Whether you agree or disagree with the current FCC, there’s no argument that the agency is generating a bunch of ideas that have the entire public-safety communications industry buzzing. The latest notion is an emergency response interoperability center (ERIC) — the subject of an FCC forum — that would “establish a technical and operational framework that will ensure nationwide operability and interoperability from the outset in deployment and operation of the 700 MHz public-safety broadband wireless network.”

Many believe the notion of an FCC entity focused on interoperability is long overdue, with some calling for the establishment of a narrowband version of ERIC immediately after 9/11. That never transpired, but the ERIC proposal offers hope that the public safety will be more interoperable in a broadband environment than it traditionally has in the voice arena.

“I think the concept of ERIC is a great idea,” Dick Mirgon, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) said during an interview. “One of the fundamental problems today is the lack of standards, and that’s what causes our interoperability problems. This is clearly an effort by the FCC to help resolve that problem.”

But Mirgon is quick to note that — like many in public safety — he wants more information about the scope and operation of ERIC. More than a few public-safety representatives have speculated privately whether the establishment of ERIC would result in a lesser role for the 700 MHz public-safety broadband licensee — currently the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST).

“We’re seeking clarification what they believe the future role of the national public-safety broadband licensee would be,” PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen said during an interview. “And we’re asking for that clarification sooner than later.”

During Tuesday’s forum, FCC representatives said they do not intend for ERIC to duplicate the efforts of any other entity, particularly the PSST, with one official noting that ERIC will not hold the spectrum license, build a network or enter into partnership contracts. However, while the PSST holds the spectrum license, some models would not have it build the network or enter into public-private partnerships, leaving some to question what real function would be.

Some interested parties likely would welcome greater participation by the FCC, and not just those who may disagree with the direction of the PSST leadership or philosophy. Long-term funding for the PSST remains an issue, and local entities could be hesitant to commit to network buildouts under the supervision of an organization with an uncertain financial future.

An FCC entity like the proposed ERIC theoretically could be on more certain financial ground, but adequate funding is crucial, according to Charles Werner, fire chief for Charlottesville, Va.

“The key point that we have all made to them is that the success of ERIC is the advisory board and the public-safety participation we have in this process,” Werner said during an interview with Editor Glenn Bischoff. “The only way that’s going to be achieved is to make sure they can cover the travel expenses for the practitioners to be there. Because, in this day and age, a lot of [public-safety] people aren’t allowed to travel, period.”

Such issues need to be decided quickly, as the FCC hopes to establish ERIC soon after releasing the national broadband plan in less than two weeks. If the FCC grant the broadband waivers requested by more than a dozen public-safety entities — decisions that are expected to be made by early summer — ERIC or some other supervising entity will be needed to ensure that precious funding is not wasted on broadband systems that are not interoperable in the future.

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