I received a call from Chuck Dowd, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department, late last week. I had recently written about comments he made last month at the International Association of Police Chiefs Conference in San Diego, and he was calling to clarify his position on the proposed nationwide 700 MHz broadband network for first responders. I like chatting with Dowd. He’s every reporter’s dream: no-nonsense, straightforward and thick-skinned. So, he had my rapt attention.

New York City is among several major metropolises that have told the FCC they will not use the network, which—under the commission’s current proposal—would be built via an unprecedented public/private partnership and would be shared by one or more commercial operators and public safety. Dowd had suggested that the public/private idea is a non-starter and that it would be better for the Big Apple if the FCC gave local government entities public safety’s 10 MHz of spectrum in the band and the 10 MHz of commercial D Block spectrum—currently set to be paired with the public safety airwaves to form the spectral backbone for the shared network—so the locals could build their own advanced networks. The notion would require the blessing of Congress, because current law mandates that the D Block be auctioned.

I had written that such thinking is wrong-headed and represented the type of me-first thinking that has plagued public-safety communications for far too long. I also suggested that agencies outside of the major metropolitan areas, particularly those in rural areas, would get screwed if the FCC changed course in this manner.

When we chatted a few days ago, Dowd stressed that the intention never was to leave non-urban agencies out in the cold.

“From the onset we have said, ‘If this solution doesn’t make sense for everybody, then it doesn’t make sense.’ We’re not looking to grab this spectrum and go away and say, ‘The little guy is out of luck.’ … We want to see a solution that works out for everyone,” Dowd said.

According to Dowd, the motivation for the hard-line stance against the network was fear that the FCC would rush to approve rules for a D Block reauction before the commission is reconstituted next month. The proposed rules relaxed the reliability and coverage requirements that would be placed upon the commercial operator(s) in the hope of attracting bidders for the D Block spectrum.

One of the big sticking points, in Dowd’s mind, is the notion of basing coverage requirements on population.

“We don’t build to population, we build to the geographic area you have to cover, because you never know where a cop, for example, is going to get into trouble,” Dowd said. “How many times have you seen a video of a cop at night making a stop in a rural area by himself and he gets into a life-and-death situation, where there is a camera in the car taping the event? But the dispatcher has no way to see it. … Wouldn’t it be in the cop’s interest to have that feed going back live to the dispatcher?”

Some have suggested—and it seems that the FCC bought into this thinking—that since this network will be data-centric, at least at the start, it doesn’t necessarily have to be as reliable and hardened as a mission-critical voice network, a notion that Dowd finds specious.

“Cops and firefighters will very quickly learn to rely as heavily on the data they are receiving as they have traditionally relied on voice,” Dowd said. “You can’t separate these two things and say that one is mission-critical and always has to be there and the other can be there most of the time. You can’t operate in public safety that way. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

For the moment, the mission has been accomplished, as the FCC left this matter off the agenda for its December meeting, which then was cancelled. Though the commission could vote on its proposed rules in circulation, it’s extremely unlikely that it would attempt to tackle something of this importance outside of an open meeting. So, Dowd and his mates now are preparing for the changing of the guard.

“What we’re optimistic about is that there are some potential indications from folks that we’ve talked to in Washington that the new administration may potentially look at this as a possible public-works project,” he said.

I almost dropped my pen when I heard this. Talk about an OMG! moment. I went back and listened to the recording of the interview to make sure I had heard what I thought I heard. I long have believed—and written—that Congress should be approaching this network as it did the interstate highway system more than a half century ago. In other words, it should be built by public safety, to public-safety standards, and it should be paid for by taxpayers. It is too vital a project to do anything else. And this is the U.S., not some third-world country. The money can be found, even in a tough economy. All Congress has to do is conjure the desire—and fortitude—to look for it.

Santa, are you listening?

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