Trade shows like last week’s Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Houston can be quite interesting, because they provide an opportunity to step back from the daily grind and take a big-picture view of the industry.

Purely based on the show floor, the big picture was impressive. Each aisle was filled with large booths from a variety of vendors exhibiting products and services, often using eye-opening demonstrations. It was a stark contrast from my first APCO in 2004, where the Montreal show floor had a few medium-sized booths and a lot of tabletop exhibitors.

But even more dramatic was the content at the shows. In 2004, many in public safety wondered if the 700 MHz spectrum promised to first responders in 1996 would ever be cleared by TV broadcasters. Most public-safety officials sneered at the notion of IP-based applications being used by first responders, and data throughputs of 19.2 kbps were considered cutting edge.

Today, the 700 MHz band has been cleared, so public-safety-grade IP applications can be delivered over LTE networks that promised to deliver data rates that are hundreds of times greater than the sub-dial-up throughputs of 2004.

Such talk has been fairly prevalent during the past couple of APCO conferences, but it basically has been just that — talk. For the most part, public-safety entities wanting mobile broadband connectivity were forced to turn to commercial carriers for services. While the 700 MHz broadband spectrum has been clear for some time, the airwaves have laid fallow as the FCC tried to devise a plan.

Clearly, all the details of that plan have not been finalized, as the debate on the D Block and the existence of multiple open proceedings regarding public-safety broadband would suggest. However, in the spring, the FCC approved waiver applications from 21 jurisdictions to deploy LTE systems. Suddenly, the notion of public-safety LTE broadband networks has transformed from a theoretical discussion reserved for trade-show panels and white papers to reality.

The first such network will be deployed in California’s Bay Area, where a coalition of public agencies — San Francisco, Alameda County/Oakland, Contra Costa County, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale — is using $6 million of federal grant money to build a 10-site LTE network and a dedicated core network this fall that is being dubbed “Project Cornerstone.”

Testing of the network will begin in late September or early October, according to Laura Phillips, executive director of the Bay Area UASI program. In mid-October, the network will be tested further as part of the Urban Shield exercise that will simulate multiple terrorist threats in the region by local, state and federal agencies. Phillips seemed to embrace the role of being a pioneer for the public-safety community, noting that many tests will be designed to stress the network to determine its maximum capabilities.

“We know it’s going to be tough,” Phillips said during a panel session at APCO. “We’re going to be testing a lot of things. We’re going to be doing things that have never been done before.”

Indeed, the results of the Bay Area’s LTE initiative promise to be monitored closely by public-safety agencies throughout the nation — and such data is exactly what is needed at this juncture. White papers and slideshow presentations are nice, but information from a live network stressed by real-world scenarios promise to provide the kind of knowledge that can help other public-safety jurisdictions make better decisions in the future.

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