BALTIMORE--While the public-safety sector anxiously awaits the FCC’s final order that will define how valuable 700 MHz spectrum will be allocated once television broadcasters vacate the band in 2009, as they make the transition from analog to digital signals, several of its members shared their views regarding how the airwaves could be best utilized yesterday at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials annual conference.

Robert LeGrande, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, which recently launched the nation’s first 700 MHz public-safety broadband network, believes a national network built by a public-private partnership could work in concert with private state, regional and local public-safety networks. According to LeGrande, the success of such a model would depend on all entities using similar technologies and frequencies. “We would then be interoperable, and could have roaming agreements,” LeGrande said.

As an example of what LeGrande is proposing, the District of Columbia’s Regional Wireless Broadband Network (RWBN)—which leverages 1xEV-DO Revision A technology used by CDMA-based cellular operators to deliver downstream data rates of 3.1 Mb/s and upstream data rates of up to 1.8 Mb/s—lets users roam between the public-safety network and commercial networks operated by Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless.

But it likely will take some considerable work to convince the public-safety sector that it can trust commercial networks, judging by comments made yesterday by other panelists. Gary McKelvey, public-safety communications system supervisor for Loudon County, Va., said he wouldn’t be comfortable unless commercial operators guaranteed coverage and reliability.

“I have some concerns, depending on what the FCC ruling says, about a commercial entity building the network,” McKelvey said. “In the 15 years that I’ve been negotiating with commercial vendors, I’ve yet to have a commercial vendor guarantee coverage. … That’s another reason why I’m supporting a private-system opportunity.”

McKelvey added that uninterruptible power supply technology and generators support 100% of the public-safety radio sites in his area. Not so concerning the sites operated by commercial entities. “Only 10% of the [commercial vendor sites] have generators,” he said. “That’s a big concern, from my perspective, in terms of moving forward with a plan to have a commercial entity build a public-safety network. If they don’t put in generators at every one of their sites, it’s going to cause significant [problems] for public safety. That’s probably my single biggest concern.”

Dave Mulholland of the U.S. Park Police echoed these sentiments. “I need an infrastructure that doesn’t restrict what I do. A lot of people don’t realize their cellular providers, if they’re using the broadband portion of the network, [the provider] monitors that and when you get to a certain level—for example, 5 gigabits per month—they cut you off,” Mulholland said. “Then what do you do, when you’re in that time of instantaneous need for data … and the switch gets turned off? I don’t need that. I need an unrestricted resource that lets me do what I need to do.”

Mulholland told of a conversation he had this week with a friend who works for a commercial cellular provider Mulholland asked about the cap described above and was told that the carrier was “protecting” its network. Mulholland’s response provides some insight as to the challenge of getting the public-safety sector to buy into the notion of getting into bed with the commercial sector. “I told him I’m protecting America—and that comes first.”