Spectrum wars

First responders take on telecom players in battle over airwaves

Firefighters and other first responders from several surrounding communities rushed to Brooks, Ky., in January to battle a fire at the scene of a train derailment. The National Guard, NTSB and the EPA also assisted in the emergency response.

David Stephenson

Charlottesville, Va., Fire Chief Charles Werner becomes frustrated when telecommunications executives claim that firefighters and police do not need much more radio spectrum than they already have. To him, extra spectrum would be critical to linking multiple radio and data feeds while responding to a large fire or containing a chemical spill.

The debate is especially urgent now, because Federal Communications Com-
mission Chairman Kevin Martin has proposed dedicating 12 MHz of spectrum to create a nationwide broadband public safety network. Such a network would go beyond traditional radios to support linking multiple systems and for data interchange, voice-over-IP systems and video. Many police and fire officials like the concept but believe more spectrum is needed.

More than a dozen telecommunications and IT companies, including AT&T Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Ericsson, Northrop Grumman Corp., Motorola Inc. and T-Mobile USA have joined the fray. Many of them assert that with available technologies and efficient management, 12 MHz works for public safety. Several companies also are offering alternative plans to build a public safety network along with additional commercial uses of spectrum.

Heated debate

Tempers flared at a recent event in Washington, D.C., in which Werner challenged comments made by wireless industry representatives and pleaded for more understanding of the importance of spectrum for police, fire and emergency agencies.

"No proposal will be successful for public safety without public safety's involvement," Werner said. "I am continually amazed and troubled in the way that non-public-safety agencies can blatantly provide misinformation that public safety does not need any additional spectrum in light of numerous official reports saying otherwise."

Werner, who sits on a Homeland Security Department first-responder communications advisory panel, is not the only advocate struggling to respond to a barrage of claims about how much spectrum is needed. The topic has been in the headlines since the 2001 terrorist attacks brought to light interoperability problems.

As public safety agencies face new threats and regional needs, the demand for interoperability has expanded. "Assertions that public safety has adequate spectrum are insulated from the reality facing the nation's emergency services," according to the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, an organization representing numerous police, fire and medical groups, in its comments on the FCC proposal.

Discussions about radio spectrum have been going on for years but have increased dramatically because of the coming mandatory transition to digital television in 2009. When that happens, blocks of spectrum now being used for analog TV will be freed up and auctioned off. Congress has directed that a block of 24 MHz within the 700 MHz band be reserved for first responders.

Alternate approaches

But many telecommunications companies and public safety advocates see an opportunity for more ambitious plans. A year ago, Cyren Call Communications Corp., a venture capital firm based in McLean, Va., and led by Nextel founder Morgan O'Brien, proposed that the FCC set aside an additional 30 MHz for first responders to create a network under a single nationwide license to be held by a public trust.

Commercial carriers would compete to build the network, and they would be able to take advantage of unused capacity for commercial use when it was not being used for public safety. Public safety groups strongly backed the idea of the public trust, but the FCC in November declined to consider Cyren Call's proposal because it contradicted Congress' decision to auction off the spectrum and put the proceeds ? expected to be in the billions of dollars ? in the U.S. Treasury.

In December 2006, FCC proposed its own plan to dedicate half of the already-promised 24 MHz for first responders. But Werner, along with the public safety council, police chiefs, 911 call center officials and other groups, say the amount of spectrum being offered is not enough.

Another company, Frontline Wireless LLC, came forward this month with what some observers consider a compromise plan to put up for auction 12 additional MHz worth of spectrum, adjacent to public safety's already-committed 12 MHz, with a requirement that the buyer build out a broadband network and make it available on a priority basis to first responders. The proposal is likely to raise less money in auction than if the spectrum were unencumbered, but it still satisfies Congress' and industry's demands to hold the auction.

Interest on the Hill

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who indicated in January that he supported some portions of Cyren Call's plan, introduced legislation this month that observers liken to Frontline's proposal.

"Whenever you are talking about public safety, there is a real difference between efficient and effective," said Frontline Chairman Janice Obuchowski. "Peer commercial networks are very efficient, but efficiency measures are different when you are talking about safety and life networks. The fact that they are not loaded all the time does not mean they are not inordinately useful in a pinch."

The debate is not likely to end anytime soon, with 79 entities offering views during FCC's just-ended public comment period on the proposed public safety broadband network. Commercial carriers and IT companies, venture capital firms and public safety groups are all vying for a piece of the 700 MHz spectrum that has been called "beachfront property" for its especially valuable capabilities, such as the ability to be beamed through solid walls. "There's gold in them hills," quipped an observer.

Even so, many difficulties and uncertainties are affecting the debate. For one, Werner and others claim public safety needs are being misunderstood and misrepresented. For example, the public safety council claims that a white paper released by the Consumer Electronics Association and a coalition funded by Cisco, Verizon and T-Mobile "distorts facts" concerning the history and purpose of the 24 MHz Congress allocated to public safety.

Second, the Cyren Call and FCC proposals may threaten progress already made by numerous large cities, such as the District of Columbia, along with states in deploying their own broadband networks for public safety.

"There is a question of what role the states and localities would play in all this," said Joseph Ross, senior partner in Televate LLC of McLean, Va., which is the contractor for D.C.'s network. "If the spectrum is under a single national license, would there be sufficient local control?"

Staff writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@1105govinfo.com.

For more on the spectrum battle and the conflict between first responders and some telecom companies, go to www.washingtontechnology.com and type 203 in the Quickfind box.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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