This is the time of year when people reflect on what has happened over the previous 12 months and contemplate what the New Year will bring. This is exactly what we have done in our December issue, which contains our annual industry forecast.

When I look back on 2010, there is one event that stands above all others: the introduction of legislation into Congress that would reallocate the D Block — the vital 700 MHz airwaves coveted by both the commercial sector and public safety — to first responders. This could turn out to be a hollow victory, as there is no guarantee that Congress will follow through and enact the legislation. Even if it does, there is no guarantee that the federal government will spend the estimated $16 billion that will be needed to build and operate the nationwide network for first responders that will ride upon this spectrum.

Nevertheless, the fact that the public-safety lobby got Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) — the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee who sponsored the reallocation legislation — to sponsor the reallocation legislation is a stunning accomplishment. One would suspect intuitively that first responders would have a loud voice on Capitol Hill, but I doubt that anyone believed it was this loud. Without question, this accomplishment by itself made 2010 a year like no other in the annals of public-safety communications.

There were other events — or in some cases, non-events — that, while not stunning, were at the least head-scratchers. One occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area, where euphoria over what was expected to be the nation’s first 700 MHz public-safety broadband network quickly turned into confusion and consternation during the initial planning stage, after some participating entities questioned the vendor-selection and spectrum processes. Given what is currently at stake in the nation’s capital, public safety couldn’t afford to stumble out of the gate on the opposite coast, but yet it did.

Other head-scratchers include the failure of the U.S. to strike a rebanding agreement with Mexico, the failure of Congress to reauthorize desperately needed federal funding for 911 sector upgrades, and its complete lack of interest in ending the practice — once and for all — of states diverting 911 surcharge fees collected from wireless subscribers. It seems like a no-brainer that money collected for a specific purpose should be used for that purpose, and that Congress should enact legislation to end the raiding. But nothing ever is simple when it comes to government.

What will happen next year? That’s anybody’s guess. We have a few of our own. One is that the tumult in the San Francisco Bay region eventually will die down, because no one is going to want to risk the $70 million in funding that already is committed to the project, or plant the seed on Capitol Hill that maybe investing $16 billion in this network and devoting the D Block to it isn’t a good idea. A corollary prediction is that spectrum-lease agreements will come under much greater scrutiny as a result of the controversy.

We also believe that the applications market for smart devices will explode, as both the enterprise and public-safety sectors increasingly embrace the gizmos. And more progress will be made next year in terms of solving the problems that digital radios have in noisy environments. However, adoption by the public-safety sector will continue to be slow due to funding and perception issues, the latter of which is the intrinsic mistrust that the fire service has towards digital technology.

Meanwhile, the smart-grid movement will lose some momentum in 2011 because the utility sector simply doesn’t have the spectrum it needs to meet its communications needs. But hope will spring forth from increased dialogue next year between the public-safety and utility sectors in terms of sharing spectrum.
This idea has been bandied about for years, but next year could be the year that it actually gains traction, especially if public safety gets the D Block. Then, public safety would have enough spectrum to allow utilities to ride along on a secondary-user basis — not to mention tower assets in remote locations that utilities would find very attractive. And the utility sector has access to energy-related grant programs that would help to ease public safety’s current funding crisis. It’s much easier to forge partnerships when both sides win.

Finally, we think that the FCC next year will begin to receive waiver applications from license holders operating at 512 MHz and below who already realize that there is no way they’re going to meet the commission’s Jan. 1, 2013, deadline for converting those systems to 12.5 kHz operation, from the current 25 kHz-wide channels. In addition, we believe the FCC will receive numerous waiver applications from large public-safety agencies that would prefer to invest their resources into broadband. Our prediction is that the commission, after much hand-wringing, will grant the waivers to the latter, but not the former.

In short, 2011 promises to be a roller-coaster of a year, with plenty of ups and downs—just like every other year in the annals of public-safety communications.

Ed.: Click here to read our complete 2011 forecast.

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