After more than a year of stagnation in the aftermath of the failed D Block auction early in 2008, prospects for a 700 MHz broadband network for first-responder agencies improved greatly in May and June with growing public-safety consensus on key issues such as technology, some form of regional licensing and allocation of the D Block.

Such agreements represent a stark contrast from early spring, when major metropolitan areas and the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — the nationwide licensee for public safety's 700 MHz broadband spectrum — appeared to be divided, with the metropolitan representatives wanting to pursue deployments of their own networks.

But the internal conflict within public safety began to subside with a meeting of an ad-hoc group of eight public-safety organizations on April 20, when the organizations determined that they shared many common interests on the 700 MHz front.

The group met again in late May, releasing a statement that it wants Congress to reallocate the commercial D Block spectrum in the 700 MHz band to public safety. Two weeks later, three key public-safety organizations — the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) — endorsed LTE as the preferred technology for a first-responder broadband network.

Presenting such a unified front on key issues greatly enhances the chance of Congress and the FCC taking actions that will benefit the first-responder community, said mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold.

"We have a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "We finally have a first-responder industry that has finally woken up and come together."

While achieving consensus on the D Block was notable, the widespread endorsement of LTE is especially significant, Seybold said. A major element of public safety's 700 MHz broadband vision is to outfit first responders with devices that are more affordable, and choosing LTE at this juncture means chip-makers like Qualcomm can include the public-safety band in chips and software, he said.

Indeed, a united public-safety front on the issue was enough to get Stacey Black, vice president of strategic programs/marketing in AT&T Mobility's government solutions group, to ask his company to consider including the public-safety band in future devices.

"The announcement that public safety had gained consensus about what to do with the D Block was the first thing that we heard that helped our company get its mind on this because, up until that point, public safety was divided, and we weren't going anywhere as long as that happened," Black said during the discussion prior to the NPSTC vote. "Then, the second thing that happened was the APCO-NENA announcement, which I used to put things into motion."

Furthermore, because LTE is the technology choice of commercial wireless behemoths Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility — the two carriers that own most of the commercial 700 MHz spectrum — there should be plenty of economies of scale for 700 MHz LTE equipment, Seybold said. If the FCC backs the LTE choice, myriad options become available to first-responder agencies, he said.

"In a major event like 9/11, where every frequency gets jammed, look at how many choices you have," Seybold said. "You have 20 MHz of PSST spectrum [if the D Block is granted to the PSST], you have 22 MHz of Verizon spectrum and you have 24 MHz of AT&T spectrum, plus you have Comcast and whoever else is there. So you have lots of spectrum to put units on and, because it's IP, it doesn't matter."

Consensus on LTE also should help metropolitan areas deploy 700 MHz networks early, if the FCC allows it. Several metropolitan areas, including New York City, have sought FCC waivers allowing them to build broadband networks on the PSST's spectrum (see news story on page 7). The PSST long has supported the notion of such early buildouts, if the networks were built to comply with the standards for a nationwide network.

Of course, no such standards existed. In fact, the standard will not become official until the FCC approves it, but widespread public-safety support for LTE should make it more likely that LTE will become the national standard, making it easier for local entities to build networks using LTE.

"Some folks will probably see [early buildouts] as going off on a tangent, but it's really not," said Chris Moore, chairman of the spectrum working group for the Major Cities Chiefs Association. "It's trying to get some early buildouts so we can see how this thing is going to work."

Seybold said he believes there will be a shift in the model used for realizing a broadband network for public safety. Instead of trying a single approach throughout the United States, he believes there will be different methods used, based on demographics.

"I think we're looking at a single-purpose network [for public safety] in the metropolitan areas," Seybold said. "In the rural areas, there is plenty of bandwidth here to turn this into a multifaceted broadband network that is supported by a number of different organizations.

"You don't fund it as a public-safety network in rural America, you fund it as a broadband network in rural America, giving top priority to first responders. That means the first-responder community doesn't have to have the burden of the entire cost of the network."

To make this vision a reality, several things need to occur. Congress must decide whether to auction the D Block to commercial operators or allocate the spectrum to public safety, as well as determine whether the PSST should receive any funding help from the federal government, Seybold said.

The FCC also needs to approve national standards and pass rules that make early LTE buildouts by metropolitan areas practical from legal, political and financial standpoints. For instance, the FCC likely will have to establish a procedure that allows local and regional entities to sub-license spectrum from the PSST.

"I think what we need to approve is a nationwide system of regional networks, and the regional network is owned and operated by whoever puts it in," Seybold said. "And, when you get out into rural America, maybe that network is owned and operated by Verizon or AT&T and connects back [to the public-safety network]."

Other aspects are falling into place, as well. The FCC could be reconstituted this month, and expected FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said during his confirmation hearing that public-safety broadband is one of his priorities. And the PSST has secured a short-term funding source in the form of a $500,000 grant from the APCO Public Safety Foundation of America, temporarily resolving a long-standing problem for the nationwide licensee, PSST Chairman Harlin McEwen said.

Despite the recent momentum towards public-safety consensus, the efforts still could be derailed. For instance, NENA is floating a proposal that calls for the PSST's spectrum to be auctioned with the D Block to a commercial carrier, which is the polar opposite of what the ad hoc group recommended.

Also, none of the metropolitan-area public-safety organizations have any representation on the PSST — a governance model that may have to change before cities and regions are comfortable spending money deploying broadband networks.

And, there is some question whether metropolitan entities paying for early buildouts would be willing to pay the PSST — and how much — for the right to use the 700 MHz spectrum. Meanwhile, the PSST also has the long-standing issue of trying to retire its $6 million debt to Cyren Call, its former advisor.

While these matters certainly need to be addressed and could be the source of disagreement, it is critical for public safety to maintain its focus on presenting a united front to Congress and the FCC as these details get resolved, Seybold said.

"The important thing is to not let the consistency that we're seeing not evaporate in petty politics."

TURNING A CORNER SIGNIFICANT 700 MHZ EVENTS

April 20: Ad-hoc committee of 8 public-safety groups meets in Washington, D.C.

May 28: Ad-hoc committee decides to ask Congress to reallocate the D Block to public safety.

June 9: APCO and NENA endorse LTE as their broadband technology choice.

June 10: NPSTC endorses LTE as its broadband technology choice, pending appeal by July 1.

June 16: Julius Genachowski, nominee to be FCC chairman, tells Senate committee that public-safety broadband is a priority.

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