Throughout the debate over the proposed national broadband network for public safety, many members of the first-responder community repeatedly have noted that public-safety radio systems have considerable assets that could be leveraged in a manner that could reduce deployment costs.

Such a strategy is being pursued in Pennsylvania, where officials hope to maximize use of the high-bandwidth microwave system that supports the statewide radio network in a manner that makes it economically feasible for commercial operators to provide cellular and broadband coverage in rural areas of northern Pennsylvania.

Like many public-safety radio systems, the Pennsylvania network extends to areas that no commercial carrier would consider providing coverage — areas that lack many potential customers and, in some cases, where electricity has not been available. In addition, to reduce dependency on commercial operators, the state uses an extensive microwave network for backhaul that is the “crown jewel” of the system, said Charles Brennan, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for public-safety radio, during an interview at last week’s Pennsylvania Interoperability Conference.

For the most part, less than 10% of the capacity of the microwave system is used, as it carries only low-bandwidth voice traffic and LMR data that users can only access at rates of 19.2 Kb/s. However, the state is about halfway through a process to transition to a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) platform with automatic sub-50-millisecond rerouting capabilities that is designed to enhance the management, reliability and efficiency of the system that would allow higher-bandwidth traffic in the future over the core radio system.

In addition, the state has applied for $28 million in stimulus grants to layer a 150 Mb/s network over the public-safety network that commercial carriers could use for otherwise expensive “middle mile” transport.

“If we extend the connectivity, suddenly a business case exists for a carrier to offer services in remote areas,” Kamal Ballout, Alcatel-Lucent’s assistant vice president for solutions and technical sales, said during a session at the conference.

It should be noted that the stimulus funds would be used to establish the overlay network only in areas where there are no broadband providers today, so a government entity would not be competing with the private sector. And a condition of the stimulus grant is that equal access must be offered to all commercial operators.

While the stimulus money is focused on broadband applications, the proposed overlay network also could be leveraged by cellular carriers that don’t offer coverage in the rural areas of Pennsylvania.

“It would be great to solve the broadband problem and the cellular problem at the same time,” Brennan said.

Meanwhile, by co-hosting the overlay network at existing sites, the state of Pennsylvania can generate another revenue stream to support its operations and, eventually, be able to access the commercial network if capacity on the public-safety system is ever maxed out.

Admittedly, such a proposal in an urban area likely would meet justified resistance from commercial carriers not wanting to compete with a government entity, but that should not be an issue in truly remote areas. In addition, urban areas have many more funding options available to them than rural communities, so the fiscal dilemma is not as great.

With this in mind, the Pennsylvania model of a dual-purpose system providing public-safety and commercial services to rural areas is very intriguing. It’s a model that should be considered when policy-makers wrestle with the sticky issues associated with rural deployments of broadband for commercial and public-safety users.