Reason for optimism

Next year, the U.S. will observe the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which resulted in fundamental changes throughout the nation on several levels, including recognition of the need for interoperable communications for public-safety and homeland-security response agencies that would need to react to a similar incident in the future.

There is little doubt that nationwide interoperability does not exist in the manner that officials at all levels would have hoped, but there is a growing sense of urgency that at least a tangible road map toward this goal be established before next year's anniversary arrives. No one in a position of responsibility wants that anniversary to pass without having clear evidence that the unwanted lessons learned a decade prior are being addressed.

This reality — along with considerable momentum generated by public-safety organizations during the past year on Capitol Hill — is one of the greatest reasons for first-response organizations to be optimistic about the prospects of garnering additional spectrum and funding to pay for the buildout and maintenance of 700 MHz broadband networks.

In the Senate, public safety already has support from three high-profiles senators — Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) — to reallocate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum for first-responder use, which potentially could provide greater capacity and more flexible business models for the proposed LTE networks. Rockefeller's proposed legislation also would provide $11 billion in critical federal funding at a time when state and local agencies are strapped for money.

In the House, the November elections resulted in the Republican Party gaining control, removing some of the most notable Democrats that wanted the D Block to be auctioned. A concern expressed by many public-safety officials is that many Republicans were elected after promising to limit federal spending, so the $10 billion-plus price tag associated with a national LTE network could be a problem. As a result, it is important that the issue be presented properly, said Richard Mirgon, former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

“This is a national-security issue; this is not an earmark, nor is it a gift to public safety,” Mirgon said. “This is an investment in all of America's future. Funding a nationwide, broadband network is not that different from funding the military or border security, or any of the other issues that impact the security of the nation.”

Another 700 MHz LTE issue concerns the question of when mission-critical voice will be available over LTE. Many industry sources believe it will be at least a decade, but others say it is possible within the next three to five years. Getting clarity on this subject is particularly important for agencies that must meet the FCC's Jan. 1, 2013, deadline to narrowband LMR systems operating below 512 MHz.

For several of these entities — the most outspoken of which has been New York City — the desire is to forego spending hundreds of millions of dollars on narrowbanding and put those financial resources into the deployment of an LTE system that eventually would support mission-critical data and voice services. Most industry sources expect such entities to file narrowbanding waiver requests with the FCC, which potentially could create an uproar in the sector from cash-strapped public-safety agencies that lack the money to meet the 2013 narrowbanding mandate easily.

From an industry standpoint, the transformation to public-safety broadband platforms recently has resulted in numerous partnerships between LMR vendors — most of which have relationships with public-safety entities and understand their needs — and commercial wireless vendors that have the greatest knowledge base surrounding LTE.

While there has been some speculation that some of these arrangements could evolve into outright mergers, other industry sources believe some of these partnerships could be dissolved entirely this year, because the partners have diametrically opposing goals: Many LTE vendors want mission-critical voice over broadband to become a reality as soon as possible, while the LMR vendors want to ensure that LMR remains relevant for at least another generation to ensure that their companies remain relevant in the marketplace.

A potentially problematic development that has arisen during the past several months is a change in the FM Approvals standard for intrinsically safe devices that is scheduled to become effective on Jan. 1, 2012. Although the new standard does not reference output power directly, industry sources have indicated that footnote references in the new standard effectively would require manufacturers to limit handsets to less than 1 watt of output power, which would significantly reduce coverage footprints in LMR networks.

If the FM Approvals standard is not changed, manufacturers would have to revamp their LMR radio designs in rapid fashion to give customers intrinsically safe radios to buy when the new standard becomes effective. This development work likely would mean that these handsets would cost more than current versions of portable LMR devices.

Perhaps more important, entities wanting to comply with the latest intrinsically safe requirements likely would have to redesign their networks to maintain their current coverage footprints — work that likely would require more tower sites, which would represent an unexpected capital cost at a time when most entities are facing operational budget cuts.

With so many factors in play — yes, 800 MHz rebanding still is not done, and no tangible evidence of an agreement with Mexico has surfaced to allow reconfiguration even to begin in the areas along the U.S.-Mexico border — 2011 promises to be a year when many of the most telling decisions regarding the future of public-safety communications will be made.

— Donny Jackson