As debate about a national broadband wireless network at 700 MHz continues, it’s easy to get caught up in the possibilities of what could occur in a world where public safety has access to broadband that is ubiquitous and reliable.

Indeed, the potential is very compelling, which is why so many people have spent so much time pursuing the notion, as applications that would be slow or impossible in an LMR data environment become a snap with a broadband pipe.

Of course, one of the least bandwidth-intensive applications is voice, which can lead to a series of questions that always lead to an interesting discussion of what “could be.” For instance, with a broadband pipe, it should be easy to provide voice capability via VoIP applications, right? And, if we can do voice on a broadband pipe, do we really need narrowband LMR? And, if we got rid of LMR voice systems, wouldn’t public safety have a lot of 700 MHz and 800 MHz spectrum to that could serve as the foundation of really robust broadband system?

Such possibilities are exciting and worthy of long-term-vision discussions. However, they do not reflect current technological realities, according to Harlin McEwen, chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police technology committee and chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST).

“We know that IP-types of services are giving us new opportunities to do things and that they’re going to be the way of the future,” McEwen said. “The problem is that it’s just not ready for prime time. People say, ‘Just as soon as broadband is available …’ But the problem is that we don’t know when it’s going to be available; we don’t even know when the products are going to do what we need.”

In a white paper McEwen recently wrote to dispel some myths held by policy-makers within the Beltway, McEwen notes that VoIP capabilities using LTE technology may not be ready until 2011. Even then, the voice capability will not include the peer-to-peer and one-to-many communications capabilities that public safety requires of mission-critical voice systems.

“That means that, if a first responder cannot reach the network (i.e. a police officer in trouble in a building and his radio unit cannot reach a repeater) or there is no network, then the unit is useless,” McEwen wrote in the white paper. “That means no communications and a possible life-threatening outcome for the police officer.”

Obviously, that’s unacceptable in the public-safety environment. Now, there’s no reason to believe that peer-to-peer and one-to-many communications is impossible in a broadband wireless environment from a technical standpoint, but there’s little or no consumer demand for it, so there’s little reason to believe carriers are going to push vendors to include the capabilities. If such functionality is developed solely for public-safety devices, the cost savings envisioned for migrating to broadband may be compromised.

Now, in terms of peer-to-peer capabilities, I think carriers — not consumers — eventually will implement the capability in devices, particularly as all-you-can-eat pricing becomes more commonplace. With per-minute pricing, carriers had an incentive to keep users on the network, because they could only bill for time on the network. However, in a flat-rate pricing scenario, the more traffic that could be kept off the network, the more capacity can be saved for other users.

When will that happen (and will the CALEA folks be OK with it)? I have no idea, but I’m not holding my breath until it happens. With this in mind, I agree with McEwen’s statement that “it will be many years, if ever, before LMR systems can be replaced entirely by broadband technologies.”