The hunt for a clear signal

FCC continues debate over public safety network

At a conference of public safety groups earlier this month, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said the FCC's decision to authorize a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders is historic. But he also pointed out that rules are not yet set for how that network will be shared with commercial providers and possibly other public safety networks.

"There are a lot of unknowns," said Pamela Montanari, radio systems manager for Pinellas County, Fla., who attended the Aug. 7 conference. "We really have no indication of how we will be able to operate our private system in conjunction with the nationwide network."

FCC is expected to release detailed rules about the network's operation and the upcoming radio spectrum auction shortly. Meanwhile, a number of public safety officials are delaying pronouncements about the new network until they receive details on how the network will be structured ? including who will have final authority over the terms of the sharing arrangements; whether there will be allowances for additional wideband and broadband networks for public safety; whether the network will be sufficiently robust and resilient for public safety; and what the terms will be for satellite services.

Missing details

Until some of those details are available from the commission, some public safety representatives are reserving judgment. FCC intends to establish the nationwide broadband network for public safety as part of the transition to digital TV. Under a law approved by Congress, FCC in January 2008 will auction spectrum in the 700 MHz band currently used by TV broadcast stations. A portion of the 700 MHz spectrum will be reserved for first responders, and an adjacent portion will be allocated for the public safety broadband network.

Under the FCC framework, announced July 31, a single license will be awarded for public safety broadband. The network would be governed by a partnership between the Public Safety Broadband Licensee and a commercial licensee who wins the auction. The commercial licensee must build the network, which will be available to public safety officials during emergencies.

However, the terms of that Network Sharing Agreement are critical. Some public safety officials wonder if the arrangement will meet their needs in a crisis. "There are a lot of commercial wireless networks that are neither robust nor resilient enough for public safety," Montanari said.

In its comments to FCC, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council asked for a final ruling on whether responders' needs are being met. If no sharing agreement can be reached between the public safety licensee and the commercial licensee, the council suggested FCC should propose a solution, and if the public safety licensee agrees to it, the commercial carrier should be bound by it.

Otherwise, the spectrum would be reauctioned under the council's recommendation.
However, sources close to FCC say it is unlikely that public safety officials will get the final word and more likely that FCC will retain the authority to determine whether public safety needs are met. "There will be no veto power for public safety agencies," a source said.

If no network sharing arrangement is reached, allowing the FCC the final authority is preferable to third-party arbitration, said Charles Werner, fire chief of Charlottesville, Va., and an adviser to the Homeland Security Department on interoperability issues. "Third-party arbitrators that do not have a public safety background often become problematic because they do not fully understand the impact of their decisions in critical life safety operations."

Some networks under way

Another question is whether communities that already have established, or are planning to establish, their own broadband networks will have a place in the new structure. The National Capital Region, representing the District of Columbia and 18 other jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland, said it would be the first region in the country to deploy a new regional wireless broadband network for first responders. The region selected Alcatel-Lucent, based in Paris, in February to construct the network to transmit video, data and voice communications. The region intends to operate the network in the 700 MHz band under an existing FCC waiver.

With its U.S. subsidiary LGS, Alcatel-Lucent and the local Washington-area governments are defining the rules public safety agencies would use to pre-empt other uses of the network. But there are questions about how the Alcatel-Lucent network will coordinate with FCC's new nationwide broadband network, said Andrew Smith, director of public safety at Alcatel-Lucent.

Ideally, smaller broadband networks would coexist and cooperate with the national network, enabling competition in the broadband public safety marketplace to keep prices down, Smith said. "The ability of public safety agencies to have choice is what will drive down the costs," he said. But even if FCC agrees, there are still many questions about the terms by which the many broadband networks will foster interoperability and allow for pre-emption for public safety needs, he said.

Meanwhile, Alcatel-Lucent is completing the first phase of the project and is hopeful that it can work out the coexistence issues with the FCC. "This network will redefine situational awareness for first responders," Smith said. "There will be video and data information-sharing on a common platform."

For example, firefighters will be able to use the broadband network to instantly see floor plans of burning buildings rather than rely on a firefighter on the scene of the blaze to describe the building's layout by voice communication.

In Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, Fla., on the Gulf Coast, there are plans approved and funding allocated to deploy a countywide broadband network for first responders in 2009, Montanari said. Now county officials are wondering how that plan may be affected by the FCC's July 31 announcement of the nationwide broadband license for public safety, she said. "We don't know what we will be able to do," she said.

Satellite questions

Yet another issue is how satellite communications will be treated under FCC's soon-to-be-released rules. FCC has specified that the winner of the commercial license for the public safety broadband network will have to provide for at least a phone handset that is satellite-enabled, said Jennifer Manner, vice president of regulatory affairs at Mobile Satellite Ventures LP, of Reston, Va.

Often, in a major crisis, first responders supplement their traditional communications with satellite phones, which operate over a large area and are impervious to local power shortages and other problems.

"The commission decision is a continued recognition of the important role of satellite communications in emergency response," Manner said.

But the satellite industry is also looking for additional clarification of the rules by which satellite participation in the broadband network will be set, she added.

Meanwhile, the public safety network was a topic of discussion at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International in Baltimore. Martin addressed the group on Aug. 7.

"Like you, my first choice would have been to dedicate a network exclusively for the use of public safety," Martin told the group. "However, the reality is that there currently is not enough funding. The use of a public safety/private partnership, however, creates an opportunity to provide state-of-the-art technologies to you in a timely and affordable manner."

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at

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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