There are two tightly interwoven issues when it comes to public-safety broadband: how much spectrum will public safety ultimately have, and how will they fund both the buildout and the day-to-day operation of the broadband networks?

Public safety is working both issues, although the first partially will determine how the second is handled. If the D Block ends up being auctioned and public safety only will have their existing 10 MHz of spectrum to work with, then most of the funding will have to come from the government and the local agencies. However, the Rockefeller bill, which recently was introduced in the Senate, addresses both issues, by setting aside funding from future spectrum auctions for the buildout and operation of the networks, and re-allocating the D Block to public safety.

To say that public safety is solely focused on the amount of spectrum that it will have to work with is not really accurate. In fact, the public-safety community also has been pushing for federal funding of the networks. There are a lot of funding options. But if the D Block is re-allocated to public safety, there would be more available funding options than there would be if the airwaves were auctioned. This is one reason that it might appear that public safety is focused only on the re-allocation of the D Block.

There are many of us who have been working on the funding issue in the background. I believe that if the D Block is re-allocated to public safety, the resultant series of networks will be able to provide not only a nationwide, fully interoperable public-safety broadband network, but also will accomplish one of the federal government’s main goals for broadband, which is to make it available in rural America, where today there is no access to broadband services. If the D Block is not re-allocated, then the business model for accomplishing that goal may not work.

The re-allocation bill would give public safety the ability to lease its spectrum in areas where it normally would not need it all. This differs dramatically from the FCC’s contention that when public safety needs more spectrum than it has been allocated, it will simply roam, on a priority basis, over the commercial network(s) built on the D Block, as well as those being built by AT&T, Verizon and others. The difference between these two approaches is that the former allows the public-safety community to hold the license to all 20 MHz of spectrum, which will enable it to control access to all of the airwaves; as such, it will not have to rely on what a commercial network operator deems to be priority access.

In this scenario, public safety can enter into agreements with companies in rural America that have an interest in broadband services and provide the network to them on a secondary basis. Public safety would not lease spectrum to end-users, but rather to organizations that want to make use of the spectrum for their own use, as well as sell broadband services to their customers. The issue with providing broadband in rural America always has been the fact that given the sparse population of these areas, the lack of a return on investment for commercial networks does not merit the infrastructure buildout.

For example, there are many rural power companies in the United States. They serve their customers by providing power, have rights of way for their power-distribution networks, and have service vehicles used by field personnel to read meters and serve their customers. If public safety and these power companies got together and entered into some type of agreement, it would be a win-win for both sides. The public-safety network could be built out less expensively using the power companies’ rights of way and existing towers. At the same time, the power companies would have access to broadband for their own use, including the smart grid, and they could resell broadband services to their rural residential and business customers.

This also works for railroads, schools that need their own broadband and want to provide it to their students, medical-diagnostic facilities and many other types of organizations. In short, I believe that there are going to be many opportunities for public safety to form relationships with those already in rural America, and on tribal lands, that want and need access to broadband services.

We can get public-safety broadband into rural America, and at the same time we can solve the issue of broadband access for rural America — and it can be done faster, and less expensively, than those in government believe. It is just a matter of looking at broadband networks as a pipe that can carry all sorts of data traffic (and perhaps voice in the future). But in order to make this work, public safety needs to have 20 MHz of spectrum.

In major metro areas, public-safety agencies will need all of these airwaves for their own use. But in less-populated areas, the sector will have excess capacity that can be leased to other entities under normal circumstances, i.e., except during major emergencies. So, public safety’s priority has to be on getting the spectrum allocated to first responders. Once that’s accomplished, it can turn its attention to the funding side of the equation.

Andrew M. Seybold heads Andrew Seybold Inc., which provides consulting, educational and publishing services. For more information, visit www.andrewseybold.com.

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