We know from tragedy after tragedy that, to protect the American people, first responders need a modern nationwide communications infrastructure. Although systems have improved in some regions, little has changed nationwide since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 9/11 attacks in 2001, or even the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. 2010 may be a defining moment, when this nation either commits to solving this problem, or abandons nationwide interoperable communications for first responders for the foreseeable future.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently released the National Broadband Plan, which includes a comprehensive set of recommendations to create such a network, and Congress has begun hearings. As debate has intensified over one aspect of the plan — the amount of spectrum allocated directly to public safety — there is a danger that we will lose sight of those issues more likely to make the difference between success and failure.

Long before joining the FCC, I spent years striving to improve public safety communications, working directly for public-safety agencies and establishing a public-safety research program at Carnegie Mellon University, where I was a professor. Beginning with a paper published in 2005, my work demonstrated why this country needs a nationwide wireless network for public safety, and why federal resources are needed. A network that meets public-safety standards is more expensive than one that merely meets commercial standards. Who pays for this? Commercial providers may be willing to pay in return for spectrum, but only where spectrum is sufficiently valuable. One Carnegie Mellon study found that even if access to 20 MHz of spectrum is offered for free — but with an obligation to meet public-safety standards — commercial providers would find the arrangement unprofitable in all rural and most suburban areas. Moreover, localities saying they might deploy public-safety networks using their own funds also tend to be big cities. Accordingly, most of the country would lack the resources without some new funding source.

In the National Broadband Plan, the FCC for the first time called for federal funding that would make a nationwide network possible, using $12 to $16 billion over 10 years to reach 99% of the population.

There are five crucial elements to a successful policy:

  • An adequate funding mechanism. Otherwise, it is only possible to deploy a network that meets public safety needs in a small portion of the country.
  • A core network designed to public-safety standards, not commercial standards. Otherwise, first responders cannot count on the system for mission-critical functions.
  • A single, nationwide network, or more likely, a network in each region and an effective Interoperability Center to ensure compatibility. Otherwise, the system is vulnerable to interoperability failures and costly inconsistencies.
  • Mass-produced equipment and open standards wherever appropriate, rather than equipment customized for public safety. Otherwise, equipment costs are greater, and the rate of innovation slower.
  • Priority access to commercial networks. In the worst possible emergencies, however much capacity first responders have, they will want more, and priority roaming is the most effective way to provide it. Resilience is also improved; when a hurricane brings one network down, others may still operate.

A policy with these five elements can be highly effective, whether the network uses 10 MHz as currently allocated, or 20 MHz as some propose. A policy that lacks any of these elements should be viewed as inadequate, whether the network uses 10 or 20 MHz. The National Broadband Plan provides a roadmap to achieving all five.

Unfortunately, while people outside public safety debate whether this is the best way to spend $12-16 billion, the public safety community has instead focused on whether to reallocate the D Block, increasing the spectrum used for this network from 10 to 20 MHz.

When trying to achieve the five elements above, there are advantages to auctioning D block for commercial use. First, funding is essential. Congress is currently considering a discussion draft of legislation that would put D Block auction proceeds towards the public-safety network. Some experts value the D Block at around half the FCC’s estimated capital expenditures. The White House also said public safety should have “first claim” to auction proceeds.

Second, public safety should have access to consumer-electronics priced equipment. As a condition of the auction, the FCC could require D Block licensees to provide equipment that operates in both commercial and public safety spectrum, ensuring that public safety can obtain equipment that is mass produced, and is therefore less costly.

Third, public-safety agencies and a D Block licensee may deploy simultaneously, and if they choose to partner, the resulting cost savings would support more infrastructure within a limited budget. Moreover, with 10 MHz of spectrum and enough funding to meet FCC recommendations, public safety will have far more spectrum per user than commercial smartphone users can ever hope for, now and for years to come, substantial capacity (thanks to the recommended 44,000 cell sites), and the ability to roam onto commercial networks with priority.

Nevertheless, I understand why some public safety advocates would prefer 20 MHz to 10 MHz if this can be done without sacrificing any of the five crucial elements above. I cannot understand why a few have suggested that reallocating D Block to public safety is the only important issue. Apparently, they would sacrifice the funding that makes deployment possible outside large cities, sacrifice the ability to replace $6,000 radios customized for public safety with better $500 radios built on open standards, sacrifice the ability to avoid the interoperability problems that plagued past systems, or sacrifice the ability to use commercial networks during major disasters, for an extra 10 MHz.

Some mistakenly believe this would make mobile 1.2 Mbps video cameras possible; it wouldn’t. A handful of densely populated municipalities and companies might profit if the D Block were reallocated at the expense of these five essential elements, but for the rest of the country, compromising on these essential elements is like buying a car because it has a great stereo and not caring whether the car has an engine.

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

John Peha is the FCC's chief technologist.