FCC's unanswered questions

As spectrum auction nears, management and interoperability fears rise

With the Federal Communications Commission's Jan. 24 public auction of radio spectrum approaching, industry representatives are voicing concerns about the planned development of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.

Interested parties are questioning the viability and oversight of the network and how it will connect with state and local agencies and sellers of similar services. Although many of the issues have been raised before, there is greater urgency as the auction approaches.

The auction will sell spectrum made available as broadcasters convert to digital TV. FCC identified bidders last month but declined to specify in which spectrum block they are interested. The D Block includes a 10 MHz segment of 700 MHz bandwidth that FCC set aside for a public safety network. The commission asked participants not to comment publicly to avoid collusion.

Media reports have suggested one prospective bidder for the D Block is Frontline Wireless LLC of Greensboro, N.C., which petitioned FCC in April about building a national broadband network for first responders. Frontline officials declined to comment, citing auction confidentiality rules.

"Who is going to put money on the table? That is anyone's guess," said an industry representative who asked not to be identified.

This is the first time FCC has attempted to construct a national public safety wireless network. The rules call for the winner of the D Block of spectrum to make a section of it available to first responders for voice over IP and data needs on an emergency basis. The spectrum would be governed by a new public/private partnership.

In recent weeks, industry executives have expressed uncertainty about the public safety network's creation and operation.

Viability and flexibility

The question remains whether the new network can meet public safety needs while earning sufficient profits for commercial operations. Fire and police departments need a robust and extremely reliable network, requiring substantial investment, while commercial users are less demanding and may be served at a lower cost. Those two goals are contradictory, and it will be difficult to meld them within a single network, suggests a white paper released Dec. 10 by the Software Defined Radio Forum, an industry group. The forum promotes radio technologies that use software to enhance capacity and interoperability.

"The universal coverage requirement for public safety is opposed to the commercial mandate to maximize usage levels, and hence revenues, given a particular amount of investment," the organization said. "These divergent requirements create significant challenges for network design and implementation."

To meet the needs of its different groups of users, the network ought to operate in more than a single mode, such as with software-defined radios, the forum recommends.

Ownership and oversight

In November, FCC named the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), a nonprofit umbrella group, as the holder of the public safety license. The trust will negotiate a network- sharing agreement on behalf of the public safety community with the winner of D Block.

The trust, run by volunteers, named in October Cyren Call Communications Corp. as its adviser in creating the network-sharing agreement and in other operations. A year ago, Cyren Call wanted FCC to consider its proposal to build a national broadband network for first responders, but the commission refused. Cyren Call's team includes RCC Consultants Inc., 4DK Technologies Inc. and Racom Corp.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote FCC in November expressing concerns about Cyren Call's role.

"The relationship between the PSST and these advisers raises questions about the role for-profit entities might have in developing the terms and conditions of the Network Sharing Agreement and influencing decisions about the design, construction, and operation of the public safety communications network," Waxman wrote.

A spokesman for the trust declined to comment, citing confidentiality requirements. However, in a Dec. 19 update posted on its Web site, the trust said Cyren Call was hired in an open and transparent process. Ten companies applied, and three were reviewed in depth. The trust said it will not permit Cyren Call or other advisers to impinge on the trust's responsibilities.

Interaction with states

FCC has touted its plan to establish the nationwide broadband network as a boon for public safety interoperability, allowing radios from different jurisdictions to communicate with one another. At the same time, many states have already started their own planning for statewide interoperability and it is not clear how the FCC network fits into those plans.

States were required by the Homeland Security Department to submit interoperability plans in December. Many were having difficulty doing so, according to a survey by the National Governors Association. "The task of developing statewide plans is proving challenging for some states given the large number of stakeholders involved in interoperable communications," NGA said in a report released Dec. 18.

In addition, it is not yet clear how FCC's new network fits into projects that are part of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's $1 billion Public Safety Interoperable Communications grant program to states.

Closing the Gaps

Emergency communications industry executives are speculating about partnering opportunities with the new FCC network. They are also looking for opportunities to fill gaps that exist now and may persist when the network is complete.

For example, Rivada Networks LLC, of Colorado Springs, Colo., recently sold an emergency communications system to the Louisiana Army National Guard. It provides a broadband interoperable system that delivers high-speed voice and data for both day-to-day and emergency uses. The system allows connectivity between various units and systems, including cell phones, personal digital assistants, computers, telephones and land mobile radios.

Retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Robert Duncan, now senior vice president of business development and government services at Rivada, said many first responders need broadband services now and are not willing to wait several years while the FCC network is built. Even when the new network becomes a reality, there may still be unmet needs that ought to be filled by additional vendor services connected to the new network or alternative or supplementary networks, he said.

"There are so many unanswered questions with the new network, so much potential for nonalignments," Duncan said. "We really think the capabilities are needed now."

Alice Lipowicz (alipowicz@1105govinfo.com) is a staff writer at Washington Technology.

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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