Many national and local public safety organizations have expressed support for a public-private partnership approach as their last, best chance to make this network a reality. We cannot afford to let the opportunity that the 700-MHz band offers for public safety pass us by.

    "The adoption of a national public safety broadband licensee to be a part of this partnership is also the best way to establish a truly interoperable network. The local licensing regime that has been used to date has resulted in a patchwork of networks that do not talk to each other. We cannot keep licensing public safety spectrum in the same manner as before and expect a different result. A national public safety broadband licensee will facilitate a unified national approach to the use of this spectrum, finally enabling all public safety users to talk to each other during a crisis. I therefore wholly support the public safety-private partnership adopted in today's order." (To read the full statement, access http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-275669A2.pdf.)

  • Michael J. Copps — "Far too long, our nation's first responders have struggled with the lack of interoperability. The terrible costs of this failure became tragically apparent in the aftermath of 9/11 and again following Hurricane Katrina. Today's item creates a framework for building a national broadband network, based on a common technical standard, that will allow universal interoperability among every jurisdiction in the country. This represents a tremendous step forward…Moreover, the shared network concept means that public safety will have access to 20 MHz of broadband spectrum in the event of an emergency, not just 10 MHz. This too is a difference that can save lives. Bandwidth matters; speed matters.

    "One additional benefit of creating a national public safety license is the effect it will have on the price and quality of equipment that first responders use. Today, we have thousands of public safety agencies that deal with a handful of equipment manufacturers, so public safety doesn't have much protection against the higher prices big suppliers can charge for the tools public safety must have…Today's Order changes that equation. It establishes a single public safety purchasing block. This will result in equipment that is both better and less expensive, exactly what our first responders need. The item also ensures that the national public safety licensee — and not the commercial operator — will have the final word on which devices public safety users can attach to the network." (To read the full statement, access http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-275669A3.pdf.)

  • Jonathan S. Adelstein — "I have heard the public safety community's cry for help, and their willingness to join their spectrum with a commercial provider in order to create a unique public-private partnership. And we've responded.

    "The Commission can and must play a key role in improving our nation's disaster preparedness, network reliability, and communications among first responders. This item marks a pivotal step in addressing the needs of public safety. Six years after the tragedies of 9/11 and three years after the 9/11 commission issued its report on terror attacks on the United States, our country is still without a national interoperable public safety broadband network. Policymakers all agree that our first responders need the best technology and communications network possible. Yet to date, there have been no other viable plans brought forward to realize the critical need for an interoperable network for public safety." (To read the full statement, access http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-275669A4.pdf.)

  • Deborah Taylor Tate — "First and foremost is our joint desire and one we have all spent a great deal of time discussing: a nationwide broadband infrastructure for public safety. The promise of this type of network will help finally fulfill important and indeed life-saving goals of the 911 Commission, our own post-Katrina panel as well as what we have seen and heard around the nation: the ability for a firefighter and a police chief to communicate during a local emergency.

    "Regarding our public safety community, the dissemination of vital information and interoperable communications are the backbone of our defense against attacks on our homeland, as well as our ability to respond to natural disasters or even an environmental crisis or pandemic. Today's item strengthens this defense. In addition, we re-band the public safety spectrum in a way that will allow more broadband service to the public safety community by working in cooperation with the commercial licensee involved in a public-private partnership. With input from the public safety community regarding their needs and desires and a number of fascinating, entrepreneurial concepts proposed in the comments, the public/private partnership made possible by this order also will help create important incentives for a commercial entity to serve private consumers as well as the public safety community as they protect the safety of life, health, and property of all Americans. We also adopt strict build-out rules for the commercial licensee in this partnership, with an aggressive schedule for serving public safety users." (To read the full statement, access http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-275669A5.pdf.)

  • Robert M. McDowell — "The Order before us has certain positive attributes. Among them is the plan to spark a public-private partnership for public safety by allocating an additional 10 megahertz of spectrum to aid in the construction of a nationwide, interoperable network. This plan has been assembled as the result of close coordination with the public safety community, and I am pleased to support it. We all owe many thanks to my distinguished colleague, Commissioner Copps, for his passion, vision, leadership and toil on this matter that is so vital to our country.

    "Of course, the next step is to ensure that a bidder willing to accommodate public safety's specifications buys this slice of spectrum at auction and builds it out in a timely manner with state-of-the-art technology. With today's action, public safety will have about 107 megahertz of spectrum at its disposal. So it appears to me that ongoing efforts should more closely focus on attaining the quickest and most efficient use of this spectrum. Protection of America's security can't wait any longer." (To read the full statement, access http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-275669A6.doc.)

Back to the Future

In the May 2006 issue of Firehouse® Magazine, I referenced a discussion and proposal to create a nationwide broadband network for public safety. This discussion began through the leadership of one man, Morgan O'Brien, former vice chair and founder of Nextel). He was significantly affected by the communications difficulties that occurred on 9/11 and Katrina and believed that there was something better for daily operations as well. Having a background in communications technology and being directly involved in a national communications company, O'Brien knew that there was much more that communications technology could do for the fire service and public safety.

The vision was to change the paradigm of how public safety communicated — and the cornerstone would be to create a public-private partnership, where a commercial partner would pay for the construction of the network. An additional impediment would be for public safety to overcome the price of new and evolving wireless infrastructure and equipment and the partnership with a commercial provider would create economies of scale, providing manufacturers with a larger market for creating new communications devices and thus reducing the price public safety would have to pay for new handsets.

To move this initiative forward, O'Brien established a company called Cyren Call and mounted a full attack on the present communications paradigm. O'Brien met with members of public safety and asked what was needed. Working with members of public safety, an initiative moved forward, proposing to provide an additional 30 MHz of spectrum to public safety and create the public-private partnership. Unfortunately, Congress did not have the political will to make such a bold change in the auction process. This placed the fate of any possible change in the auction process and availability of spectrum for public safety squarely in the hands of the FCC. And at the very end of July, the FCC endorsed the creation of a new nationwide wireless broadband communications network for public safety, uniting 12 MHz of existing public safety spectrum with 10 MHz brought by the commercial winner of a spectrum auction.

The Political Process

Over the past 15 months, many are responsible for this phenomenal accomplishment. Throughout this effort, there have been public safety leaders that have been behind the scenes fighting the good fight for public safety communications and for these unsung heroes, their effort cannot be understated. I have had the great opportunity and honor of working with these men and women: Alan Caldwell and Doug Aiken of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC); Harlin McEwen of the International Association of Chiefs of Police ((IACP); Robert Gurss and Wanda McCarley of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International; and Marilyn Ward of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC). Two fire service personnel who were ever-present when it became necessary to stand up against opposition and demonstrate the need to the Congress and the FCC were Ed and Laura Woods from Prince George's County, MD, Fire and Rescue.

Many of you were also instrumental in comment phases of this political process. This involved sending comments to members of Congress and the FCC. I asked many of you to help either directly or through organizations (including William Goldfeder's "Secret List" — thanks, Billy!) to let Congress and the FCC hear the voices of public safety. In a short time, hundreds of letters a day made their way to members of Congress and the FCC. Thanks, obviously they heard you!

Chairman Kevin Martin and the FCC listened to the outcry from public safety and took action. In this monumental decision, public safety was a primary component of the FCC's rule making. This FCC decision has been considered by many to be the most important for decades and is expected to reshape the public safety communications landscape forever. The simple and safe path would have been to move forward with the traditional auction rules of the past. Against much opposition, Martin and the other commissioners charted new territory and did the right thing.

Another note of recognition is directed to the FCC Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief Derek Poarch and his staff, who worked diligently to insure that the needs and desires of public safety were addressed in these auction rules. Additionally, the bureau also held many other forums, including the First Responders Summit followed by a Public Safety Spectrum Summit. The formation of the bureau shows much promise and support to all the members of public safety.

What Does This Mean?

A public safety broadband network means a great deal to the fire service and public safety. It means that a nationwide public safety broadband network will be built by commercial wireless companies and available for the nation's first responders. This network will meet the rigid reliability standards and priority access required by public safety. It will provide an affordable and ever-evolving network for fire and EMS responders to use high-speed data to better perform their jobs through the use of applications like geographic information system (GIS) mapping, geo-positioning system (GPS) applications, real-time video streaming, radio frequency identification (RFID) programs, automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems, real-time situational awareness, Radio over IP and future applications that have not yet been a twinkle in someone's eye.

At the time the column was written, the details of the auction order had not been released. I'm hopeful that the FCC will get the details right for first responders. The most difficult work lies ahead. To prepare for the oversight of this public-private license buildout, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) was formed with the support of nine national public safety organizations in response to recent momentum at the FCC about the need for a nationwide public safety broadband network and in anticipation of further developments.

As an initial step in readying itself in the event the FCC prioritizes first responders' needs by designing rules for the 700-MHz auction that lead to the creation of a shared public safety-commercial broadband network, if the PSST is ultimately selected as the national public safety licensee for the 700 MHz broadband spectrum, the PSST has issued a request for proposals (RFP) to identify one or more entities to serve as agent/advisor to the PSST. Such an entity or entities would act as an advisor to the organization and assist in representing the interests of the PSST, including discussions with spectrum auction participants and commercial wireless providers about the creation and deployment of a public safety broadband network. The RFP was widely disseminated throughout the consulting and telecommunications communities by means of an open application process and it was reported that there were 11 responses to the RFP. The RFPs will be evaluated and a selection will be made by the PSST.

While the development of this new national public safety broadband network is still in the works and operations are perhaps years off, a number of broadband networks are available that would enable the use of applications that enhance public safety communications, especially for data, video and Radio over IP (RoIP).