I recently spoke with Derek Poarch, chief of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, who made it clear that he believes it is wholly unproductive to place blame regarding the current state of the 800 MHz reconfiguration project. While he conceded that the project is behind schedule, Poarch suggested it would be far more positive — and productive — to focus on moving the project forward.

“The process itself created deadlock and for that all of us bear some responsibility,” Poarch said. “My responsibility is to streamline the process, assign work and get rebanding back on track.”

To that end, Poarch outlined some of the action taken this year by the FCC and rebanding participants — including the Transition Administrator (TA), licensees and Sprint Nextel — that he feels are steps in the right direction. These include the following:

  • In May, the commission adopted the “minimum cost” order to help break the logjam in negotiations and resolve disputes that were costing much more to litigate than to settle.
  • In September, the commission issued an order that imposed new timelines and procedures to expedite the process. Meanwhile, the bureau has issued more than 25 orders resolving disputed issues, eliminating its backlog.
  • According to Poarch, the “vast majority” of 800 MHz stakeholders — Sprint Nextel, public safety, the major equipment vendors and the TA — are working harder, and in greater unison, to get the job done.
  • A “significant number” of public-safety licensees have moved past negotiation and are now rebanding their systems, he said. The TA also is conducting regional planning meetings around the country, which are helping licensees coordinate their efforts and ensure that interoperability is maintained during the transition.

Despite this progress, Poarch acknowledged that a great deal of work lies ahead. “We have less than nine months until the June 26, 2008, rebanding deadline,” he said. “We know that some public-safety licensees may need extensions past the rebanding deadline.” But he quickly added that if all parties work together, “most licensees can complete rebanding, or be close to completion, by the June deadline.”

When asked about the proposed 700 MHz wireless broadband network for first responders, Poarch called it the “best opportunity for a truly interoperable broadband network on a nationwide basis.” He expressed the following additional thoughts:

  • With the ability to access commercial spectrum in times of emergency, the network will provide significant capacity to address the communications needs of public-safety agencies in times of crisis.
  • The network not only will be built to public-safety specifications, but it also will keep pace with commercial networks' state-of-the-art technologies. In this respect, public-safety users of the network will be able to leverage a plethora of advanced voice, video and data applications over a next-generation broadband communications network, both in times of emergency and on a day-to-day basis.
  • Great care was taken so that the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — chosen to administer access to the nationwide public-safety broadband network by individual public-safety entities — is as broadly representative of the public-safety community as possible. Accordingly, it is the commission's expectation that the PSST will be well-positioned to work with individual public-safety entities to both promote and enable use of the network.
  • First responders should find the network particularly attractive because it will be designed to provide a nationwide level of interoperability.

Poarch called this a very exciting and critical time in the history of public-safety communications. He said that he and his staff understand the urgency and importance of their work and are committed to doing everything to protect the public-safety community and serve the citizens to the highest level possible. I believe him.

Charles Werner is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department, a member of the SAFECOM Executive Committee and a member of MRT's editorial advisory council.