LAS VEGAS — To say that broadband, particularly 700 MHz broadband, has been a hot topic here at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference would be an understatement. Not only have there been several sessions on the subject, but all of them have been well attended, including a couple that left more than 40 people standing because all seats in the room were taken.

FCC officials have been at the show, mostly monitoring the situation and urging the first-responder community to provide input in a proceeding announced last week regarding 700 MHz waivers and the national broadband plan (the public-safety workshop for the broadband plan will be conducted Tuesday).

But some of the most interesting comments about broadband have come from those who have been part of broadband deployments already, albeit in different bands.

Probably the highest-profile of these has been in New York City, which contracted system integrator Northrop Grumman — and its network solutions partner, IPWireless — to build the New York City Wireless Network (NYCWiN). The 400-site system operates on 2.5 GHz spectrum and is designed with the robustness needed for public safety, providing dedicated, secure connections that deliver downlink data throughputs of 1.4 Mb/s and uplink throughputs of 700 Kb/s to each individual user, said Ted Dempsey, Northrop Grumman's manager for public-safety solutions. The broadband pipe can be used to deliver data, pictures, video and — just recently — voice applications to users.

"We're discovering new applications for public safety every day, and we're only scratching the surface," said Charles Dowd, deputy chief for the New York City Police Department, during a session this week. "And all of these things are just the tip of the iceberg."

Although designed for public safety, NYCWiN is being used for a host of other municipal applications that are delivering significant returns on investments, according to multiple sources. In addition to providing city personnel with broadband connectivity for field reporting, the network is being used to coordinate traffic lights and to link radiation-detection devices and other monitors to the city network without having to pay a local telecom carrier for connectivity.

In addition, the city used to pay the local utility millions of dollars annually to read its water meters. By automating meter reading via NYCWiN, the city not only plans to save money, but it also has been discussing the possibility of reading the utility company's meters for a fee.

Broadband's ability to turn an expense like meter-reading into a potential revenue source is the kind of application that will cause elected officials at any level — local, state or federal — to take notice.

Furthermore, using the broadband pipe for other applications opens up other opportunities to secure funding, which promises to be the biggest challenge in making the proposed 700 MHz broadband networks a reality. Jon Hambidge, chief marketing officer for IPWireless, noted that some customers hope to leverage grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation on the basis that the broadband network will be used to support the community's traffic-light system.

"You can build a standalone business case to deploy a traffic-light system that happens to have an additional 24 Mb/s of capacity that can be used for anything else," Hambidge said, noting that in sparsely populated areas where bandwidth capacity is not an issue, even public access to the network is a viable option.

Of course, if public access is offered in such situations, that could open other funding alternatives, as there are several grant programs that are designed to provide funding for rural and underserved communities. Certain machine-to-machine farming applications could be eligible for agricultural grant programs.

Given these examples, it appears that it would behoove the first-responder community to seek regulations that allow flexible uses for its 700 MHz broadband spectrum, particularly if it can convince Congress to reallocate the D Block to public safety. It's important that first responders be given appropriate priority on the network and that there is always enough capacity for public safety to do its job, but ensuring that the spectrum can be used for applications outside the traditional first-response community could have a direct impact on the economic viability of the broadband-network concept.