Five years from now, we could be in the midst of a revolution in public-safety communications, with first-response entities dictating the use of 70-plus MHz of contiguous spectrum in the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands to deliver myriad narrowband and broadband applications -- independently or in partnership with multiple commercial operators.

On the other hand, the market in 2011 may be remarkably similar to what we see today, with public-safety entities complaining that they lack the spectrum and funding to build the capacity needed for narrowband voice in times of emergency, much less take advantage of broadband applications readily available in other markets. Worse, the 800 MHz band still might not be reconfigured, especially if treaties with Canada and
Mexico are not reached in a timely basis.

Realistically, the truth probably lies somewhere between these two extreme visions. My crystal ball is not good enough to even pretend to know what will transpire, but it seems increasingly clear that the decisions that will determine much of public safety's communications future will be decided within the next year.

In fact, I think the next 12-15 months may well be the most critical period in the history of U.S. public-safety communications. Before dismissing this as simply more media hype, consider some of the items on the table today:

800 MHz rebanding: A hefty proposition by any measure, the process has proved to be much more difficult than anyone imagined as they try to complete the first wave negotiations for public-safety licensees. Alleviating interference and locating public safety near its 700 MHz spectrum will be great, but some new strategies may be needed to complete the job in a manner that makes sense for public safety and does not take significantly more time and money than initially estimated.

700 MHz public-safety spectrum: In February 2009, public safety will get access to 24 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum being vacated by television broadcasters. Exactly how these airwaves will be arranged is in limbo, with multiple plans being proposed to introduce broadband services into the mix.

700 MHz commercial spectrum: There's 60 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum scheduled to be auctioned by January 2008. However, public-safety organizations are rallying behind the Cyren Call Communications proposal that would allocate 30 MHz to a public-safety trust that would forge public-private partnerships with commercial operators to build a nationwide broadband wireless network for public safety.

If Congress buys into it, such a proposal would have a dramatic impact on the structure of public-safety communications -- and might alter the preferred plans for the 24 MHz in the 700 MHz band already allocated to public safety.

Standardization: Name an aspect of the industry, and you can probably identify some key standards nearing completion that promise to help long-term visions become reality, including those affecting interoperability and next-generation 911 systems.

Technology improvements: These are coming at a blurry-fast rate and threaten to change the landscape of the industry. They come in all forms -- modulation schemes, antenna arrays, compression applications, and interference-mitigation techniques, to name a few -- but the bottom line is that engineers continue to find ways to deliver more information across smaller channels using less power, effectively altering paradigms that have driven the market for years.

And these are just some of the items that directly affect public-safety communications.

The fact is that decisions in the commercial sector play a large role in the development of technology, policies and competition that frequently impact public-safety communications. Indirectly, the terms of the telecom-reform legislation that could become law during the next several months will affect the way public safety communicates with constituents and the vendor choices it has.

In the words of APCO President Wanda McCarley, "I can't remember having so many important things happening at the same time."

For all public-safety officials, it has to be a daunting task to assess all of these variables in a manner that enables thoughtful, timely decisions that have such significant long-term implications, while meeting the ongoing responsibilities of their day jobs. We're hopeful they can maintain the pace, because the reward for doing so in five years could be enormous.

E-mail me at donald.jackson@penton.com.