For San Diego Police Chief Bill Maheu, the epiphany came while watching his son play a video game on a home computer. Leveraging a broadband link provided by the family's Wi-Fi network, the teens worked with other online gamers to coordinate an attack on their virtual enemy, an event that made Maheu envious.

“I saw my kid doing stuff that my cops couldn't do,” Maheu said.

Indeed, many public-safety agencies utilize mobile data applications on a very limited basis, largely because they do not have access to broadband networks that enable the transmission of photos — much less video — in an efficient manner. Maheu changed this paradigm by having the San Diego Police Department subscribe to the EV-DO service provided by Verizon Wireless and equipping officers with relatively inexpensive commercial hand-held devices.

The approach has paid off, Maheu said. Even officers on bicycles have access to multimedia databases that have foiled attempts by suspects to falsely identify themselves. In addition, an officer's ability to use a hand-held device to e-mail a photo of a bomb allowed a remote expert to identify it as an old military weapon and direct the officer to someone who could help with its disposal.

Such stories have caused San Diego officers to become attached to their commercial hand-held devices, Maheu said.

“You're going to have a hard time getting them out of their hands in the next few years,” he said.

Of course, public-safety agencies using commercial carrier networks for data access is not new. For years, many departments utilized carriers' CDPD networks for encrypted text applications, but those slower-than-dial-up connections were halted as carriers migrated to technologies with greater data rates.

San Diego chose to use a commercial network for its mobile broadband application; however, other entities opted to seek wireless broadband access via the traditional public-safety communication model — contracting with a vendor to build a network to be owned, operated and maintained by the agency.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of local, state and even federal agencies are considering public/private partnerships to build networks, typically in an effort to defray deployment costs. A variety of business models are being used, and many more are being proposed — most notably, at a national level in the 700 MHz band — but reaching an agreement that is mutually beneficial to both the commercial provider/vendor and the public-safety entity can be difficult.

Both sides must realize clear benefits for such a partnership to work. An ill-conceived partnership, from the government perspective, can create a budget drain or a subpar network that can cost elected officials their posts.

Conversely, a partnership favoring the government entity too much can create a financial hardship for the commercial partner that threatens the viability of the network, said Karl Edwards, president of Excelsio Communications, the consulting firm that helped the city of Grand Rapids, Mich., establish a public/private partnership with Clearwire for broadband wireless access at no cost to taxpayers. “Take care of your service provider, or they won't be around to take care of you,” he said.

In Grand Rapids, Clearwire will deploy a hybrid WiMAX/Wi-Fi network that will be used for city broadband applications, and to provide residential and commercial services. Large urban areas like San Francisco and Philadelphia have such dense populations that a business case can be made to justify free or low-cost broadband access supported by advertising revenue, but the same cannot be said for a city of 200,000 like Grand Rapids.

However, Grand Rapids could offer commercial operators what Edwards calls “the three As” — assets, access and an anchor tenant. Letting Clearwire use city-owned property to locate network infrastructure and committing the city to be the anchor tenant for the network were tangible benefits for the carrier, and a promise to “walk [Clearwire] into the door” of local businesses that could be potential enterprise customers also played a role in attracting the commercial operator to the Michigan city.

Grand Rapids chose Clearwire, via a request-for-proposal (RFP) process, because of the company's low-latency network and digital-inclusion plan. Edwards said government entities should work to make their RFPs flexible enough to let commercial providers/vendors propose innovative ideas and technologies, as long as they meet the stated performance criteria.

Furthermore, Edwards emphasized the importance of letting users provide input into such criteria. “Make sure your goals and objectives are being driven by those who are going to use the network and not to get someone elected,” he said.

A NEW APPROACH

A year after the election of Jeb Bush as governor of Florida in 1998, the state decided to abandon the traditional business model it had been following for its 800 MHz Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS), which Motorola was deploying. Started in 1988, only two of the five phases were complete more than a decade later, and the dedicated fund — the accumulation of a $1 surcharge on every vehicle and vessel registration in the state, which currently generates more than $18 million annually — was in jeopardy.

“The trust fund was running out of money,” said Linda Fuchs, project manager for the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS). “At the rate money was being spent to build the system over those 12 years, we would never have enough money coming into that trust fund to pay for SLERS. Therefore, we needed to do something different.”

The state opted for a public/private arrangement with M/A-COM (then Com-Net Ericsson) in which the vendor owns and operates the network while receiving virtually all of the money deposited into the trust fund each year, Fuchs said. M/A-COM also can augment this revenue stream by adding qualified third-party subscribers — entities that meet FCC guidelines defining public-safety users — to the network, but only after DMS engineers determine that existing network users' performance would not be negatively affected.

“At times, M/A-COM has come to us and said, ‘We want to add 100 users now,’ and we've said, ‘We don't think the system can handle that. We think it can handle the first 30 users, so you can put those on now and you can put the others on when you add more channels and we review it.’ To date, we have not had to deny anybody, but we have had to ask for some phased implementations to make sure service continues at the level it should be.”

Both M/A-COM and the state have incentives to add third-party subscribers — typically, local and federal law enforcement users — to the network. M/A-COM gets a boost to its revenue stream, and the state receives 5% of the gross revenues from such deals, Fuchs said. The network also provides more direct interoperability between agencies and can be strengthened, as third-party subscribers often bring their spectrum licenses with them when they migrate.

There are considerable benefits to the third-party subscribers, as well — particularly rural entities that otherwise lack the resources to upgrade their existing systems. SLERS is not a broadband system, but it does provide 800 MHz voice service and narrowband data capability.

“It's almost like your cell phone coverage. I'm not going to build my own network; I'm just going to buy the instrument and the service,” Fuchs said. “That is a real benefit to these folks who, any other way, would not have state-of-the-market service the way that they can by joining SLERS.”

Not owning the SLERS is not a problem for the state of Florida because the DMS regularly monitors and inspects the network to ensure that it performs in accordance with the enforceable criteria included in the contract, Fuchs said. Meanwhile, because the DMS no longer has to maintain the system, it has decreased the staffing devoted to SLERS from 26 full-time equivalents to about six full-time equivalents, she said.

And it all operates within the budget.

“In this relationship, the financial risk is basically all on M/A-COM,” Fuchs said. “They have that guaranteed revenue, and we have a performance-based contract. So the state has not had to go back to the legislature and request more money for anything that's provided in the contract; it's up to M/A-COM.”

A TALE OF TWO SECTORS

Florida's SLERS model certainly was a unique arrangement when conceived, but it still involved a public-safety entity striking an arrangement with an existing public-safety vendor. By comparison, today's discussions of public/private arrangements between commercial operators and public safety to build a nationwide broadband network for first responders in the 700 MHz band are revolutionary.

“It's something that was unthinkable in the past,” said Morgan O'Brien, chairman of Cyren Call Communications, which sparked the public/private partnership debate with its proposal a year ago.

Indeed, other than the fact that commercial operators and public-safety licensees both use wireless technology, the two groups have little in common.

Public-safety systems boast high reliability systems with the expansive coverage — even to outlying areas — necessary to provide mission-critical voice service in even the most challenging environments. Consequently, public-safety officials such as Ben Holycross, radio systems manager for Polk County, Fla., have been outspoken in their distrust of commercial wireless networks that accept occasional dropped calls as the result of a business model focused on maximizing shareholder value.

Addressing the notion of using a commercial system for mission-critical voice operations, Holycross bluntly stated at IWCE 2007 in March, “It is absolutely the worst idea I've ever heard in my life.”

But even the most devout land mobile radio booster is envious of the economics enjoyed in the commercial arena, where the U.S. market is 80 times greater than the first responder sector. Customers regularly upgrade commercial handsets with increasingly innovative features at little or no upfront cost; in contrast, public-safety users struggle to squeeze as many years as possible out of dated gear because of the sizable investment in the equipment.

Although probably not yet reliable enough for mission-critical voice, commercial technologies are particularly attractive to public safety from a broadband data perspective, especially with the prices of wireless routers and data cards dropping every day — something even Holycross acknowledged.

“It is the responsibility of government to exploit [commercial networks] to the fullest,” he said. “To turn a blind eye would be ludicrous.”

Stacey Black, vice president of strategic programs/marketing for the government solutions group of AT&T Mobility (formerly Cingular Wireless), said he believes today's commercial networks can be an excellent data — and secondary voice — complement to public safety's mission-critical voice systems. Black noted that lessons learned from hurricanes and other disasters in recent years have resulted in the commercial industry investing billions of dollars to improve the survivability of their networks.

“The line between private and commercial networks is beginning to blur,” Black said, emphasizing the need for more dialog between commercial and public-safety representatives. “Today's [commercial] data networks are nothing like the old analog networks in terms of reliability, resiliency and failover. That's part of the education that needs to happen at the local level between public safety and the commercial carrier.”

But commercial and public-safety operators speak “different languages,” said Andy Seybold, wireless analyst for Outlook 4Mobility.

“What is the most important type of voice radio communications to a first responder agency beyond dispatch? Simplex and tactical,” Seybold said. “CDMA doesn't do that, GSM doesn't do that, UMTS doesn't do that, WiMAX doesn't do that — none of those technologies do that.”

More disconcerting to public safety than technical hurdles are statements from incumbent carrier representatives that indicate how difficult it may be to resolve public safety's need for coverage, especially in potentially unprofitable areas, with a commercial approach designed to maximize profits.

“The commercial operators are asking us, ‘How we can get a return on our capital if we are coerced — forced — to build towers in rural South Dakota, where there is no return on our investment?’” said CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent during a February Senate hearing. “Is [public safety] going to force us to build towers there because we build out in New York, and we'll just take the [profit] from New York and use it to build in South Dakota? I just don't think that's realistic.”

IN SEARCH OF MIDDLE GROUND

Cyren Call's O'Brien agrees, which is why last year he proposed that 30 MHz of commercial spectrum in the 700 MHz band be licensed to a public-safety broadband trust — an entity his company would like to help manage — which would lease the frequencies to a commercial operator. The trust would have to collect lease payments large enough to pay the U.S. Treasury the $5 billion in revenue the spectrum is projected to generate in an auction scheduled to begin by January 2008.

But the public-safety trust would remain the spectrum licensee, which would give public safety leverage to negotiate deals with commercial operators that would ensure the network is built to public safety's coverage and performance benchmarks, O'Brien said.

“You cannot guarantee that the network will be built to public safety's standards unless public safety controls the buildout,” he said.

From the commercial operator's perspective, O'Brien believes 30 MHz is the minimum amount of 700 MHz spectrum needed to support heavy usage from 2 million first responders — including 200 hours of streaming video per month per user — and about 28 million commercial customers are necessary to make such a venture economically viable.

“This is not politics, this is math,” O'Brien said. “In the real world, if you want a network built with private capital, the private capital has to get a return on investment.”

But the potential return under the Cyren Call proposal may not be evident initially. After all, the commercial operator ultimately would pay the full cost of the spectrum, pay $14 billion to build a nationwide network to meet public-safety criteria for coverage and reliability — roughly $6 billion more than the typical commercial network — and it would not have any spectrum holdings to claim as an asset.

Helping offset these negatives is Cyren Call's plan to have the U.S. government guarantee a 30-year, low-interest loan that the public-safety trust would use to pay for the spectrum — a far cry from the higher-interest, 10-year note that typically would be available in the capital markets, according to Cyren Call officials. Most of this advantage would be passed on to the commercial operator, which would save several billion dollars during the first 10 years, when money is tight because of buildout expenses.

After the initial network buildout and establishment of a solid subscriber base, the commercial operator should be a “cash machine” able to meet its lease obligations easily, O'Brien said.

Representatives of cellular companies have panned the notion, saying the capital markets would not support such an idea. But Frontline Wireless has gathered support from high-profile investors for a network plan similar to Cyren Call's built on just 20 MHz to 22 MHz — roughly half of which would be won at auction and half of which would come from public safety's existing spectrum allocation.

Seybold questions whether Frontline's wholesale model is viable, noting the failure of NextWave to execute such a plan in the late 1990s. Beyond that, he and several public-safety representatives have expressed concern that Frontline's proposed service rules — primarily specifying coverage requirements without performance benchmarks — will not ensure that public safety's needs will be met.

“When I was a two-way salesman, we used to have to promise coverage that was 90-90-90 — 90% of the time to 90% of the locations to 90% of the equipment,” Seybold said. “If you do the math, that comes out to 63% coverage. You can play all kinds of games that way.”

Meanwhile AT&T Mobility's Black said he does not understand why public safety needs a dedicated broadband network in the first place.

“Broadband should be viewed as a complement to mission-critical voice, two-way radio networks,” he said. “The question is: Why do we need to build a separate 700 MHz nationwide data network if there's already three [commercial] broadband networks being built today at a rate of about $1 billion per month?

“If it's not mission critical — and that may be where you have a split, whether it's mission critical or whether it's complementary — does it need to be nationwide? I don't think so.”

Based on statements like these, many industry observers believe the primary goal of large existing wireless carriers in this debate is to prevent a new nationwide competitor from emerging in the market. While dismissing the economic viability of public/private proposals using commercial spectrum, these operators are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a new player building a greenfield network on a large swath of valuable 700 MHz spectrum.

Adding complexity is the fact that both the public-safety and commercial sectors have fragmented representation, so it's difficult to create consensus on a national level, where myriad political and economic interests become involved, Seybold said. In the end, it's questionable whether a national public/private agreement can be reached and still conduct the 700 MHz auction as scheduled.

“I'm big on public/private sector marriages, but you have to understand what the benefits are and what the downsides are,” he said. “There's no cut-and-dried solution.”

The first steps

San Francisco: Has chosen EarthLink/Google to provide free Wi-Fi access to residents based on an advertising model. Public-safety access is not a focus of the proposal.

Grand Rapids, Mich.: Building WiMAX/Wi-Fi mobile wireless broadband network with Clearwire.

Washington, D.C.: Stage for debate on the establishment of a national wireless public-safety broadband network via a variety of public/private partnership proposals.

San Diego: Police department uses Verizon Wireless' EV-DO network for data access in a traditional consumer model.

Florida: State law enforcement officers use 800 MHz system owned and operated by M/A-COM.

WISH LISTS

PUBLIC-SAFETY CRITERIA

  • Expansive coverage for public safety, even in remote areas
  • Reliable, predictable performance in even the most trying circumstances
  • Secure communications
  • Little or no capital expenditures on network
  • Ability to use less-expensive commercial communications devices
  • Control of network during an emergency
  • Protection against commercial entity failure to keep commitment

COMMERCIAL CRITERIA

  • Reasonable business model for profitability
  • Flexibility to respond to market pressures
  • Ability to secure base station sites easily
  • Access to spectrum (more important to smaller players)
  • Public-safety “anchor tenant” to justify buildout of network in remote areas

ASSETS TO LEVERAGE

WHAT PUBLIC-SAFETY ENTITIES CAN BRING TO THE TABLE

  • Access to transmitter sites
  • Low-interest financing options
  • Introductions to other potential enterprise users
  • Commitment to use the network
  • Spectrum, although it may not available for commercial use

WHAT COMMERCIAL ENTITIES CAN BRING TO THE TABLE

  • Expertise in building out networks with commercial technologies
  • Money to pay for capital expenditures
  • Economies of scale for infrastructure and devices
  • Personnel to operate and maintain network
  • Need to refresh network with new technologies to remain competitive