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Communications Upgrade

IN AN EMERGENCY, the inability to communicate can cost lives. The lack of reliable radio communications on 9-11, for example, meant that fire and police personnel inside the soon-to-collapse World Trade Center towers were unaware of evacuation orders, and many perished as a result.

That finding led the 9/11 Commission to call for the assignment of additional radio spectrum to first responders in order to forge an improved public-safety communications network and avoid a repeat of the 9-11 tragedy. This recommendation appeared closer to becoming a reality when last winter’s 700 MHz spectrum auction laid the groundwork for a nationwide public-safety broadband network.

The spectrum is being reallocated from analog broadcasters as part of the congressionally mandated digital television transition. In February 2009, all full-power television stations are required to complete the switch to digital broadcasting. The 700 MHz spectrum can then be used for long-range wireless broadband services.

For the available spectrum, 10 MHz of what is known as “D” block spectrum is going directly to the public-safety licensee, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust Corp. (PSST). An additional 10 MHz was put up for auction earlier this year; the winning commercial bidder will be required to construct a public-private broadband network.

The auction winner was unknown at press time, but whichever company takes that prize will have six months to work out a network-sharing agreement with PSST. PSST is made up of major public-safety groups, including the National Sheriffs’ Association, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International.

The commercial winner must build a national wireless broadband network, for which public-safety members will pay a usage fee. Additionally, public-safety users will have priority on the commercial network during certain times of emergency.

According to PSST Chairman Harlin McEwin, the move is unprecedented. “The idea of having a single nationwide network that will have a common technology base and will allow for nationwide roaming from one end of the country to the other…. It’s a real revolutionary way to look at things,” says McEwin.

The spectrum network promises several public-safety advantages. First of all, the 700 MHz band is regarded as highly desirable spectrum due to its wide-ranging, building-penetrating capability. It can be used for data and video, and has voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) capability. And since the network’s everyday customers will be using commercial devices, there will be “a substantial amount of research and development for commercial handsets and applications that public-safety entities will be able to benefit from,” says FCC spokesman Robert Kenny.

The commercial operator will also have secondary access to public safety’s 10 MHz of spectrum when it is not being used.

Several police departments and public-safety organizations have already realized the importance of accessing wireless broadband networks. The San Diego Police Department contracted with Verizon a few years ago to access its network. Executive Assistant Chief of Police William Maheu says that his officers’ use of wireless communications enables their PDAs to access databases for automatic identity verification, criminal checks, and downloading of maps and other information.

The switch to a nationwide network could be cost-effective for his department, says Maheu, and it would allow smaller public-safety groups access that might not currently be affordable.

The PSST has a list of preferences for the network-sharing agreement it will be negotiating with the commercial winner. Although McEwin says that the preferences are all open to negotiation, he does cite some of PSST’s major priorities, which include: deciding which emergency situations will trigger public-safety users to receive priority over commercial users and ironing out the satellite component. (The satellite will act as a backup for when terrestrial networks fail and will also enable reaching sites that terrestrial networks can’t reach.)

Additionally, McEwin says that certain “critical sites” must be hardened against disasters, like hurricanes and tornadoes, with more stringent backup power requirements and longer fuel supplies than commercial networks currently have.

It might not be possible for the commercial vendor to fortify the network to the rigorous public-safety standards, but Maheu says that whatever they can provide is better than the current situation with no network at all.

Some public-safety-community members have been reported as expressing skepticism about relying on a commercial provider for “mission critical” tools. Those critics emphasize the importance of maintaining the land mobile radio systems. But Maheu points out that it does not have to be an either-or situation.

For now, it is unclear whether the network will ever get off the ground as planned. At press time, no bidder had met the FCC minimum reserve bid of $1.3 billion for the D block. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin recently told Congress that if no acceptable bidder materializes, the commission “would go back to the drawing board” and possibly re-evaluate the rules regarding the spectrum and the public-safety requirement. Martin is hopeful a public-private partnership is still possible.