In the cover story for this month’s issue of Urgent Communications, we explore the possibility of the much-debated 700 MHz network for public safety being used for more than just the traditional first-responder communities of police, fire and EMS personnel.

Under current FCC interpretation of existing law, only traditional public-safety entities can access the 10 MHz of broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band, although the agency has an ongoing proceeding to consider expanding access to other local-government entities, as well. Expansion beyond that would require an act of Congress, according to most legal analysts.

This is important, because public safety forming partnerships with other entities — transportation authorities, utilities and other critical-infrastructure entities — could be a way for first responders to get the kind of robust network they need and deserve without breaking the federal-funding bank, which is particularly important during the heightened awareness of the growing national deficit.

The fundamental ground rule to any such partnership needs to be clear — public safety’s needs during an emergency must have priority. However, with LTE, there is significant broadband capacity that can be shared when there is not an emergency in a given cell sector, and it frankly would be wasteful to leave it underutilized so much of the time.

By partnering with critical-infrastructure entities, public safety would be able to realize new revenue streams, which would allow the LTE network to deploy more sites and backup systems that could enhance coverage, capacity and reliability beyond anything public safety could do on its own. In addition, such sharing would provide an easy interoperable-communications path to the entities that public-safety leaders need input from the most during times of emergencies.

Of course, partnering with critical infrastructure is much easier to propose in a column than it is to execute in real life. It has been a long, uphill climb for public safety to present a united front to Congress, so getting other sectors involved could be difficult, especially when key potential partners like utilities often are for-profit companies instead of non-for-profit government entities.

In some metropolitan areas, some believe sharing may not be an option, because public safety will need so much bandwidth on a regular basis, even if the D Block is allocated to public safety (without the D Block, the sharing concept may be moot in all but rural areas). Frankly, I believe potential partners would have the highest incentive to participate and pay for more sites in highly populated areas, where spectrum opportunities are almost nil, but I defer to those who have studied the matter more.

Still, the benefits of clearing the path for such partnerships could be huge. While a certain amount of bandwidth — but not necessarily a lot — would have to be guaranteed to critical infrastructure at all times for that sector to participate, public safety likely would not be “losing” anything. The proposed 700 MHz network probably would have more sites, capacity and in-building coverage than anything public safety could build on its own, even with the help of Congress.

Furthermore, language that allows such partnerships could help solve fundamental communications issues for not only public safety, but also the smart-grid and intelligent-transportation sectors. This, in turn, makes a much more compelling case for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to support legislation that would provide the D Block and significant funding for the proposed network — perhaps enough to get a law passed in the House, where opposition is the strongest.

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