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FCC broadband initiatives for schools, rural areas could impact future public-safety strategies

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FCC commissioners have approved items designed to bring broadband to underserved rural areas, as well as to the nation’s schools and libraries. On the surface, neither of these initiatives have anything to do with public safety, but they could have significant impact in some key areas that have been troubling first-responder communications for years.

On Friday, FCC commissioners approved items designed to bring broadband to underserved rural areas, as well as to the nation’s schools and libraries. On the surface, neither of these initiatives have anything to do with public safety, but my belief is that they could have significant impact in some key areas that have been troubling first-responder communications for years.

Now, there are questions surrounding some administration of the programs, as well as some politically charged procedural issues regarding the manner in which the item regarding E-Rate—the program designed to ensure that schools and libraries can be connected to the Internet—was handled before it was voted upon. For those interested in these nuances, there are plenty of online articles that provide those details, but this column will focus elsewhere.

The bottom line is that these votes underscore the fact that both the Universal Service Fund (USF) and the E-Rate program are now designed to provide broadband connectivity—not simply copper-wire connectivity—throughout the nation to underserved areas, schools and libraries. As we have noted before in this space regarding next-generation 911, to provide effective broadband to these areas means that some kind of fat pipe (usually fiber, but sometimes microwave) needs to be deployed in the area.

In other words, there should be new backhaul options to deploy LTE in locations that skeptics previously have dismissed as impossible, because there was not enough broadband demand to make deployment economically viable. For FirstNet, the more backhaul options that are available—particularly in remote locations—the better.

And, if a single backhaul option (maybe with redundancy, to avoid having a single point of failure) funded with government money can be used to help support multiple broadband programs, taxpayers certainly like that idea more than building the separate pipes for each program to serve the same area.

Another intriguing aspect of the FCC’s actions on Friday was the stipulation that a significant chunk of the $1 billion per year in the E-Rate broadband program for schools and libraries should be used to fund the deployment of Wi-Fi in these facilities.

Given the fact that Wi-Fi routers are not that expensive to begin with—and likely are much cheaper when purchased in bulk via GSA pricing, as the FCC enables—the notion that every school and library in the country will provide Wi-Fi access appears realistic in the foreseeable future.

What are the implications of this for public safety? For one thing, it could help identify the location of a 911 call—or text—if the location of working Wi-Fi access points is known, based on technology such as the one proposed by TeleCommunication Systems (TCS) and Cisco Systems at last month’s National Emergency Number Association (NENA) conference.

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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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