In its national broadband plan, the FCC called for public safety to roam onto commercial wireless networks when capacity on the proposed 700 MHz first-responder wireless broadband network operating on 10 MHz of spectrum was saturated. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing today, a number of concerns about that model were raised, which bolsters the argument that the 700 MHz D Block should be reallocated to public safety.

Of course, this debate has been a hot topic for most of this year, with FCC officials saying that priority roaming will meet first-responder needs, while public-safety officials have argued that commercial networks often are unavailable during emergencies, so roaming rights would not be helpful in a dire situation.

There’s a lot of truth in both of these positions, which makes it difficult to decide which is right. In addition, the priority roaming vs. pre-emptive roaming also is a gray area, because priority access on LTE networks is much different technically than in voice networks.

What was especially revealing during today’s hearing was that commercial carriers this week apparently said during a forum that public safety roaming onto their networks with the kind of access they would need does not equate into a workable business model for them.

That’s a big point, because wireless carriers have proven repeatedly that they only will provide services that result in a profitable bottom line — and no one can blame them for taking this stance. And even public-safety officials note that roaming onto commercial networks has a noticeable downside, including the potential interruption of commercial customers trying to communicate with a 911 center.

“For us to overwhelm the network to achieve a public-safety mission and shut down meaningful communication from government, business and other people would be to ignore that these wireless companies have meaningful wireless customers today that need access to their systems,” Jeff Johnson, immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, testified. “Even if we had pre-emptive authority, we’re still going to need network control. And when you start talking network control, that’s when the commercial carriers get very nervous.”

Furthermore, with 10 MHz of spectrum instead of 20 MHz spectrum, public-safety entities would have roam onto commercial spectrum more often, although exactly how much more often has been the subject of numerous white papers in recent months.

Everyone agrees that public-safety roaming will require bills being paid to access the commercial networks. And, as one senator noted today, those bills can get very large quickly. Having to deal with such additional costs is not what budget-strapped public-safety entities need today or in the future. By reallocating the D Block to first responders, those roaming costs can be minimized.

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