It has been more than a decade since Congress passed a law guaranteeing public safety 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band to be cleared by TV broadcasters transitioning from analog transmissions to digital signaling.

During that time, the evaluation of first responder communications needs has changed dramatically in light of difficulties highlighted during and after mega-disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. By the time the Feb. 17, 2009, digital TV transition date became law two years ago, interoperability had become a priority, and the value of data services capable of more than text-based messaging was becoming clear.

Equally clear was the fact that simply providing individual public safety entities with additional spectrum to build data-centric networks would not do the job. Left to their own devices, public safety agencies historically had opted to build networks that prioritized individual needs above interoperability. More important, many lacked the funding to upgrade their mission-critical voice networks, much less build new data networks — especially with the prices vendors charged for specialized public safety equipment.

With this in mind, the last two years have seen a flurry of activity, with the FCC — known for its glacial-like pace in deliberations — revamping the 700 MHz plan for public safety with an unusual combination of urgency and ingenuity. The result was a reshuffling of narrowband voice channels that would be distributed to local entities under the traditional public safety model (see News, page 16) and the establishment of a public/private framework to build a mobile broadband network for public safety.

Under the FCC's vision, the winner of the 10 MHz D Block and the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — the licensee for public safety's 10 MHz of broadband spectrum — would negotiate a network-sharing agreement for the buildout of a nationwide network operating on the parties' combined 20 MHz of spectrum. The network would be constructed according to a strict buildout schedule and hardened to meet public safety's requirements.

While public safety traffic would be prioritized at all times, the D Block winner also would sell commercial services on the network to enable a greater return on its network investment, which is expected to be about $20 billion — about 50% more than the cost of a typical nationwide commercial network.

If all goes according to plan, public safety would have priority access to a robust, reliable broadband data network that uses relatively inexpensive equipment from the commercial sector and requires no upfront capital outlay by subscribing agencies. And PSST officials have expressed hope that — by leveraging public safety's spectrum and collective bargaining power — first responders can access this continually upgraded network for less than it costs them to subscribe to existing commercial networks.

Meanwhile, the targeted minimum download speeds of 512 kb/s in most of the country dwarf the slower-than-dialup data rates of offerings like CDPD that served as the foundation of public safety's data capabilities just a few years ago.

“Right now, this is just very exciting for us,” said Marilyn Ward, executive director for the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC). “We'll be in the place that we've been talking about wanting to be for a long time — being able to use new technologies and to buy equipment off the shelf. To me, it's pretty mind-boggling that, in four years, we're even having this discussion. And where are we going to be four years from now or eight years from now?”

Exactly what public safety will do with the network remains a mystery. In addition to being able to process text-based database queries and file reports more efficiently, most industry observers believe the network would enable video and graphic applications — for example, the downloading of building blueprints to firefighters responding to an incident at the location — that previously have been beyond public safety's reach.

Ward said the possibilities are unlimited. “I think we're going to have to learn these new applications,” she said. “I think that we have not had access for so long that people probably will use it in ways that we haven't thought of yet.”

Technical matters

It wasn't that long ago when public safety officials — PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen being among the most vocal — scoffed at the notion that an IP network built by a commercial carrier could be reliable enough for public safety to depend on it.

Today, however, most communications officials for public safety entities recognize that IP networks can meet the highest reliability requirements if designed correctly. In fact, IP was created by the U.S. Department of Defense to ensure the nation's connectivity to valuable data in case a nuclear attack decimated a key center, so the technology is inherently resilient.

But several recent large-scale incidents in recent years, such as hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and wildfires in California, have demonstrated weaknesses in commercial wireless networks. Towers have collapsed in hurricanes, wired backhaul from base stations has been flooded and even otherwise functional transceivers have failed because of power outages.

While land mobile radio voice networks are the primary conduit for public safety's mission-critical communications, a growing number of first-responder agencies rely on text-based, digital-dispatch data systems that help conserve capacity on the voice networks, said John Powell, chairman of NPSTC's interoperability committee.

“That's probably the only [data application] that they've got that's mission-critical to them,” he said. “That piece of the equation does not require a broadband pipe, but it does require a highly reliable pipe.”

To ensure reliability, the PSST's bidder information document calls for the “hardening” of sites by supplying alternative backhaul — for instance, a microwave link in addition to wired backhaul — and public safety-style backup power — eight hours of battery backup and generators with five to seven days of fuel.

Such reliability standards were a primary concern to potential commercial partners because their networks require many more tower sites than public safety systems, making the cost to harden all sites economically prohibitive. Recognizing the issue, the PSST's bidder information document notes that hardening standards need to be applied only to “critical sites” — a strategy Powell believes is appropriate.

“You don't have to harden every tower site, as long as you've got overlapping coverage,” he said. “Even if one of the towers goes down, with overlapping coverage, the system's going to continue to perform. It will be degraded some, but as long as the design is such that the guys in the field — and in the case of digital dispatch, we're talking about mobiles — still get a signal, that's the critical piece, in my opinion.”

Without this level of reliability, Powell said public safety entities would be hesitant to subscribe to the new network.

“With that network, it's kind of an all-or-nothing [proposition],” he said. “If you're going to move to it, you're going to move everything to it. I don't think there's generally [a desire] on the part of people to maintain their own network once that [national shared] network is up and meets their reliability requirements.”

In terms of the technology used in the network, the consensus is that the 700 MHz network will involve the deployment of 4G technologies such as long-term evolution (LTE), ultra mobile broadband (UMB) or mobile WiMAX. All public safety officials interviewed for this story expressed indifference to the technology used, as long as it meets the sector's functional requirements.

Some even indicated that public safety would accept 3G coverage initially until the 4G technology could be deployed. However, the 4G technologies are based on OFDMA, so a transition from 3G to 4G would require a forklift upgrade, which could result in the commercial carrier deploying its 4G technology from the beginning, said Michael McDonald, senior director of business development for Qualcomm.

“There are a lot of people doing work to make that transition easier for the carrier — so it just has to be a blade switch — but that still has to be developed,” McDonald said.

While some public safety officials have little preference regarding the technology deployed in the network, a critical element of the public/private partnership is to allow public safety to buy new devices at prices driven by the massive economies of scale associated with the commercial wireless industry. To this end, public safety's network likely would use LTE, which will be used throughout Europe and is the technology chosen by U.S. wireless giants AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless for their 4G networks.

“If AT&T or Verizon gets [the D Block spectrum], it will be LTE,” said Andrew Seybold, a mobile wireless consultant. “If [a new entrant] gets it, they might be stupid enough to make it WiMAX. And I say ‘stupid’ because it's real clear that the savings to the first-responder community is going to be LTE technology, not WiMAX, because of the sheer volume of product that will be available for LTE.”

Cutting a deal: Commercial concerns

But choosing a 4G technology is the least of the problems, according to most observers.

“Technology is not the issue; if you have the money, we can build it to be as reliable and robust as you want,” said one vendor, who requested anonymity. “Now, can we meet those requirements at a price that still allows [a commercial operator] to make money? That's the big question.”

For almost a year after the original public/private proposal was unveiled by Cyren Call, many representatives for existing wireless carriers said the notion was impractical because public safety's coverage requirements would mean deploying towers in areas that offered no prospect for a return on investment.

But carriers began to warm up to the idea last spring, after it became clear that 50% of the commercial spectrum would not be removed from the 700 MHz auction. In addition, key public safety officials and commercial wireless representatives discussed potential solutions during a roundtable hosted by the University of Colorado's Silicon Flatirons telecommunications program — a private forum that avoided the fingerpointing and allegations that traditionally have characterized public debates between the parties.

Since then, many public safety officials have expressed the belief that large incumbent wireless players like AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless might be the ideal partners in a public/private venture, given their network expertise and ownership of significant infrastructure assets that could aid deployment.

That's fortunate, because the demise of Frontline Wireless serves as a reminder of just how difficult it is for a new wireless entrant — with the possible exception of a cash-rich company like Google — to raise the financial resources to win spectrum at auction and pay for the buildout of a $20 billion network, said Berge Ayvazian, chief strategy officer for The Yankee Group.

“If Kleiner Perkins thought it was a good deal, they would have funded Frontline,” Ayvazian said. “I think it's bigger than just the public safety requirements. I think it's the fact that the only viable bidders are those that have the incumbent position in the market or have the cash on hand to bid independently of the financial markets. It's an extremely conservative market out there; nobody's going into a speculative effort like this.”

Also hampering new wireless carriers are the constraints of the economic model. While the commercial partner instinctively may want to resist paying additional money to build out in rural areas and harden the network, these investments could be valued in the commercial sector.

Indeed, many believe enterprises — financial institutions, Fortune 500 companies and critical-infrastructure entities — would be willing to pay a premium to subscribe to a uniquely available, reliable and robust network that would ensure their ability to maintain operations when traditional commercial networks fail. This logic is reinforced by the fact that delivery companies such as FedEx and UPS have flourished despite the presence of the U.S. Postal Service, because enterprises are willing to pay more for greater reliability and services.

A problem with this notion is that the commercial partner is obligated to give public safety traffic priority in times of emergency, which includes the pre-emption of commercial traffic on public safety's 10 MHz of spectrum. Thus, while advertising the reliability and availability of this network to enterprise customers, the commercial operator would have to acknowledge that the enterprise traffic performance would suffer when there is a local emergency — arguably the time when enterprises need the network most.

But most public safety officials believe this should not be a major issue. First, it is unlikely that public safety would ever use all 20 MHz of spectrum in a geographic area, even when responding to the largest incidents. In addition, when using IP technology, enterprise data packets would be given less priority but their transmission would not be stopped.

“I don't think it's ever going to get shut off,” Powell said. “What's going to happen is that the bandwidth on the commercial side is going to get restricted.”

For an enterprise, having degraded performance on a network that remains in operation is better than depending on a commercial network that could be down for weeks after a major incident. Meanwhile, if the commercial partner is an incumbent like AT&T Mobility or Verizon Wireless, enterprise traffic could be transmitted over their other networks if they are available.

“For an AT&T or Verizon that already has adjacent bandwidth in 800 MHz cellular, they could have one big pipe that's just partitioned into various bands — to me, that's the logical way to do it if one those [companies] happens to be the winner,” Powell said. “It would even work with 1.9 GHz [networks] by using multiband devices.”

Cutting a deal: Public safety concerns

Assuming the network coverage and reliability questions are addressed, a major concern for public safety is cost. No public safety entity would be required to use this network, so agencies presumably would subscribe only if the network offers greater value than the agency can get elsewhere in the commercial or private marketplaces.

The PSST wants to act as a wholesaler with exclusive rights to sell priority services on the shared network to public safety users. Ideally, the PSST would like to offer public safety agencies data services that are more robust, more available and more reliable than any other alternative, for less money.

On the surface, the idea seems unlikely, if not impossible. If the shared-network buildout cost is substantially greater, it's only logical that the commercial operator would need to charge users more to realize a return on investment that is acceptable to its shareholders. And dealing with a “middleman” like the PSST would seem to make the prospect even more difficult.

The flip side of this debate is that the PSST would bring to the table something most network customers do not: 10 MHz of nationwide spectrum in a band with ideal propagation characteristics. By leveraging this spectrum, the PSST hopes to negotiate favorable terms for its public safety customers.

Those terms not only involve monthly subscriber fees but a structure that won't leave a public safety agency bankrupt if it uses the 700 MHz network extensively while responding to a large-scale incident that lasts several weeks, the PSST's McEwen said.

“In the commercial model, the way [network usage is] controlled is by pricing. In this model, I'm looking at a little different way to control that — by some kind of management techniques,” McEwen said while on a panel at last month's APCO Winter Summit. “Because public safety does not have unlimited funds, they can't suddenly have some big thing come up and they've got a million-dollar bill. That isn't the way government works.

“It has to be by management control rather than by the dollar, in my view. It has to be a different paradigm. We don't know quite what that's going to be or how we're going to do it, but I believe it will be different in some way than the traditional [commercial model].”

While wanting to secure favorable terms for public safety, the PSST also has to structure the agreement in a way that doesn't create an economic incentive for the commercial partner to push public safety users off the network to give it additional capacity, in order to offer services for higher-paying commercial customers.

“The incentives around this negotiation are very difficult and challenging, and they cut in all sorts of directions, which is why this is such an interesting and challenging framework to pull off,” said Phil Weiser, co-author of last year's Silicon Flatirons report. “The FCC's desire and hope is that the contract crafted between the public safety trust and the D Block winner will have enough thoughtful protections that strategic gaming of [this] type … will not happen.”

One potential way to avoid this issue is for the commercial partner to make an upfront spectrum-lease payment to the PSST, which then could use the money to fund discounted rates to public safety customers. By using the spectrum-lease payment, the PSST can augment the fees paid by public safety users to bring them in line with commercial customers.

A spectrum-lease agreement or other form of upfront payment is critical to the PSST, which has no tangible assets other than its spectrum license and no path to generate revenue until a network-sharing agreement with the commercial partner is signed.

Although the PSST has secured some very short-term funding, some public safety proponents have expressed concern whether the organization will have the financial leverage and resources necessary to negotiate such a complicated deal with a large company that has virtually unlimited resources. Indeed, many public safety entities have felt outgunned when negotiating rebanding agreements with Sprint Nextel, even though they did not have to pay for their representation.

“[Sprint Nextel] had very expert telecommunications attorneys, accountants and other resources to bring to bear to minimize [its rebanding costs],” said Walter “Skip” Munster, assistant director of the technology infrastructure division for Fairfax County, Va.

“When you look at what was at stake [in rebanding] — some $4 billion to start with — it makes me wonder, if you have a D Block winner that is looking at a $20 [billion] to $25 billion investment, what guns will they bring to bear on the PSST and what resources will the PSST have to effectively negotiate against them,” Munster said.

The PSST's financial situation could become more of an issue if delays such as a D Block reauction or litigation require the PSST to operate longer without a revenue stream. Weiser said he believes it is critical for Congress to provide some sort of financing to the PSST prior to negotiations so financial concerns do not influence the organization's ability to represent public safety's best interests.

“It is, to my mind, foolhardy as a public-policy matter, not to provide public money to the [PSST],” Weiser said. “I think expecting this thing to be self-funding is unrealistic and risky by Congress because it creates a need to put a premium on getting this money up front. That becomes of paramount importance, and they might trade off other issues that might be more important to public safety's long-term interests to get the [short-term] money to operate.

“[The PSST] shouldn't be put in that position. It should be able to pay its advisers and fund itself without the need for a quick deal. It is an unfortunate and risky situation that is being created. I think part of the problem is that the FCC is operating on its own without the support of Congress or any fiscal authority.”

‘Forced marriage’

For all the potential barriers the PSST and a D Block winner face in reaching an agreement, many believe a network-sharing arrangement can be completed in a mutually beneficial manner. While both parties have issues that need to be addressed, FCC rules provide each side with enormous incentives to negotiate a deal.

Without a deal, the PSST lacks a revenue stream, and public safety may be hard-pressed to fund widespread network deployments in its 700 MHz broadband spectrum. Similarly, without a deal with public safety, the D Block winner does not get a license to operate on the spectrum and faces the possibility of forfeiting more than $100 million if the FCC determines it did not negotiate in good faith.

This inherent interdependence is what Weiser calls a “bilateral monopoly relationship,” with each party needing the other to reach its goal. Weiser believes a network-sharing agreement can be done, but it won't be easy.

“The challenge here is these parties are going to be forced to live with one another and, ultimately, there needs to be some trust built up,” Weiser said. “But that's hard, because this is a forced marriage — they're not coming to one another after building up some level of trust. It's a forced marriage by the sheer fact that, if someone wins this auction, they're in this [arrangement]. It is an uncomfortable situation, and it's going to require some ingenuity and real leadership on both sides to make it work.”

Sound of silence

Why the PSST camp is quiet

For the 700 MHz auction, the FCC adopted rules designed to prevent bidders from colluding with each other to prevent the entrance of new nationwide players into the commercial wireless market — a strategy that many experts alleged to be a driving force in recent auctions.

Key aspects of these rules involved anonymous bidding — high bids for licenses are announced, but the name of the bidder is not revealed until the auction is finished — and bidders have been prohibited from speaking about their strategies from Jan. 4 until the auction is completed.

Although the FCC rules were targeted toward bidders, the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) also is abiding by those rules, which prevented its representatives from discussing with MRT many issues raised in this article.

“We are bound by the FCC's auction anti-collusion rules that restrict us from commenting on matters that could in any way be construed as potentially influencing bidding behavior in that auction,” PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen said in a statement released in January.

McEwen and Morgan O'Brien — chairman of PSST advisor Cyren Call — participated in 700 MHz panels during the APCO Winter Summit, conducted in Orlando during the last week of January, but both indicated that they were limited in some of their statements by the fact that they needed to comply with the FCC rules.

The PSST's limitations have created a hardship for the organization, because the FCC rules have prevented PSST officials from addressing some media and Internet reports, McEwen said in his statement.

“In a matter of such importance not only to the PSST but also to the country, it is natural to identify false statements or misleading impressions and to do so promptly and publicly,” he said. “That is not possible in this case because of our adherence to the anti-collusion rules. But count on this — as soon as that prohibition is lifted we will identify false statements and we will correct the misleading impressions.”
— Donny Jackson

how we got here

Feb. 8, 2006: President Bush signs into law legislation mandating that TV broadcasters vacate 84 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band — 24 MHz for public safety, 60 MHz to be auctioned to commercial operators — by Feb. 17, 2009.

May 17, 2006: Morgan O'Brien, chairman of a new company called Cyren Call, at IWCE proposes a public/private network for public safety to be built on 30 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum scheduled for commercial auction. A public safety licensee would be granted the 30 MHz outright or pay as much as $5 billion for the spectrum.

Summer/Fall 2006: Most national public safety organizations embrace the Cyren Call proposal, which would not affect public safety's 24 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band.

Winter 2006/2007: With public safety's support, Cyren Call lobbies Congress to pass legislation enabling its idea to become a reality.

Jan. 31, 2007: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) announces he will introduce legislation that would yield a public safety network on 30 MHz of commercial spectrum.

February 2007: Frontline Wireless, led by a board that includes former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, proposes that the FCC support a public/private shared network using the 10 MHz D Block of commercial spectrum and 10 MHz of public safety spectrum in the 700 MHz band.

March 1, 2007: McCain introduces his legislation, which calls for the 30 MHz of spectrum to be auctioned to a commercial operator that would have a public safety obligation instead of a public safety licensee getting the spectrum outright — a big change from the Cyren Call plan. Proposal never reaches a vote.

April 25, 2007: FCC seeks comment on shared public/private network concept using a spectrum plan similar to the one proposed by Frontline Wireless.

June 2007: Key representatives of national public safety organizations establish the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), which is created with the hopes of becoming public safety's national 700 MHz licensee.

July 31, 2007: FCC adopts 700 MHz auction rules that establishes a spectrum arrangement similar to the Frontline Wireless proposal.

Nov. 20, 2007: FCC names the PSST as the licensee for public safety's 10 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum.

Nov. 30, 2007: The PSST releases document outlining public safety's expectations for the proposed shared broadband network.

Jan. 4, 2008: Frontline Wireless informs employees that the company will close its doors.

Jan. 24, 2008: Auction of 700 MHz spectrum begins with a bid on the D Block.

buildout schedule for shared wireless broadband network

Feb. 17, 2009: Deployment can commence after TV broadcasters vacate 700 MHz frequencies.
Feb. 17, 2013: Network will provide coverage to 75% of the U.S. population.
Feb. 17, 2016: Network will provide coverage to 95% of the U.S. population.
Feb. 17, 2019: Network will provide coverage to 99.3% of the U.S. population, including coverage on all major highways and towns with a population of at least 3000.