As one of the most outspoken advocates of the FCC’s proposal for a nationwide broadband wireless network, Ed Thomas does not believe Congress should reallocate the 700 MHz D Block to public safety. However, the former FCC chief engineer did express support for first responders receiving assurances that first responders receive assurances that the funding and roaming aspects of the agency’s proposal are in place before moving forward.

“This is something that is very dear to my heart, because I think it’s very much in the national interest,” Thomas said. “I regret not being able to pull something off like this when I was the chief engineer.”

Indeed, Thomas compared developing a plan to make an interoperable nationwide network for public safety to “pursuit of the Holy Grail.” He believes the current FCC proposal is one that will work.

The FCC plan does not include reallocating the D Block to first responders, which is what a consensus of public-safety and local/state governmental organizations have been seeking from Congress for months. Thomas said he believes the FCC’s recently released capacity white paper demonstrates that the 10 MHz of 700 MHz broadband spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) is enough to serve public safety’s needs.

In addition, Thomas noted that public safety has 50 MHz of broadband spectrum at 4.9 GHz, and he expects the FCC to pass rules allowing first-responder agencies to use 700 MHz narrowband spectrum for broadband.

“I’m very, very hard-pressed in understanding why this 10 MHz in the D Block is so essential to them,” he said. “The only argument I’ve heard is that 20 [MHz] is better than 10 [MHz]. Well, 1,000 is better than 20, but that doesn’t mean you need it.”

Like the FCC, Thomas notes that public safety will need access to commercial-network capacity during large events — such roaming arrangements are the subject of a proceeding at the agency. Thomas said the roaming arrangement needs to give public safety pre-emptive capability — not just first-in-line status, but the ability to clear bandwidth already in use — to be effective.

“When I read [the FCC proposal], my presumption was that it we were talking pre-emption,” Thomas said. “If I’m incorrect, I would argue that they should have pre-emption.

“If indeed, in a location, public safety truly needs more bandwidth and they can’t get it because the network is congested because people are telling their families that they are going to be late for dinner or that they’re OK, that’s got to be pre-empted, in my way of thinking.”

Thomas said he believes the key to a public-safety broadband network is funding, which has been a missing component in previous efforts to make such a network a reality. The FCC plan calls for Congress to provide $6.5 billion in funding for capital expenditures to build the network, as well as a similar amount for ongoing costs.

“If public safety turns this into a cause celeb and a dogfight — and it seems to be going that way — my biggest fear is that Congress says, ‘This is too much of a hot potato. The expert agency and the recipient community — public safety — can’t agree, so we aren’t going to set any money aside until they get their act together,’ and this is going to just blow away.” Thomas said. “I think that would be an absolute and complete travesty.”

But public-safety officials question whether Congress will fund the project at the levels recommended by the FCC — a legitimate concern, Thomas acknowledges. And, without funding, the FCC plan “has zero probability of success,” he said.

With this in mind, Thomas said auctioning the D Block “sweetens the bitter pill sweetens the bitter pill for Congress” by jumpstarting the funding process. In addition, he suggested that public-safety officials should work with the FCC to lobby Congress for funding.

“If [public safety] went to the FCC and said, ‘We’re very supportive [of the FCC plan] but we’re skeptical about you getting the funding. Let’s work together to get the funding, and in the meantime, can you hold off a little on the D Block a little until we see which way the wind is blowing? Maybe we can get Congress to allocate the D Block money to the first part of the plan,’” Thomas said. “I can’t speak for the chairman and the FCC, because I’m not there anymore, but it’s certainly not an unreasonable approach.”

Certainly most public-safety officials will balk at the idea of the D Block being auctioned to commercial operators. However, the notions proposed by Thomas that public safety should have assurances — not just vague promises — that the funding and roaming aspects of the FCC plan will meet first-responder requirements should be key tenets to any future agreements.

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