In continuing discussions over a proposed nationwide broadband network for public safety, one of the topics that inevitably arises is whether such a network should be a data-only network, or whether it should be built to carry mission-critical voice traffic eventually.

During last week’s FCC field hearing on improving public-safety communications through a broadband network, the question again was asked, and the response from two panelists resoundingly supported the latter idea.

“We have to begin with the end in mind,” said Charles Werner, fire chief for the city of Charlottesville, Va. “If we begin with only data in mind, we’ll never get to voice.”

Steve Harte, associate commissioner of wireless technologies for New York City, echoed this sentiment.

“We have to think about how voice is going to be used on the broadband network, so it’s successful and takes priority,” Harte said. “We have the ability to pave the road today mission-critical voice, … so it is critical that we develop those feature sets [that public safety needs for voice].”

I couldn’t agree more. That may sound like an odd opinion from someone who recently wrote that broadband voice is not ready for mission-critical prime time usage, but it’s the truth. Although broadband voice is not an option for public safety today and for several years to come, there is little doubt in my mind that it ultimately will be the voice solution for first responders, although my crystal ball is not nearly smart enough to predict when that day will come.

Also, if the public-safety community hopes to secure funding for a nationwide broadband network, it will be much easier to convince Congress to loosen the federal purse strings if the network has the potential to replace the myriad LMR networks across the country instead of simply being another data-network option.

With this in mind, it’s important that any nationwide broadband network be built with the notion that voice traffic eventually will transported over it. This capability may not need to exist from Day 1 of the network’s operation, but the priorities, protocols and procedures should be able to be added at a later date, when VoIP technology can be deployed practically at a mission-critical level.

In the words of baseball sage Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, you’re probably not going to get there.”