Watch a TV news magazine a few times, and you’re bound to run across a story of someone in a government job with little more to do than twiddle his thumbs and try to look busy. My guess is that Jamie Barnett won’t be the subject of such a story.
Certainly he shouldn’t be, because there is more than enough on Barnett’s plate as chief of the FCC’s public safety and homeland security bureau (PSHSB) to keep him occupied — from rebanding to narrowbanding to interoperability.

But the lead topic on everybody’s mind at the FCC is the national broadband plan that must be delivered to Congress in February. Of course, a big part of that report is expected to be recommendations for making the long-awaited public-safety broadband network a reality.

“If 700 MHz and the national public-safety broadband plan were the only jobs I had, I’d be busy well past eight hours per day,” Barnett said. “It’s fascinating to see how much energy is going into this.”

At the moment, the FCC is in fact-finding mode and “all options are on the table,” Barnett said. Given the FCC’s regulatory authority over spectrum matters, the agency is looking at the matter from a spectral perspective, he said.

Of course, probably the biggest issue regarding a public-safety broadband network is funding. Barnett said he does not believe the PSHSB will make any recommendations in that regard and wouldn’t speculate whether the commissioners would opt to make suggestions in this area.

However, the FCC report will include information about the money needed for a public-safety broadband network, as the agency is compiling data and running cost models for a variety of scenarios, Barnett said.

“We’re … cognizant of the fact that a public-safety broadband network is going to cost somebody something to operate, so we’re looking at figures over a 10-year period to build, operate and maintain this,” he said. “The public-safety community has clearly spoken to us that they have concerns about that, so I think we have to answer that.”

If accurate, such cost estimates would be a huge help to the process. As we have written in the space numerous times, one of the barriers to making a public-safety broadband network a reality is that no one seems to have a handle on just how much money is needed. The current estimates range from the $6 billion cited by former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin a year ago to more than $40 billion offered by some network providers.

It’s questionable whether Congress will help fund this network under any circumstance, but there is no hope of financial aid if a more reliable estimate cannot be provided.

Meanwhile, several local and state entities have filed waivers with the FCC seeking permission to use the public-safety broadband spectrum currently licensed to the PSST for networks they would build themselves or via a public/private partnership. Many Beltway sources have speculated that the FCC would not rule on the waivers until after submitting the broadband plan to Congress, but that’s not necessarily the case, Barnett said.

“I really think we owe these people who have petitioned … an answer as soon as we can get it,” he said. “That may or may not come before we actually deliver the public-safety broadband plan. I would tell you that this is a priority for us, because we realize that they didn’t petition just for fun — they have real needs right now.”

Reply comments for the 700 MHz waivers are due in less than three weeks. If the FCC is willing to act quickly on the requests, we should have a very interesting winter on the public-safety broadband front.