Throughout the lengthy debate on Capitol Hill regarding a potential nationwide broadband network for first responders, proponents noted the need for public safety to adopt LTE technology because of the economies of scale associated with the global commercial cellular market.

How big is the commercial cellular market? It’s bordering on ubiquity, according to a 2011 year-end report from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which states that there were 5.9 billion mobile-phone subscriptions as of last week. That represents 87% penetration of the world’s population of 7 billion people.

Admittedly, that doesn’t mean that almost 7 of 8 people worldwide have cellular devices — many individuals have multiple devices that require a subscription, and enterprises contribute mightily to this figure by buying their own communications devices. In addition, many experts believe machine-to-machine wireless links will keep this market growing for many years to come.

Even more impressive is the ITU statistic stating that the number of mobile-broadband users worldwide has grown from zero in 2006 to 1.2 billion today, meaning there is a 17% penetration of mobile-broadband services. Again, that number is expected to continue to skyrocket, as smartphones and tablets become an increasingly prevalent part of modern society.

As a point of comparison, the number of public-safety personnel in the United States typically is estimated at 3 million — just 0.0025% of the mobile-broadband market today. Given this, it’s not surprising that the hardened LMR devices used for mission-critical communications tend to cost so much more than commercial devices that provide much more functionality.

No, it’s not yet time for public safety to say goodbye to private LMR systems that provide much greater reliability than a typical commercial cellular carrier. But the ITU report clearly indicates where the global trend is headed, and it’s important that Congress act quickly on a private LTE system for first responders, so the nation’s public-safety agencies aren’t left waiting as the technology train leaves the station.

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