Eight years after the 9/11 attacks and four years after the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, ensuring that first responders have interoperable communications when reacting to such disasters remains a priority for policy-makers at the local, state and national levels.

While the deployment of narrowband systems at 700 MHz — the recently cleared band upon which federal policy-makers have pinned many of their public-safety communications hopes — continues in the piecemeal fashion long familiar to public safety, efforts to create a national broadband network for the first-response community have yielded little tangible progress. The well-chronicled failure of the 700 MHz auction to attract a commercial D Block bidder willing to work with public safety in a public/private partnership has been followed by two years of spirited debate and considerable legwork, but no clear course of action has been chosen by Congress or the FCC.

However, many pieces of the puzzle appear to be falling into place, the most notable being public safety's consensus support of LTE as the preferred technology for a nationwide broadband wireless network, which could greatly reduce the variables associated with the network, if the standard is formally adopted.

With the 700 MHz spectrum available and LTE virtually a lock as the technological standard, the primary barrier to a national broadband wireless network remains the same as it was when Morgan O'Brien first proposed the notion in 2006 — funding. To date, myriad proposals to address the issue have been suggested, but each is fraught with considerable uncertainty regarding its potential effectiveness, political feasibility or both.

Dealing with the status quo

Under current rules, the 10 MHz of broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band is licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), which has no other assets and no way to generate revenue except through an agreement with a commercial D Block partner, which does not exist. During the final months of his tenure as FCC chairman, Kevin Martin pushed for a revamping of the D Block rules to attract bidders who would be willing to partner with public safety, but the proposal never came to a vote, so the previous rules still remain in place.

Although the FCC unanimously approved pursuing the public/private partnership arrangement, every commissioner voting on the matter in 2007 noted that they would have preferred a government-funded model.

“Keep in mind, the reason that we had the D Block concept in the first place is because … Congress hasn't funded the network,” said Patrick Halley, government affairs director for the National Emergency Number Association.

Of course, the D Block auction failed to attract a qualified bid amid commercial operators' complaints that the FCC rules created too much uncertainty, leaving the PSST with no commercial partner with which to negotiate a network-sharing agreement. Despite the problems with the first D Block auction, PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen remains cautiously optimistic that a restructuring of the public/private partnership rules could lead to the kind of broadband access that public-safety officials have envisioned.

“I've got people out there who tell me that, if we can get this thing moving forward, they're willing to put their money where their mouth is,” McEwen said. “They believe there is a business case to do some of this. … But I won't know if they're telling us the truth unless someone gives us a chance to try it. Right now, we can't do anything until some of these things get off the dime.”

One of the big changes in the 700 MHz debate during the past year has been the interest expressed by local and state government entities — most of which are large municipalities — to pursue broadband deployment strategies on their own within the band, with most looking to “sublease” spectrum from the PSST. After some initial concerns, the PSST has been amenable to the notion of early buildouts, provided that the entities agree to construct their networks in a manner that fits the nationwide interoperability model.

In broad terms, entities seeking waivers have expressed interest in paying for wireless broadband deployments via several potential avenues — public/private partnership, internal funding and the use of federal grant funding. In addition, officials in the San Francisco Bay area and in New York City have expressed hope that they can reduce 700 MHz broadband deployment costs by utilizing infrastructure in other networks owned by the entities.

McEwen said he believes such an approach is “reasonable,” but counting on grant funding can be a dicey proposition. Several sources noted that Congress can reduce grant amounts from year to year. In addition, McEwen noted that “there's a lot of competition for those dollars,” so it may be difficult for a state or region to dedicate grant money to a single project for an extended period.

“We're in favor of early buildouts, but these people have to come up with a plan — one that has sustainable funding — to do it, because we can't enter into an agreement that's going to fail,” McEwen said.

Looking for something to count on

Indeed, sustainable funding is critical to successful public-safety broadband deployment on a nationwide basis, but it's the element that is missing from most proposals, NENA CEO Brian Fontes said.

“I'm not a believer that one-time funding is what is needed for public-safety broadband,” Fontes said. “In that scenario, you're probably going to get insufficient funding up front and no funding — or minimal funding — after that to sustain the broadband network or connectivity to a network.”

“If you have sufficient, recurring funding, it allows public safety a number of options, whereas today it has few.”

Traditionally, public safety has been supported by state and local governments. This model could be pursued for broadband as well, but such an approach could lead to significantly different funding for various parts of the country, Halley said.

“Technically, state governments could look at innovative ways to fund public-safety broadband,” he said. “In reality, having to rely on a patchwork of different approaches does not address the issue of business-plan continuity and known funding — not in the short term, at least.”

With this in mind, NENA has proposed several potential avenues for generating ongoing federal funds, which could be used to help pay for network deployment, PSST operations, training and other needs the first-responder community would have associated with a broadband network, Fontes said.

Possibilities include a charge on every phone number — an idea that has been contemplated to revamp 911 funding — and the assessment of a public-safety tax on all electronic devices sold, Fontes said.

Another idea would be to include public-safety broadband in the Universal Service Fund (USF), which provides subsidies that are designed to ensure telecommunications service to even the country's most remote areas and includes the E-Rate program to funds Internet connectivity to schools and libraries. Public-safety officials looked at the USF option a couple of years ago, but it was determined that the FCC lacked the authority include public safety.

“All of these funding mechanisms would have to be approved by Congress,” Fontes said, noting that an important stipulation on any such legislation would be for Congress to ensure that the money generated is spent on public-safety broadband and cannot be “raided” for other purposes, as 911 funds have been.

Mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold expressed support for the USF funding idea.

“That would be a dream,” he said. “That's the way it ought to be done, which means there's probably not a chance in hell of it happening.”

In the past, the idea of getting Congress to provide funding support for a public-safety network was never seriously considered. However, during a hearing before the U.S. House subcommittee on communications, technology and the Internet last month, both Chairman Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and ranking member Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) suggested that general-fund revenue would be needed to make a nationwide public-safety broadband network a reality.

McEwen acknowledged that such statements by elected officials are encouraging but cautioned public-safety officials about getting too excited, noting that experience has taught him that there can be a big difference between elected officials expressing positions during a hearing and getting legislation passed and money appropriated.

“Obviously, we would welcome any funding that was offered to us; we would welcome any funding at all,” McEwen said. “The problem is that committee is not a funding committee.

“We're very happy that they were inquiring about the need for funding and that they expressed some interest in showing some support for funding. But, at the end of the day, action is what we need, not words.”

Estimates tough to come by

Should Congress be willing to provide funding for a public-safety broadband network, one problem with the notion is that no one seems to be certain about how much money actually is needed. Cost estimates for the network have ranged from a low of $6 billion — the figure former FCC Chairman Martin gave Congress during a hearing in the spring of 2008 — to carrier estimates that top $40 billion.

There are a number of variables that would go into an estimate, one of which would be the amount of spectrum available for the network, Seybold said.

If the D Block is reallocated to public safety — a notion supported by most first-response organizations other than NENA — and can be combined with the spectrum held by the PSST, a 20 MHz network would be less expensive than a 10 MHz network because agencies wouldn't need to build as many sites, Seybold said. However, while a 10 MHz network would be more expensive, auctioning the D Block unencumbered to a commercial entity could generate a few billion dollars that could provide valuable seed money for the project, according to T-Mobile and other proponents of that model.

“My answer to Congress is, ‘Tell us what the [spectral] playing field is, then we'll tell you what it's going to cost,'” Seybold said.

Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC's public safety and homeland security bureau, said the commission is trying to gather data that would allow it to make an accurate cost estimate. Seybold said that could be challenging, because he's been unable to get anyone in the vendor community to provide the capacity of an LTE cell sector — a very fundamental component needed in any equation.

Even with that information, Seybold said cost estimates could vary widely based on other variables.

“The number depends on whether we're going to have the D Block, and whether AT&T and Verizon and Sprint and the other companies are going to let [public safety] use their backhaul, so we don't have to put any capex into the backhaul,” Seybold said, noting that an inventory of all public and private network infrastructure is needed. “If all those things happen, it's one number. But if all those things don't happen, it's a much bigger number.”

Next steps

No one knows when Congress might act, if at all, but FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told Congress that his agency would recommend a plan for the D Block by the time it releases its national broadband plan that is due in mid-February. In addition, reply comments on the 700 MHz waiver requests are due on Nov. 16, and Beltway sources indicate that the FCC would like to act on those waivers relatively soon.

“I really think we owe these people who have petitioned [for waivers] … an answer as soon as we can get it; they have real needs right now,” Barnett said, declining to speculate on whether the FCC would be able to respond before delivering its national broadband plan to Congress in mid-February.

In addition to making its case to the FCC, public safety needs to lobby on Capitol Hill in pursuit of funding that can make the envisioned network a reality, Seybold said.

“If we try to do things in a series, it will be another 10 years,” he said. “We're doing things in parallel — we're working on the funding, we're working on the Congress, we're working on the FCC, we're working with device manufacturers, we're working with network-infrastructure companies. We have to do it all in parallel. Otherwise, it's going to take forever.”

Fontes echoed this sentiment, expressing hope that lawmakers may be in a position to help.

“I hate to predict, but I think for the first time in a long time, policy-makers understand the need for annual recurring funding and the value of ensuring that our nation has [a broadband] public-safety system,” Fontes said. “In creating the ‘perfect storm' environment, the need for broadband and the need to fund broadband on a recurring basis with non-raidable funds is beginning to resonate.”

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