In a world where proposals have called for more than $10 billion in federal aid to build and operate a much-discussed national broadband wireless network for public safety, $70 million sounds like relatively small potatoes. But Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) this week introduced legislation calling for $70 million in grant money to help fund development engineering for mission-critical devices that would operate on 700 MHz LTE networks.

“Directed research and development is essential to achieving interoperability, because it will drive down cost and develop devices that public safety has a hand in selecting,” Harman said in a prepared statement. “Equally as important, this bill will accelerate the development of those devices, quickly giving public safety more options with new cost savings to states and localities, and assurance that the technology can be trusted for their important work.”

Indeed, public-safety officials have long hoped that 700 MHz broadband would allow them to leverage commercial economies of scale, so first responders could have devices with greater functionality at lower prices than are paid today. Indeed, many of the components for both commercial and public-safety devices should be interchangeable, but not all.

And, where there are differences, the grant money being proposed could help bridge the engineering costs that could hamper the development of public-safety devices, which can be marketed to a relatively limited audience.

Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said he spoke with chip makers for six months about the issue. These companies said they had the engineering capabilities to tackle the engineering issues, but devoting time and money to address problems for a relatively small market in a down economy would be a difficult sell.

However, Seybold said the companies did offer a glimmer of hope: “If you give us some non-recurring engineering money, we’ll build it,” Seybold said.

The Harman-Shimkus legislation would provide the money necessary to address this problem, so software, duplexers and filters can be developed for 700 MHz public-safety systems, Seybold said. In addition, there is an intermodulation issue with GPS that can be resolved, but it will require considerable engineering, he said.

Now, there are potential issues surrounding intellectual property in all of this that will have to addressed, but the Harman-Shimkus bill represents “one more needed piece” in the 700 MHz broadband equation for public safety, Seybold said.

Certainly the debate about funding for the overall 700 MHz public-safety broadband network and the D Block spectrum issues will grab the biggest headline in the upcoming months — and deservedly so. But the Harman-Shimkus bill sheds some light on an important aspect that needs to be addressed, so the vision of more affordable devices in the 700 MHz band can be realized.

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