Yesterday, the FCC embarked on what promises to be a monumental exercise: opening a proceeding to get input that will be used to develop a national broadband plan that will be delivered to Congress next February.

There certainly should not be a shortage of comments, as just about everyone has an opinion — or 20 — about the best way to get broadband to everyone in the United States. In addition, this is a good time to have this debate from a technological standpoint, as the next generation of satellite technology is being deployed, frequency agility has arrived and the realities of next-generation wireless — be it LTE, WiMAX or something else — should be much clearer by the time the FCC has to give its plan to Congress.

During yesterday's FCC meeting, Acting Chairman Michael Copps made it clear that he wanted to hear from everyone about all aspects of broadband, including items the commission and its staff did not think to ask in the notice of inquiry.

While I expect most comments to be directed at ideas for making broadband accessible in rural areas of the United States and making it more affordable for all, it will be interesting to see where public safety and utilities fit into the debate. Clearly, the FCC wants to include those sectors in the discussion, as commissioners specifically mentioned the ability for such users to access broadband in their comments and in the text of the notice.

But, in these sectors, using broadband to any great extent means being able to count on broadband in mission-critical situations. It has to work when needed, regardless of the circumstances on the ground regarding the power grid or infrastructure being unavailable. This is nothing that new to those familiar with the mission-critical sectors, but it typically is overlooked by those from other arenas when commenting on such matters.

No system is completely fail proof, but developing a robust, ubiquitous broadband system that is inherently reliable with multiple backup safeguards can be done. Of course, this type of mission-critical reliability will come at a high cost, even if existing infrastructure is leveraged efficiently. And that price tag promises to be so great that such a system — which may well be a "system of systems" that is deployed at a variety of levels — probably cannot be replicated at a cost that would be palatable to taxpayers.

This broadband-plan proceeding may be an opportunity to develop a strategy for mission-critical broadband that allows the multiple disparate communications initiatives being deployed at all levels to be connected — literally and from a funding/governance standpoint — in a manner that can deliver the kind of reliable, interoperable communications that first responders and critical-infrastructure personnel need.

Of course, a legitimate fear from these sectors is what happens in the meantime. By no means is this broadband plan going to be a quick process. And, as public safety has seen during the 700 MHz D Block debate, technological progress can come to a halt while policymakers debate the merits of a plan.

Can public-safety and critical-infrastructure entities afford another delay while this broadband plan is hammered out? It may not be ideal, but not being part of this process probably would be a bigger mistake.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

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