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Importance of small LTE pilots increasing

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One of the hot-button topics in the public-safety-communications industry is whether early LTE network deployments should be allowed to proceed as planned. Jurisdictions that received 700 MHz broadband waivers and worked feverishly to get their projects to the implementation stage are anxious to get going, as are their supporting vendors.

But these large-scale deployments are on hold at the moment, as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has directed jurisdictions not to use federal funds to build out public-safety LTE networks until the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board is appointed next month and decides whether the early deployments fit into the overall nationwide network design.

Related Story: What FirstNet needs for productivity

In addition, there is uncertainty surrounding the ability for these jurisdictions to use the public-safety broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band.

Currently, these airwaves are licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and are being leased to the aforementioned jurisdictions that have received the appropriate waiver from the FCC. But that will change soon — although no one is sure exactly when — because a new law dictates that the spectrum license will go to FirstNet.

Is FirstNet under any obligation to honor the spectrum-lease agreements signed by the waiver recipients with the PSST? I'm confident that there are plenty of lawyers willing to argue both sides of the case, but the bottom line is that the waiver jurisdictions cannot proceed with their LTE deployments confidently, because they cannot be certain that they have the necessary long-term spectrum rights to support the proposed broadband systems.

Whether this is good policy is debatable. NTIA officials have indicated that the federal government does not want to limit the FirstNet board's network-design flexibility by allowing early deployments that may not fit into the ultimate plan for the nationwide network. Meanwhile, many industry sources believe these early deployments could play a critical role in demonstrating the functional capabilities of public-safety LTE while providing insights — technological, operational and fiscal, both good and bad — that could help the FirstNet formulate a better plan.

Regardless which argument is correct, the fact remains that the large-scale LTE deployments are at least several months away. In the meantime, it is important that the public-safety industry and key decision-makers learn as much as possible about LTE and how it works in a first-responder environment.

With this in mind, smaller pilots such as those being demonstrated today by Harris are important testbeds. They may not provide as many answers as a full-scale network buildout — nothing can completely duplicate the information gathered from a real-world deployment to unearth unforeseen intricacies — but knowledge gained from each of these pilots can serve as additional steps in the right direction.

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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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