Three influential public-safety organizations — the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) — have taken action during the last two days to endorse LTE as the technological standard for the proposed 700 MHz national broadband network for first responders.

On Tuesday afternoon, APCO and NENA issued a joint press release endorsing LTE — the 4G standard adopted by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility, as the broadband standard for public safety. Yesterday afternoon, the NPSTC board took similar action, with the caveat that representatives for competing technologies such as WiMAX would have 30 days to try to convince the board that LTE is not the best choice.

The announcements came on the heels of eight public-safety groups expressing a desire to ask Congress to allocate the 10 MHz commercial D Block in the 700 MHz for public-safety use. The combination of the events caused Stacey Black, vice president of strategic programs/marketing in AT&T Mobility's government solutions group, to ask his company to consider including the public-safety bands in future devices.

"The announcement that public safety had gained consensus about what to do with the D Block was the first thing that we heard that helped our company get its mind on this because, up until that point, public safety was divided, and we weren't going anywhere as long as that happened," Black said during the discussion prior to the NPSTC vote. "Then, the second thing that happened was the APCO-NENA announcement, which I used to put things into motion."

Of course, neither AT&T nor Verizon have any assurances that vendors would manufacture devices that could be used on proposed carrier and public-safety networks. By opting to endorse LTE without such assurances, some participants in the NPSTC discussion indicated that public safety could lose leverage in future negotiations by ruling out the possibility of competition from carriers such as Clearwire, which is building a nationwide network with Sprint using WiMAX.

But others noted the fact that Clearwire has no spectrum assets in the 700 MHz band, while AT&T and Verizon both have considerable spectrum in the band and already have opted to follow the LTE technology path. For this reason, most in the public-safety community have expected LTE to be the eventual technology choice, but this week's announcements mark the first such endorsements from public safety.

Making the announcements more critical is the fact that agencies in several metropolitan areas have asked the FCC for waivers to build 700 MHz broadband networks early that would be interoperable with a national standard. Without a national standard, "those waivers are going to sit there for I don't know how long — months," NPSTC Chairman Ralph Haller said during yesterday's discussion.

Such a national standard would need to be established by the FCC, but most industry observers believe the agency only would be comfortable taking such action if there is a consensus within public safety on the matter.
"Deciding at the outset on a standard to build upon will give public safety the ability to immediately focus on crucial issues such as infrastructure build out and roaming access while embedding cost saving measures in the process as a single standard is used from the outset," APCO President Chris Fischer said in a prepared statement.