Continuing its relatively speedy movements on the 700 MHz public-safety broadband network, the FCC yesterday released an order granting the waiver requests of 21 jurisdictions that want to build early wireless broadband networks that eventually would be integrated into the proposed nationwide system.

In the order, the FCC requires waiver jurisdictions to use LTE technology. While not a surprise — agency officials have been indicating this intent for month — for the language to be included in an order is notable, because the FCC strives to be a technology-neutral entity.

In terms of some other key issues, the order requires local entities to coordinate their buildouts with their state, if there is a matter of overlapping jurisdictions. New York State and New York City have indicated that they believe they can coordinate their efforts; hopefully, that will be the case.

The order allows the waiver jurisdictions to use all 10 MHz of the spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), which could prove to be interesting in a couple of areas.

One of the big debates among industry engineers in recent months has been whether a guard band is needed between the commercial D Block and the PSST block. If these waiver jurisdictions build networks using the entire PSST spectrum and it turns out that a guard band is needed between the two systems, the guard band would have to be taken out of the D Block spectrum. That likely would mean decreasing the usable D Block spectrum by at least 25%, which would greatly diminish the value of the D Block in a commercial auction.

Of course, state and local government officials are pushing hard in Congress to get the D Block reallocated to public safety, citing concerns that 10 MHz may not be enough when dozens of first responders are trying to access the network from the same cell sector. Meanwhile, FCC officials have questioned whether public safety needs 20 MHz of spectrum and has recommended that the D Block be auctioned to commercial operators.

While most waiver jurisdictions may be looking at another year before they can build their networks, others reportedly are ready to deploy as early as this fall. By no means will the early usage cases be indicative of ultimate network utilization — some of the most compelling applications are still on the drawing board — they could add some valuable real-world data to the white paper–laden theoretical debates that have been ongoing in recent months.

In an ideal scenario for public safety, Congress would ask the FCC to hold off on the D Block auction until some of these waiver networks have been operational for some period of time. Not only could we learn some important technical details, we might learn of myriad partnership/funding opportunities that could impact the cost estimates for the overall project. Meanwhile, commercial operators would have a chance to better assess the environment they would be entering if they were to win the D Block, so they could make more informed bids.

Is such a scenario realistic? That seems virtually impossible to say at the moment, but it is in the hands of Congress right now. While some may disagree with various aspects of the FCC’s plan to make a public-safety network happen, no one can fault the agency’s sense of urgency — to establish the Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC) and to get the 21 waiver requests approved in less than a month is remarkable. Hopefully, federal lawmakers will recognize the need for such quick action, as well.

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