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For more than six years, I have been writing articles and columns to inform you about the concept of a nationwide public safety broadband wireless network. On numerous occasions, I have asked the readers of Firehouse® Magazine and Firehouse.com to reach out to members of Congress in support of this effort.
I am pleased and excited to report that your actions as part of a larger grassroots effort resulted in the passage of landmark legislation signed by President Obama on Feb. 22, 2012, to build a nationwide public safety broadband wireless network. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who responded to the legislative call to action; it made the difference.
Why we need more spectrum
As far back as September 1996, the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC) issued a report that outlined public safety’s need for more radio spectrum. The PSWAC was established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to evaluate the wireless communications needs of federal, state and local public safety agencies. Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission report reinforced the need for public safety spectrum. Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on the Gulf Coast further identified the need for public safety radio spectrum and highlighted the shortcomings of interoperability.
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Looking back, I remember a number of meetings with Morgan O’Brien, a co-founder of Nextel, at which he floated the concept with public safety about a nationwide public safety broadband network. In 2006, he publicly announced this idea at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) in Las Vegas, NV, which over time grew legs and began to develop. In the early days of discussions, there were conflicts between the various public safety factions that seemed to be insurmountable. Without strong public safety unity, this grand idea would have had no chance of succeeding.
The first iterations of the concept of creating a public private network surfaced through conversations between public safety and the FCC. The FCC moved forward in 2007 to publicly auction the D Block spectrum that would create a nationwide public safety broadband network with stringent public safety requirements. That auction failed as no bidder met the minimum bid requirement of $1.3 billion. There were just too many uncertainties.
While the idea of creating a public-private partnership and sharing spectrum was never an issue, the issue was “who controls it.” It became abundantly clear that an auction of the spectrum would never address the need for public safety to have control of the network during major emergencies to ensure availability and capacity when public safety needed it the most. In April 2009, the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association convened a meeting hosted by APCO-International in Alexandria, VA, with representatives of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Sheriffs Association and APCO. This meeting was the first step and catalyst to the formation of what would be later known as the Public Safety Alliance (PSA).
In September 2009, the PSA asked Congress for reallocation of the D Block 700 MHz spectrum to public safety. I would add a special note of thanks to wireless industry analyst Andy Seybold, who added his technical knowledge, presence and voice in support of public safety throughout. I would also be remiss if I did not recognize the public safety vendor industry for their support of this monumental effort.