I have covered the Federal Communications Commission for nearly 11 years. That’s a long time. It all started with a three-year stint as the policy-and-law writer for Telephony magazine, before I became editor of this publication. For as long as I can remember, the commission has been rebuked for having a staff with too many lawyers and not enough engineers — or at least engineers who actually knew what they were doing.

I’ve always thought that criticism to be a bit harsh. To be sure, it’s always better to have more engineers than not enough. But I’ve always felt that the FCC’s woes stemmed more from simply having too much on its plate. Recall that, when it was formed as a byproduct of the 1934 Communications Act, the FCC’s duties were fairly simple compared to what it’s dealing with today. Back then, its primary focus was to regulate the fledgling commercial broadcast radio industry, to ensure that it acted in the public’s best interests and to prevent monopolies from forming.

Today, it is dealing with radio and television in myriad forms, satellite communications, amateur radio, spectrum management, public-safety communications, cellular communications and a lot more. I’ve often thought that the FCC should be broken into two or three entities, with each benefitting from a greatly narrowed focus and gaining efficiency. That’s not likely to happen, of course.

But I digress. The point of this column is not to discuss how the FCC should be structured but to praise it for adding engineering muscle of late. Last week, it named network engineering consultant and 30-year telecommunications veteran Robert Pavlak to direct its Emergency Response Interoperability Center. ERIC was established to develop the technical guidelines for the proposed national wireless broadband network for first responders that would operate in the 700 MHz band — regardless of whether the D Block is reallocated to public safety.

This week, the FCC named Rasoul Safavian to the ERIC team as senior engineer. Safavian has more than two decades of experience in both wired and wireless communications, including a stint as vice president of engineering and chief technical officer at Bechtel Communications’ Americas Division and one as senior engineer at Powerwave Technologies. He holds bachelor's and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Kansas, as well as a PH.D. in electrical engineering from Purdue University.

Should everything fall into place for public safety — Congress reallocates the D Block and provides funding for the next-generation communications network — it will launch one of the most exciting eras in the history of public-safety communications. It also will be one of the most stressful and challenging eras. Public-safety communications, as we know it today, is a patchwork quilt of systems that sometimes work well together but often don’t. The vision is that this quilt will be replaced in the future by, metaphorically speaking, a seamless blanket that stretches from Atlantic to Pacific and from Canada to Mexico. It is something that only recently has been contemplated, much less executed.

As such, it will be fraught with headaches, glitches and mayhem, just like the other unprecedented initiative in recent memory — the reconfiguration of the 800 MHz band, an effort that still is ongoing more than three years after its initial deadline. That’s the way it is when you are blazing new trails. I’m sure that things didn’t go exactly according to plan for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, either. The FCC is going to need all of the engineering muscle it can get, if it wants to see a similar result.

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