Two years ago, a failure to auction a swath of 700 MHz spectrum — aka the D Block — to commercial entities shattered the FCC's hopes to establish a nationwide, interoperable, broadband wireless network for public safety. Now, the commission has unveiled a new blueprint for the much-anticipated network as part of its overarching national broadband plan.

Many aspects of the proposal are familiar: a public-safety broadband wireless network built on 700 MHz spectrum that would leverage commercial 4G technologies and economies of scale to provide first responders with access to the latest technical innovations and applications at prices that are more in line with commercial wireless offerings. But the new proposal includes some key contrasts that FCC officials hope will attract commercial bidders to participate in a new D Block auction in early 2011, which would increase the likelihood that the public-safety network will become a reality.

Most noteworthy among these differences is potential funding. Two years ago, the FCC pursued a public-private partnership that called for the D Block winner to finance the proposed public-safety network with no supplemental revenue. This time, the FCC has asked Congress to ensure that $12 billion to $16 billion is available during the next decade to help pay for the deployment and operation of the first-responder network.

In addition, the new plan has a decidedly different technical approach. Instead of a network limited to the 20 MHz of spectrum licensed to public safety and the D Block winner, the proposed network would give first-responder agencies a dedicated network on public safety's 10 MHz broadband swath and priority access when roaming on commercial networks, supported by as much as 70 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band. This multiple-network strategy is designed to provide public safety with additional capacity and redundancy that should result in greater reliability, according to FCC officials.

Furthermore, the new proposal provides public safety with flexibility to pursue a variety of partnership arrangements — an approach advocated by several chiefs in major cities that have requested FCC waivers to allow early buildouts of local private broadband networks — instead of a one-size-fits-all national approach.

An unfortunate similarity between the two FCC plans is that both are plagued by uncertainty in key areas. Two years ago, commercial carriers cited concerns over the business model for the unprecedented public/private partnership with public safety as a primary reason for why they did not bid on the D Block. For its part, public safety was concerned about reliability, redundancy and accessibility.

Today, the new FCC's plan faces similar hurdles as it ventures into what still is uncharted territory. Carriers are not sure what the economic model for working with public safety will look like. Public safety is not sure how roaming with priority access will work and who will pay for it. And no one is certain whether the all-important funding component will become a reality, particularly as lawmakers focus on re-election campaigns amid criticism about the mounting national deficit and federal spending programs.

"Right now — without funding and without priority access — all you've got is an auction for 10 MHz [of D Block spectrum] that doesn't benefit public safety at all," said Richard Mirgon, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO).

There is time to address these issues, but not much. In addition to the political realities of congressional re-elections in the fall, the FCC's latest proposal depends heavily on the ability to build out the public-safety broadband network in conjunction with commercial carrier deployments that will begin in earnest before the end of the year. Failing to build the network within this window would at least double the cost of building public safety's network, according to the FCC.

"We get one at bat and one swing," Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau, said during a February meeting. "If we do not execute this network with alacrity, we will miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Broadband blueprint

The FCC's public-safety broadband network proposal is a component of its national broadband plan designed to make high-speed access to digital information commonplace and affordable throughout the United States — for individuals, enterprises and government entities, including first-responder agencies. The 376-page document is the result of an information-gathering exercise executed during the past year that was unprecedented in scope and depth for a regulatory proceeding.

Under the proposal, the D Block would be auctioned to a commercial operator, probably early next year. The D Block winner would be under no obligation to help build the public-safety network, but it would be required to use the same air-interface technology as public safety — presumably LTE — and provide roaming with priority access to emergency-response organizations.

Public-safety LTE infrastructure would be deployed at 35,000-41,000 commercial sites to provide coverage for 95% of the U.S. population, at an estimated cost of less than $4 billion. To provide coverage in more rural areas that are not economically feasible for commercial carriers to serve, public safety would need to deploy infrastructure independently. In addition, vehicular systems and emergency mobile communications systems would be deployed to fill coverage or capacity gaps in the network.

FCC officials believe the total capital cost for this system would be $6.5 billion, and have recommended that Congress fund the buildout via a grant program to be established as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the operating costs of the network are projected to increase with deployments and user subscriptions, with the network requiring $1.3 billion in annual operational costs 10 years from now, according to the FCC. To address this funding issue, the FCC recommended that Congress pass enabling legislation that would charge a fee — expected to be less than $1 per month — to all broadband users in the United States to fund the network's operations.

No money is included in the plan for public-safety users to buy devices that could access the proposed network; funding for such devices would have to come from the agencies that use the network. However, the economies of scale created by leveraging commercial technology are expected to result in prices for first-responder devices that will be more comparable to unsubsidized consumer devices than the expensive radios that are used on today's public-safety land-mobile radio networks.

First-responder devices would first access the public-safety network, which would operate on the broadband spectrum currently licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). Should this dedicated network become unavailable for capacity reasons, then public-safety users would roam onto the commercial 700 MHz networks owned by wireless carriers, where first-responder traffic would be given priority access.

For the most part, first-response officials have expressed support for the overarching concepts in the FCC's proposal — partnering with commercial carriers, leveraging commercial technology and asking for federal funding are all ideas that the sector supports on a macro level. But public safety has stopped short of fully endorsing these notions until greater clarity is provided about some of the key components, such as details about how priority access would be executed.

"I'm encouraged that they've done a lot of thinking about it, but there are still a lot of loose ends," said PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen, who also chairs the technology committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

Devil in the details

In terms of priority-access roaming, representatives from LTE manufacturers like Ericsson and Lucent have said the 4G standard will support multiple quality-of-service levels that should serve public safety's needs. But first-responder officials have been wary of the notion of priority access, because priority access on wireline and wireless voice networks often have proved to be of little value.

In voice networks, communication is dependent upon the ability of users to access an open path to make a call. Priority access puts public-safety users to the front of the queue, but a call still cannot be made until a call path is open and a dial tone is heard. When significant incidents occur, the cell sectors near the incident often are overloaded by consumer users, meaning no call paths are available.

Such a scenario is unacceptable for public safety, which needs immediate access to the network to share mission-critical information, said Charles Dowd, deputy chief for the New York City Police Department.

"If it begins to fail, and cops and firefighters get a busy signal, they're not going to want to use it," Dowd said during a keynote speech delivered last month at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) in Las Vegas.

With this in mind, many public-safety officials have called for pre-emptive access, which would require carriers to cut off some users' access to the network to enable the public-safety communication — a notion that is "scary" to carriers that do not want to alienate customers with such actions, said mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold.

But such pre-emption is unnecessary in the all-IP environment that exists in an LTE network because there is no equivalent to a call-path queue, according to manufacturers. Packets can be prioritized according to policies — for example, an officer-in-distress communication could be a top priority — and high-priority packets are transmitted first, while lower-priority packets — perhaps non-emergency consumer communications — are sent later, resulting in slower data throughput speeds for the lower-priority items — but not a blocking of such transmissions.

While such capabilities may exist within LTE, public-safety officials want assurances that carrier partners will enable such quality-of-service levels in their networks. In addition, first-responder organization are seeking assurances that commercial roaming partners' sites are hardened enough that they will be available to accept public-safety traffic during peak usage periods, because the right to roam on an unavailable network is of no value.

Indeed, both public safety and commercial wireless carriers have expressed a desire for more clarity regarding the business arrangement surrounding priority roaming. The FCC has indicated that public safety should receive "favored nation" rates when roaming on a commercial network — Barnett said the rate could be comparable to those negotiated by major enterprise customers — but it's unclear whether such rates would be both sufficiently affordable to public safety and commercially viable to a carrier that would have to throttle back data speeds to valued customers in order to provide network capacity to public-safety traffic.

Money matters

While the FCC has the authority to address such technical issues regarding network and spectrum sharing, it has no authority to provide funding without the consent of Congress. That's significant, because the infusion of $12 billion to $16 billion in federal funding recommended in the plan is vital to its success.

"Without authorizations and appropriations from Congress, this plan doesn't work," Mirgon said.

Indeed, simple authorization for funding will not be of much comfort to the first-responder community, which watched lawmakers authorize $1.25 billion for upgrades to public-safety answering points (PSAPs) in 2004 but only appropriate $43.5 million for this purpose. In addition, the FCC needs Congress to authorize the establishment of a fee on all U.S. broadband users to pay operational costs associated with the network.

Whether such federal funding support will be made available for a public-safety broadband network is unknown. But Barnett said he is encouraged by the statement of support from President Barack Obama regarding the public-safety network (see the quote on page 37). In addition, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) — chairman of the House subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet — reportedly expressed confidence that there would be bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for the FCC's funding request for the public-safety broadband network.

Even if there is support from the White House and both sides of the aisle in Congress, actually securing appropriations this year promises to be a difficult task, as lawmakers have less than 100 working days before voters will decide their re-election fates in November. At a time when there is increasing criticism regarding government spending programs, appropriating $12 billion to $16 billion for a public-safety network may be difficult to sell to voters that likely will be more interested in other high-profile items. Also, lawmakers may lack the necessary motivation to make the case.

"The problem is that nobody's going to get elected because they support [a public-safety broadband network], and nobody's going to not get elected if they don't," mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said.

Another factor could be the manner in which funding for a public-safety network is introduced. If the public-safety broadband network funding is introduced as a separate bill, some believe the item would be more likely to receive congressional support, because elected officials do not like being on record as opposing public safety.

However, if legislation calls for adoption of the entire national broadband plan — of which the public-safety network is just a piece — the effort on Capitol Hill to secure funding could become much more complex.

The national broadband plan includes several items that are controversial, including a proposal to reclaim additional TV broadcast spectrum that can be auctioned for mobile wireless communications — a notion that is expected to be opposed by the powerful National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) lobby. Even if such legislation ultimately is approved, some fear that such opposition in any single area could prevent the law from being passed in the timetable that the FCC wants for its D Block auction and the buildout of the public-safety network in conjunction with commercial carriers.

"Congress needs to act when it acts, but I would hope that it's sooner than later," Barnett said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "I would love to know something [about funding] during the year 2010."

Spectral issues

With approved funding and appropriate policies regarding issues such as network sharing and roaming, an increasing number of public-safety officials believe the FCC proposal for a public-safety broadband network that would leverage commercial infrastructure is workable. But public safety's one point of significant disagreement with the national broadband plan is the FCC's recommendation to auction the D Block to a commercial operator.

Instead, public safety would prefer that the D Block be reallocated solely for public safety use. By combining the D Block with the PSST's 700 MHz spectrum, public safety would have 20 MHz of contiguous airwaves — aka Band 14 — on which to build its network. Such a spectral platform would allow public safety's network to enjoy greater capacity that could spur significantly more partnering opportunities.

For example, several entities seeking FCC waivers to allow early buildouts of broadband networks on the PSST's spectrum would like the wireless broadband network to serve more than just public-safety users. They propose also allowing users from other government departments and critical-infrastructure organizations to access the network, creating new paths for interoperability and additional funding sources to financially support the network. In rural areas where network capacity should not be an issue, some proposals would provide consumer access to the network.

While such user flexibility likely would be possible on a 20 MHz network, these models would be very limited if public safety only can use the 10 MHz PSST block. Indeed, some have opined that first-responder data usage — currently modest with access generally limited to narrowband systems — likely will mushroom with the availability of a high-speed network.

"[Public-safety personnel] will be the new super users," said Robert LeGrande, a consultant who oversaw the deployment of a pilot 700 MHz 3G network for public safety when he was CTO for the District of Columbia.

In fact, many public-safety officials question whether 10 MHz will be enough bandwidth to serve the needs of public safety, much less other government or critical-infrastructure users.

"At the end of the day, they can give us all the money in the world," Dowd said. "But, if we don't have enough spectrum, we can't do our job."

Reallocating the D Block was not an option for the FCC; existing law dictates that the agency must auction the spectrum to commercial operators. Any change in the law would require an act of Congress. However, public-safety officials had hoped the national broadband plan would recommend that federal lawmakers reallocate the D Block to first responders or at least remain neutral on the subject. The FCC's recommendation to auction the D Block makes it much more difficult to sway Congress in public safety's direction, according to Beltway sources.

FCC officials believe that auctioning the D Block could benefit public safety in several ways. For starters, an auction would generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury that could help offset some of the grant dollars the agency is requesting from Congress.

More important is that a commercial operator using the D Block spectrum virtually ensures that commercial devices will be built for Band 14, which should generate the economies of scale necessary to keep device costs down. But if the D Block is reallocated, first responders would be the only users in Band 14, and many industry observers fear that public safety would again pay a premium for devices because of its relatively small market size.

Many in public safety acknowledge these factors, but most still believe securing a large contiguous band of broadband spectrum would be worth the potential loss of such benefits. This sentiment has become more pronounced during the past month, when officials for LTE manufacturers and carriers have stated that a guard band would be needed between the D Block and the PSST's spectrum, unless the D Block winner shares its network with public safety.

Barnett said the FCC soon would initiate a proceeding to determine the technical rules for the D Block auction that would provide a potential forum for discussion of the guard-band question

"It is certainly an issue that we would be looking at going forward," Jon Peha, the FCC's chief technologist, said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "We have not seen things in the record that would make us concerned at this point that the guard band will be a problem. We will proceed until there was [such] a determination."

If a guard band is deemed to be necessary, the spectrum for the spectral buffer would have to come from an existing allocation. Most industry sources believe taking guard-band spectrum out of the D Block would greatly diminish the spectrum's value to potential bidders. If the guard band comes out of public safety's broadband spectrum allocation, that sector could be limited to using 7.5 MHz of spectrum in the band, which would significantly slow data speeds, according to some experts, and which would represent a 65% spectral reduction compared to the 20 MHz of airwaves public safety desires for its networks.

As a result, public-safety organizations continue to lobby Congress for reallocation of the D Block while also asking for funding to support the buildout and operation of the public-safety broadband network. On March 12, 11 U.S. congressmen signed a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski asking the FCC to study the idea of reallocation of the D Block to public safety. However, no legislation to reallocate the D Block had been introduced as of press time.

In addition to lobbying for an ideal network, public-safety officials are working to avoid what could be a nightmarish scenario: an auction of the D Block in early 2011 without congressional appropriations to build out a public-safety broadband network under the model proposed in the national broadband plan. With only 10 MHz of spectrum — or less, if a guard band is needed — and no federal funding, only the wealthiest public-safety entities would be able to pursue buildout of a broadband network.

With this in mind, some public-safety representatives hope to convince federal policymakers to delay a commercial auction until Congress reviews relevant matters associated with the public-safety broadband network, from funding to D Block reallocation.

"The auction should be held off until Congress has time to address all issues, including the reallocation issue," Yucel Ors, APCO's director of legislative affairs, said during an interview with Urgent Communications. "From our perspective, the auction should be held off until all the questions are answered. … The timeline for early 2011 is just too fast."

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