Urgent Matters

Ten years after O’Brien proposal, there is light at the end of the tunnel for public-safety broadband communications

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Today marks the 10th anniversary of Morgan O’Brien unveiling his public-safety broadband vision during his IWCE 2006 keynote. Things did not progress as O'Brien outlined at the time, but many of the core principles presented that day are now part of FirstNet, which in two weeks is scheduled to receive proposals from teams willing to build and maintain a nationwide public-safety broadband network.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Morgan O’Brien unveiling his public-safety broadband vision during his IWCE 2006 keynote—a speech that would lead to a dramatic shift in spectrum policy and the direction of public-safety communications, eventually leading to the establishment of FirstNet.

Two weeks from today, proposals from offeror teams are due to FirstNet. All indications are that there will be at least a couple of bids to build and maintain a nationwide public-safety broadband network, but we won’t know for certain until the end of the month—assuming FirstNet releases any information at that time—and nothing will be official until a contractor signs a 25-year deal late this year, at the earliest.

FirstNet’s fate is still up in the air, but one thing is certain: Even the pursuit of FirstNet would not have been possible without O’Brien’s 2006 proposal. Instead, U.S. public safety could be one of the few—if not the only—sectors in the world utilizing wideband data technology, as opposed to broadband.

That’s because the FCC band plan in 2006 called for the 24 MHz of spectrum allocated for public-safety communication to be divided between narrowband and wideband technologies. Although the frequencies have been shuffled around, the narrowband channels exist today, primarily supporting large P25 networks. In 2006, a few wideband-data projects for public safety reportedly were on the verge of being built.

But that changed shortly after O’Brien made his IWCE keynote speech, in which he advocated that public safety should be allocated 30 MHz of contiguous spectrum that would be leverage to build a broadband wireless network that would carry mission-critical data traffic for first responders. The 37.000-site network would be used for both commercial and public-safety purposes, but public-safety traffic would be prioritized on the system.

If this sounds familiar, it should—the details and players have changed, but this vision is largely what FirstNet is trying to pursue today.

But O’Brien’s proposal was not exactly an overwhelming hit with public safety at IWCE 2006. There were a lot of doubters. Some didn’t trust O’Brien, because they perceived him as the guy most responsible for 800 MHz interference from Nextel Communications—the company O’Brien co-founded—that led to the massive rebanding effort that is only winding down today.

Many wanted to proceed with wideband plans and were fearful that pursuing a broadband dream might delay public safety’s hopes to access wireless data. Others thought the notion was far-fetched, because federal lawmakers and policymakers were much more interested in allocating spectrum for commercial wireless than for public-safety communications. There was no way federal power brokers would give public safety another 30 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum, on top of the aforementioned 24 MHz already allocated to first responders in the band.

That proved to be true; there was no new spectrum allocated to public safety at the time, but other aspects of the proposal quickly gathered support and political momentum. The FCC—acting with unusual speed—revamped the 700 MHz band plan to create a contiguous 10 MHz swath of broadband spectrum while getting rid of the public-safety wideband allocation in 2007.

Discuss this Blog Entry 2

on May 17, 2016

D Block didn't come without a price to Public Safety since they have to give back T-Band.

JRN
on May 17, 2016

A great closing statement! I believe this is the perfect time to look at what history has taught us and look at what happened with Nextel. Nextel was a great business model ... in it's day. A model that came, served it's purpose and went, alas replaced by broadband cellular and economies of scale. Ironically the convenience mode of instant PTT the way Nextel had it has not flourished well natively or economically in a broadband device today. Morgan O'Brien's heart was certainly in the right place to suggest building a 37,000 site nationwide Public Safety Network, a concept similar to the private build-out of Nextel. However in light of current spectrum and a 5-10 yr. technology life cycle that is the norm for the industry, is a private build-out now the best model? Do we want to build a broadband network that is here today and gone tomorrow because something far superior has come along?

What if we were to take the D-Block spectrum we have now, and lease that back to common carriers and use the proceeds to pay for priority services across multiple carrier (redundancy) and across multiple bands (resiliency) at 10x the bandwidth? Did I mention no build-out costs, no upkeep, no proprietary hardware? How about just settling for as much bandwidth a 15 yr. old kid with his off-the-shelf Google phone now running on multiple carriers across multiple bands (add public safety priority to that). These are crude examples but my point is that we should not lock ourselves into anything that will shackle our First Responders on the street, who I may add are now using A-LTE modems across multiple bands. Paying for a both a bandwidth restricted private D-Block network and then to a common carrier for the ability to roam for both needed bandwidth and to ensure coverage and/or redundancy is not an economomic reality.

We let digital narrowbanding walk all over us and now we have to put up with terrible audio and SNRs. How could we let that happen? Where were our voices? The initiative of FirstNet to migrate to Broadband is the right one but lets think about it in 21st century terms, not 20th century models. I am already aware of technology being tested right now that eclipses LTE MIMO, where wireless subscriber units no longer have to share spectrum and each unit gets the full bandwidth of the base station, up to a 50x improvement, while power consumption is reduced proportionally. In addition each subscriber unit in the field can be located in XYZ within a centimeter without the use of GPS.

FirstNet is more important now than ever but let's make that vision a reality not a hallucination, ensure that every step is on sure footing. Ideas 10 years ago are just that, ideas 10 years ago. Success means the ability to adapt and change to fulfill the needs of the customer, not the other way around.

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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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