BALTIMORE--A while back, I wrote that the public-safety sector should do everything possible to avoid any public/private partnership for building a nationwide wireless broadband network that would give control of the network to the commercial operator that would build it. I reasoned that to ensure the network access and reliability first responders require, the proposed public-safety broadband trust would need to control the network, because service level agreements (SLAs) would not be enough to keep a profit-driven commercial operator in line.

Now I’m not as sure. This week, at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials annual conference, I sat in on a session conducted by David Rogers of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade of Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne, a city of nearly 4 million inhabitants, is the capital of the state of Victoria, and its fire department employs 1700 full-time firefighters and 300 operations personnel. The Project 25-compliant trunked network the department uses is owned and operated by Motorola which, according to Rogers, is contractually obligated to adhere to strict SLAs.

We’ve gone from owning everything to do with our radios to owning nothing,” Rogers said. “We just pay a fee to Motorola for the service. It’s been a 180-degree turn.”

In the U.S., the notion of someone else owning the network upon which first responders would rely typically is anathema to public-safety agencies, though there is precedent for such an arrangement. In the state of Florida, for example, M/A-COM owns the statewide network, but adheres to performance and coverage criteria set by the state.

Nevertheless, most public-safety officials are adamant in the belief that any network used by first responders should be owned and operated by the agency for whom they toil, for quality control purposes. Similarly, it took some work in the beginning to convince Melbourne firefighters the arrangement with Motorola would work -- “Most firefighters are fairly questioning people; if you tell them something’s going to be really good, it better be really good, or you’re going to get torched” -- but so far, there haven’t been any significant problems, Rogers said.

“There are abatements and adjustments that go into effect if Motorola doesn’t meet key performance indicators -- for example, if a terminal fails, they have a certain amount of time to get it back on line -- but so far the abatements have been minimal,” Rogers said.

Of course, there is a big difference between a commercial operator such as Motorola -- for which public-safety radio is a core business -- and a commercial wireless carrier -- the most likely candidate to build and operate the proposed nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety. Commercial networks aren’t known for their reliability, nor are commercial carriers known for their responsiveness.

Nevertheless, if a public/private partnership governed by strict SLAs can work in Australia, perhaps it could work in the U.S. It’s a notion that should be reevaluated.

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