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FCC broadband initiatives could benefit public safety

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FCC efforts to revamp the Universal Service Fund and E-rate programs to reflect a broadband focus may not seem to have anything to do with public-safety communications and FirstNet, but their impact could prove significant to the first-response community.

During the past several months, FCC officials have decided to revamp two longtime subsidy programs—the Universal Service Fund (USF) for residential connectivity and the E-rate for schools and universities—to focus them on broadband instead of traditional telephony wireline access.

It’s a transition that makes sense, because the today’s world increasingly relies on broadband access. In addition, telecom providers like Verizon and AT&T are asking the FCC to retire their legacy telephony networks, so they can focus their investments on IP-based networks that support broadband offerings.

On the surface, these efforts would seem to have little to do with public-safety broadband communications and FirstNet, but their impact could prove significant to the first-response community.

From the moment Congress established FirstNet, many public-safety representatives said they believed the public-safety broadband network would be deployed first in large metropolitan areas to provide coverage to the greatest percentage of the population. Although the enabling requires coverage in rural areas, the $7 billion would not be nearly enough to deploy a public-safety-grade LTE system to blanket the nation, especially during the early days of the network.

In some very remote areas with no population, it may never be practical to deploy LTE, even though public safety still needs the ability to communicate in those locations. In these instances, FirstNet officials have said they intend to use satellite broadband to provide high-speed connectivity to first responders.

The reliance on satellite could be reduced if it is practical to extend the FirstNet LTE system into populated rural areas. An encouraging sign is the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) testing of extended-cell—or “boomer-cell”—technology that has delivered throughputs of 16 MB/s via LTE at a range of 48 miles from a tower.

But the biggest challenge in rural areas is not the installation of an LTE site; it is finding a way to backhaul the data from the site at speeds that provide a true broadband experience. If no reliable fiber or robust microwave connection exists in an area—and that’s often the case in rural areas—then one has to be installed, and that’s when the expense of a rural LTE site can become too great to justify deployment.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.

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Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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