Now that the FCC has issued its national broadband plan, the hard work begins (again) with regard to a nationwide public-safety system in the 700 MHz band. Part of that heavy lift for public-safety folks will be convincing the outside world of the need and viability of such a network.

Perhaps you would think that this work has been done over the past few years. However, the reality is that much work remains to be done. Recently, I was interviewed for an online column about the potential uses of the 700 MHz white spaces (those areas of the TV band where the UHF taboos prevent another TV station). During the conversation, I suggested that one potential use of TV white space would be to supplement existing public-safety UHF systems.

The reporter misquoted me, which is bad enough from a wireless-industry journalist, but one of the other interviewees e-mailed me to tell me the error of my ways. Working for a think tank, he informed me about the folly of trying to put together a nationwide public-safety network. He (let's call him Think Tank Joe) told me that such a network would be too expensive (because of proprietary handsets) and not interoperable (because of proprietary handsets). His evidence was the lack of interoperable communications during Hurricane Katrina. According to Think Tank Joe, he attended CTIA's session on lessons learned from Katrina, and he said that the consensus was that proprietary radio systems led to the public-safety communications problems that were experienced.

As a result, Think Tank Joe is convinced that a communications network solely for public safety makes no sense whatsoever, and that interoperability never will be achieved because (he believes) the proposed system will be proprietary. He believes that a broadband network that serves both the public and public safety is the only sensible solution.

If you've spent any time involved in public-safety communications, you know that a proper analysis of Katrina is not this simple. But, it highlights the problem that the public-safety community faces — which is that it needs to do a better job educating not just the general public, but the non-public-safety communications industry.

This calls for a two-pronged campaign. One part is a continuation of what has been done already, which is to figure out how to make this system work. The other part is the PR campaign to update the simplistic, non-current view of public-safety communications. Certainly, the industry is doing much to ensure that communications systems are interoperable. The missing ingredient is the spectrum and money needed to design, engineer and deploy a complete system from the ground up with equipment that is public-safety grade, as cost-effectively as possible. The technological knowledge is available to accomplish this, but the political willpower from many quarters must now be muscled.

Even though it's been worked on for a very long time, we're still a long way from a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on this network. During the next months, there will be a lot of meetings, discussions and thought about the commission's broadband plan, of which public safety is only a part. It will take a lot of effort to make that part count.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at

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