The debate surrounding the proposed 700 MHz broadband network has continued to intensify in recent weeks, with the issues regarding several key questions becoming clearer. Unfortunately, the answers to many of those key questions are not any clearer

That could change in the upcoming months, however, as the FCC has initiated proceeding to tackle some of the big questions, including whether a guard band is needed between the commercial D Block spectrum and how public-safety priority roaming on commercial networks — during incidents when the 10 MHz of public-safety broadband spectrum is fully used — would work.

It may not be easy, but a technical foundation for priority roaming should be achievable. What may be less certain is whether the financial aspects of such an arrangement can be determined at a level granular enough to allow both sides of the equation — the roaming public-safety agency and the commercial network operator — to evaluate whether the economics will work for them.

The FCC has made clear that commercial operators won’t be asked to let public safety roam on their networks for free. However, commercial operators need to know how much they will be compensated when public safety does use the network, as well as how much of their network capacity would be “at risk” — limiting their commercial customers’ usage or knocking them off the network completely — during an emergency.

What rate is appropriate to make such priority roaming “worth it” to the commercial carrier economically? Will public safety be able to afford that rate? Will the federal government or some other funding source be made available to pay carriers the difference between what the carriers need to be paid and what public safety can afford? If a commercial operator builds more sites to meet public safety’s priority-roaming capacity needs in a given area, is the public-safety entity required to maintain its roaming partnership for a given period of time?

Similarly, public-safety agencies must know how much they can expect to pay when roaming on a commercial network — and how they will be notified when they are roaming, so they know when they are being charged. Admittedly, some of these things may need to be resolved internally in public safety, not at the FCC level.

For instance, let’s say there is an incident in City A, and City B’s first responders are asked to respond, as well. The City A responders arrive on the scene first and immediately start streaming video and using other high-bandwidth applications in a relatively confined area, maxing out the capacity in a given cell sector.

When City B’s responders arrive on the scene, there is no more capacity on the public-safety network that can be accessed for free. If City B responders roam on a commercial network, does City B have to pay the roaming charges? Will City A pay the roaming charges, because that’s the jurisdiction of the incident? If so, does City A get to tell the City B responders how much bandwidth it can use, since City A is paying the bill? Regardless who is paying, will either agency be more hesitant to call for help — or responding — because of the additional cost?

Only by answering these questions can public safety and commercial operators have a clear idea how the proposed network should be managed in real-world scenarios.

For public safety, these answers will play a key role in determining whether it makes more sense to add more public-safety sites to create more capacity in a given location or whether roaming provide sufficient capacity at a more affordable price. For commercial operators, the answers could go a long way in determining how much they are willing to bid on the D Block — or whether it’s worth bidding at all.

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