FCC officials are committed to taking steps to ensure that a 700 MHz nationwide public-safety broadband network becomes a reality, but the proposal may not include the reallocation of the commercial D Block in the band to first responders, an FCC bureau chief said during last month's APCO Winter Summit.

Last month, representatives from APCO and eight other public-safety organizations presented a united front to federal lawmakers and policy-makers in requesting the reallocation of the 10 MHz D Block to public safety, which also has been granted 10 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum that has been licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). Public-safety leaders would like to see the two swaths provide a 20 MHz spectral foundation for a nationwide public-safety network.

Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's public-safety and homeland-security bureau, applauded the effort and described the requested D Block reallocation as “Plan A” for public safety. But current law requires the FCC to auction the D Block to commercial users, so the agency does not anticipate making a recommendation to reallocate the D Block in its national broadband plan — due to Congress on March 17 — he said.

“It would be great to have 20 MHz,” Barnett said. “The problem that we have right now as we pursue this is that the D Block is dedicated to commercial use — we're actually under a mandate to auction it. So we had to figure out a way to come up with a viable system even if you don't get the D Block.”

Instead, the FCC is pursuing a public/private proposal that calls for 700 MHz commercial carriers to build out the public-safety broadband wireless network — likely using LTE as public safety requested, although the FCC probably will not specify the technology in its broadband plan — while they deploy their commercial networks, which should greatly reduce the capital costs associated with the first-responder network, Barnett said.

“One of the things that is very encouraging is that it's obvious the carriers are already planning for this,” Barnett said. “What we're getting from them is that it would be economically advantageous to do it all together, and that just makes sense.”

When responding to large incidents, public safety may need more broadband capacity than can be provided using the 10 MHz of spectrum licensed to the PSST, Barnett said. During such situations, public-safety users would be allowed to roam on the networks of 700 MHz commercial carriers — from the A Block to the D Block in the band — to secure additional bandwidth, he said.

“The ability to be able to roam — not just on the D Block but across the entire 700 MHz spectrum — provides an ability to use the LTE 4G capacity to the level that public safety would want,” Barnett said.

Barnett pledged that the proposed broadband network must meet public-safety requirements for reliability and availability, including backup battery power and physical hardening of critical network sites. To pay for such enhancements, the FCC likely will recommend a federal grant program be created to address capital costs and some sort of ongoing funding source for operating costs.

Chris Moore — deputy chief for the San Jose (Calif.) Police Department and chairman of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCC) spectrum working group — said he was encouraged by Barnett's commitment to the need for a public-safety broadband network, but was disappointed that the FCC would not include a recommendation to reallocate the D Block to public safety. Public-safety officials are hopeful that such legislation will be introduced on Capitol Hill during the next few weeks, he said.

“We need to redouble our efforts to bring the message to Congress that public safety does, in fact, need the D Block,” Moore said.