When FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and his public-safety-bureau team unveiled further details of the proposal for a nationwide broadband wireless network for first responders that is part of the national broadband plan the commission submitted to Congress, one of the key tenets, of course, was priority access.

When large incidents occur, public safety's communications needs increase dramatically. Such scenarios may result in considerably more first-responder-information traffic needing to be transmitted than can be sent over the Public Safety Spectrum Trust’s 10 MHz-wide pipe. The national broadband plan proposes to address this by requiring all 700 MHz carriers to allow public safety to roam onto their commercial Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks with priority access at "most-favored nation" rates.

But what if LTE doesn't gain a solid footprint for some time? AT&T recently recommended to the FCC that discussions regarding priority access be broadened to include legacy 3G networks, claiming that such networks will have a much-larger geographic-coverage map than 700 MHz LTE deployments for many years and will continue to be relied upon for public-safety communications, too.

This is an interesting request and perhaps gives insight as to how AT&T is viewing LTE these days. While it will deploy LTE in 2011, it’s anybody’s guess at this point as to how fast the rollout will occur. Meanwhile, AT&T recently announced plans to boost the data capabilities of its existing 3G network by upgrading the network to HSPA+, which will be capable of peak data rates of 21 Mbps. Meanwhile, Verizon Wireless still has aggressive plans to roll out LTE in 25 to 30 markets by the end of 2010.

So AT&T is right to bring up this discussion. Commercial LTE only will be available in major markets for some time, with dual-mode 3G capabilities for outlying areas. And T-Mobile has been adding HSPA+ to its 3G network as well. It doesn't have any immediate plans for LTE.

But in the 3G data realm, priority access is even more daunting than the complex process currently being discussed for LTE. In the all-IP world of LTE, operators have the ability to prioritize access, hence the discussion about usage-based billing and service tiers for commercial customers. In contrast, 3G networks are not all-IP; consequently, their operators don't have the ability to prioritize traffic. Would 3G operators need to add additional equipment in order to do so? Is it a matter of dialing back commercial subscribers' data speeds while public safety uses the network in an emergency?

Priority access already is a tricky issue given the fact that operators don't want to anger their subscribers and public safety wants access to a network when and where it needs it. But it's encouraging to see that AT&T is willing to engage the discussion.

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