As I was walking the aisles of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference this week, I ran into John Ehret, who is president of TPL Communications. We exchanged small talk and he told me that his business had picked up a bit lately. But he said almost all of his business right now is in repairs.

“They don’t have any CapEx money,” Ehret said. “I can’t believe what I’m fixing — how old this stuff is. I’m repairing [amplifiers] I sold in 1995. When I tell them that I can sell them a new unit for 200 bucks, they tell me they don’t have any money for a purchase. And I’m not the only one experiencing this.”

That exchange made me think about the proposed 700 MHz nationwide broadband network for public safety. Where’s the money going to be found to build this behemoth? If agencies can’t afford a $200 amplifier, how are they going to handle the infrastructure and subscriber unit costs of deploying Long-Term Evolution?

I keep hearing that public-safety leaders look at funding as the cart to the spectrum horse. I keep hearing that these leaders believe that without the D Block spectrum — which public safety is trying to convince Congress to reallocate it to them, rather than auctioning it to commercial entities, as current law prescribes — funding for this network is irrelevant. I keep hearing that their strategy is to focus first on getting the spectrum, and then worry about the funding.

If true, I believe that public safety is making a monumental strategic blunder. I believe that spectrum and funding are joined at the hip. What’s the good of getting their hands on these vital airwaves if they don’t have the money to build, operate and maintain this network? It is imperative then that public safety, as it continues its lobbying effort to secure the D Block, attempts to ensure that any enabling legislation also identifies a funding mechanism that will generate the necessary capital, both short-term and long-term.

Moreover, public safety needs to challenge the FCC on its projected cost for building this network. These projections assume that commercial infrastructure will be leveraged in large measure. This will be less likely if commercial entities don’t control the D Block.

Public safety’s leaders should keep in mind that cost and time estimates for deploying networks almost always are too optimistic. Recall that many believed that the reconfiguration of the 800 MHz band would cost no more than $850 million. As things turned out, that was a fantasy.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Updated 8/5/2010