Urgent Matters

O'Brien offers intriguing 700 MHz broadband perspective

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Many in public safety are anxious to see tangible buildout begin on the much-anticipated nationwide first-responder LTE network, but Morgan O'Brien — the man who first proposed the notion — notes that several key hurdles already have been cleared.

It's hard to believe that it has been less than seven years since Nextel founder Morgan O'Brien unveiled his vision for a nationwide broadband network for public safety at IWCE 2006, amid considerable skepticism. Today, the pieces are in place to make such a network a reality — a transformation that O'Brien applauded during a recent phone conversation.

Since Congress passed the law that reallocated the D Block and called for $7 billion in federal funds to help pay for the network 11 months ago, some in public safety have expressed frustration that more tangible strides — in the form of LTE deployments and definitive plans — have not yet come from FirstNet, although sources indicate that could change in the coming weeks.

Even if it doesn't, the change in the public-safety broadband landscape has been remarkable, O'Brien reminded.

"Because you're always looking forward at the next mountain that has to be climbed, you sometimes lose perspective that we have some pretty significant mountains behind us," he said.

Indeed, when O'Brien unveiled his idea that commercial broadband technology should be leveraged to build a broadband network for first responders, the notion largely was scoffed at by public-safety officials. After all, public safety had just worked hard to get the FCC to allocate 700 MHz spectrum for wideband technology, which traditional public-safety vendors were ready to provide, so there was no way to get the 30 MHz of broadband spectrum that O'Brien called for.

"If I look back and say, 'What needed to be done?' for this to be realized, you had to capture that spectrum and make sure that it didn't all get auctioned off; you had to make sure that public safety didn't deploy a bunch of wideband networks, which was the prospect back then," O'Brien said. "While I would like there to be more spectrum, I think that 20 MHz is pretty darn great."

Furthermore, commercial mobile data was in its infancy, so it was hard for anyone in public safety to contemplate what kind of devices or applications that a first responder would use. Even today, the applications side of the equation does not have as much clarity as some would like, but the proliferation of commercial applications on smartphones and tablets in the consumer realm has most feeling comfortable that public safety will find mobile broadband useful.

Then, there was a natural distrust of commercial technology by public-safety officials, even though the need for hardening the system and devices for first responders was acknowledged from the beginning.

"We had to sell the concept of public safety being on a commercial technology — again, that fight is pretty much behind us." O'Brien said. "The conventional wisdom now that public safety will be moving all of these fantastic applications on the basis of a global standard that's driven by global numbers — that's pretty amazing."

Then, there's the matter of funding the buildout of the network.

"I think $7 billion [earmarked by Congress] is $7 billion more than I thought the federal government would ever kick in, so color me extremely happy that it's there," O'Brien said.

In other words, public safety has made huge strides during the past several years toward reaching the goal of a nationwide LTE network for first responders. While O'Brien acknowledges that some very daunting challenges remain — something we'll discuss in future columns — the fact that so many of the vital pieces to this public-safety broadband puzzle have been put in place should be encouraging to everyone involved.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Jan 30, 2013

I look forward to the development of a nationwide LTE network for first responders, but that won't be easy in our exurban hilly area with sparse budgets and few existing towers. In the meantime, we are not going to wait for the LTE - rather, we are developing interoperable LMR systems in our region utilizing existing technology. Unfortunately, politics dictated a "need" for some sort of deficit reduction to offset the $7 billion, so Congress decided to put the T-Band on the block. That kind of leaves us hanging out there - with recently purchased T-Band systems and unable to find channels we need in the basic UHF band. I hope appropriate pressure will be brought to bear in a reasonable time period to get Congress to give us back the much needed T-Band.

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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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