Daniel Devasirvatham was hoping to create a spark when he invited Ron Haraseth of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International to speak at last month's Wireless Communications Association convention in Washington, D.C.

Devasirvatham, technology vice president of Science Applications International Corp.'s wireless systems group, is chairman of WCA's Homeland Security Task Force and a member of APCO's Homeland Security Task Force. Consequently, he understands both fixed wireless broadband technologies and public safety — and he sees the possibility of a relationship should the two entities become better acquainted.

The first step, he said, is to let the commercial wireless community know that first responders have 4.9 GHz wireless spectrum and will get to use a big chunk of 700 MHz spectrum that will become available once television channels go all-digital, though that day seems to be a long way off.

“Most people at the show were surprised and even a little puzzled that there was actually spectrum available,” he said.

To educate them, Devasirvatham introduced Haraseth, APCO's director of Automated Frequency Coordination, who hammered home two points: first responders need cheap gear, modified from commercial products available today, and they need it to be mobile.

“You have to weigh the availability of the commercial systems and the low cost against the critical nature of what we do,” Haraseth said. “There's going to be more pressure to provide the [wireless] services that everybody else has available, but on a public-safety platform.”

To start, he said, APCO would like existing commercial technology modified to work in the 4.9 GHz spectrum band. But what really intrigues Haraseth is the possibility of marrying commercial wireless applications to public safety.

“We have a big need for the typical, slow-speed Wi-Fi type environments, but we also have a need for a higher-speed, wide-range mobility that can send and receive signals at high speeds in a vastly changing environment,” Haraseth said.

At first glance, that would be a little tough to achieve, said Devasirvatham. “When you start asking for full high-speed mobility, you start giving up bandwidth.”

But with the 4.9 GHz spectrum — and, more importantly, the 700 MHz slots — public safety has spectrum to spare. The real challenge then, according to Devasirvatham, would be in getting public safety to realize the “tremendous opportunities” afforded by broadband wireless services available from commercial carriers.

It works the same way in the reverse, according to Haraseth, who said carriers need to be convinced that public safety represents a viable market for their services.

“It's like, ‘Hey guys, we're public safety; we have frequencies; we have money.’” Haraseth said.

The primary motivation for first responders to consider commercial wireless services is cost, an important consideration generally, but especially so at a time when many municipalities across the nation are in a cash-strapped state. Commercial equipment is far less expensive than the specialized gear first responders are now buying.

“Instead of paying $2500 for a handheld radio, they could get a really hardened one that's like a cell phone-PDA combination for $500,” Haraseth said.

However, he admitted it's going to “take a lot to get all this together, and this is a long ways down the road.”