Now that the FCC has issued draft rules for the reauction of 10 MHz D Block spectrum in the 700 MHz band — the commission hopes to complete final rules by the end of the year — it is important to review the facts, clear up the misconceptions and contemplate the opportunities of this watershed project.

The D Block spectrum will be combined with 10 MHz of public-safety spectrum to create a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders. The network is intended to be primarily a data network with voice-over-IP (VoIP) capabilities including push-to-talk service; it is not intended to replace current mission-critical land mobile public-safety voice systems. In exchange for access to public safety's block of spectrum, a commercial partner will build out a next-generation wireless broadband network and continually update it with the latest technology at its own expense. Importantly, public safety will have priority access to this network in times of emergency. This allows public safety to benefit from the scale and technology-forward benefits of commercial wireless systems while maintaining the reliability and command and control elements we need to do our jobs.

This nationwide data model proposes a change from the way public safety now funds the construction of communications networks. Time and again, the lessons of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina remind us that we must change the way our first responders communicate. Instead of an “every community for itself” approach, we need to pool our resources so we can benefit in ways similar to a large, national commercial wireless carrier. Imagine our country with seamless interoperable broadband communications for public safety, handset prices comparable to what consumers pay today, a satellite backup component that works anywhere in the country, and cutting-edge broadband data capabilities.

This new approach will change the way we communicate. But the world we live in today requires us to act differently and to act collectively because we know that when we are divided, it makes it difficult to succeed. After nearly three years of fighting this battle, we simply cannot afford to be derailed by fear and misinformation.

It has been falsely suggested by some that the nationwide public safety network will be forced on local public safety, requiring them to abandon their existing mission-critical voice networks. This is not true. This broadband network will be a supplement to existing narrowband voice systems, and each community will decide whether to join the broadband network. The only compelling case for you to join the network will be your satisfaction that it meets your needs and offers capabilities at an affordable price.

Wireless broadband technology must be made available to all of public safety. The FCC is close to making the public-safety network a reality, and we simply can't afford not to support the progress to date. This is an incredible opportunity for public safety to win if we stick together for a common good that will benefit us all. I am certain that if public safety does not learn the painful lessons of our land mobile radio past, public safety is doomed to repeat them with fragmented and non-interoperable systems.

Charles Werner is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department. A 34-year veteran of the fire-rescue service, he serves as SAFECOM Executive Committee chair and IAFC Technology Council chair, and he is a member of the NPSTC Governing Board.