The International Wireless Communications Expo, or IWCE, has a long history of outstanding keynote speakers, and this year's conference and trade show, which will be held March 16-20 in Las Vegas, is no exception. I spoke with this year's keynote speaker — Steve Zipperstein, vice president of legal affairs and general counsel for Verizon Wireless — to get his thoughts on the relationship between commercial operators and the public-safety-communications sector.

I understand that you have a unique background that makes you ideally suited to be this year's keynote speaker.

I served for 10 years in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, which covers an area populated by 18 million people. It's almost all of Southern California, except for the border area stretching from San Diego through the Imperial Valley. I also worked for a year and a half in Washington, D.C., for the criminal division of the Justice Department and eventually worked for [then-Attorney General] Janet Reno. So I have a lot of experience dealing with the same issues that our country faces today in the public-safety area.

How have those experiences shaped your perspectives regarding how wireless networks, particularly those of a commercial carrier, relate to public-safety communications and the challenges you just hinted at?

We encountered numerous situations where it was vitally important for the land-mobile-radio systems used by local, state and federal law enforcement officers to work in a flawless way and in an interoperable way. One example is the effort to secure the border between California and Mexico. It was always a challenge, partly because radio communications in the hilly terrain on the California side of the border were very difficult. I saw first-hand how critical it is for our first responders to have the benefit of a world-class radio network.

Mission-critical voice traditionally has been the focus in public safety, but now some believe mission-critical data has become as important — and some believe more important. What are your thoughts concerning the development of a robust broadband data infrastructure for first responders?

It's vitally important in a post-9/11 world that we provide first responders with the communications tools — including state-of-the-art voice and state-of-the-art advanced data services — so that they can not only just talk to each other during critical incidents but provide other key information to each other, such as streaming video, e-mail and text messages and diagrams of buildings where terrorists might be holding hostages. In some respects, I'm talking about the things Jack Bauer [of the TV drama 24] has available to him on his PDA. With 4G technology, these kinds of futuristic applications can become reality for our front-line first responders. We've been partners with public safety for a long time — GPS location is just one example — and with the advent of 4G, the commercial wireless sector is in a position to expand that relationship.

Speaking of 4G, Verizon opted for long-term evolution (LTE) over WiMAX. Why?

How I'd like to answer that question is to say that the important thing to recognize is that both are 4G technologies, and both offer very high-speed data services to first responders. But at the end of the day, [what's] most important is that first responders are able to control their own destinies by selecting the technologies that are best for them. In some jurisdictions, first responders might find LTE more advantageous, and in others, WiMAX — or some other technology or standard that hasn't been invented yet.

I'm very excited about the future, because with both LTE and WiMAX out there as alternative choices offering advanced data services for first responders, public-safety agencies will be in a great position to drive their own fate and determine their own choices, and to select those products, services and network technologies that work best for their particular needs.

How do you see a commercial operator fitting into the public/private partnership model for the proposed 700 MHz nationwide broadband network for public safety?

Public safety already has 10 MHz of broadband spectrum in the band. Many of us have been advocating that the [10 MHz] of commercial D Block spectrum should be re-allocated to public safety. So public safety has spectrum and hopefully will be getting more spectrum, because it needs it. But what public safety doesn't have is the network on which to use that spectrum. There are four national operators — Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel — and a whole host of regional operators. So the basis on which a partnership relationship is to occur is to marry public safety's spectrum with the already built commercial wireless networks, so that we can make our networks available for them to use exclusively on their spectrum.

What are the advantages to this approach?

First, it will save an enormous amount of money. Constructing a brand-new network for public safety from the ground up has been estimated by some commentators to cost upwards of $60 billion. Why build a brand-new network when there are four national networks already in the ground and a host of regional networks? The second advantage to this approach is that it saves time. Building a brand-new network will be a multiyear endeavor. Why spend all that time to build something that already is in existence? Of course, public safety would like certain enhancements made to the commercial networks — such as backup power at all sites — but I am certain that the commercial sector, if given the opportunity, would rise to the occasion.

The FCC last year proposed relaxing the requirements to which successful bidders for the commercial spectrum — the so-called D Block — would need to adhere. Did that proposal go far enough?

No matter how much the rules are watered down — and watering them down does not help public safety, by the way — it's very, very unlikely that a private-sector investor would view the D Block as an investment that would create a return on the investment capital over a short, medium or even a long term. Our view is that concept was tried, it didn't work, and watering it down isn't going to help public safety. That's why many are advocating that rather than trying to force an unnatural partnership by auctioning the D Block, instead the D Block should be given to public safety. Then, public safety should select through an RFP process the commercial partner or partners that can best serve them in a particular jurisdiction. What might work best for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department might not be what's best for the NYPD.

But won't that create a “haves versus have-nots” scenario that would leave smaller, less-funded agencies out in the cold?

The lack of funding needs to be taken into consideration. Just as we do when we build a new defense system or procure a new aircraft carrier, we need to recognize that creating a nationwide, interoperable high-speed public-safety communications network is tantamount to a national-security imperative. It should be viewed on the same level of importance to this country as is the procurement of a new weapons system. Therefore, it should be funded by the taxpayers, but the money should be given directly to public safety, not to the industry, so that public safety, through an RFP process — or whatever works for them — can select the partner or partners that best meet their needs.

So this becomes a massive public-works project on the level of the interstate highway system?

Except that most of the highway system is already built. In fact, we already have four [national] systems and a host of regional systems, so there wouldn't be the same ground-up investment and the same time-lag to completion. That's the beauty of the public/private partnership that is evolving as I have described it here.

But wouldn't a network cobbled together from myriad commercial operators be unwieldy compared with the original concept for this network, which was for public safety to work with a single operator?

Ten years ago, that would have been a very, very valid point and a very fair point. But technology has advanced to the point today where there are air interfaces, voice-over-Internet-protocol solutions and other software solutions available today that enable agencies in different places to talk to each other, even if their systems are served over different networks or by different providers — even if they're using different standards. I think that technology has advanced to the point where we can solve this problem today if we have the will to do it — and if we're willing to break the mold and not force a 20th-century solution onto a 21st-century problem.

IWCE 2009 AT A GLANCE

What: International Wireless Communications Expo

Where: Las Vegas Convention Center

College of Technology: March 16-17

Exhibits and Conference: March 18-20

Keynote Address: March 18, 8:30-10 a.m., Steve Zipperstein, vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, Verizon Wireless

Lunchtime Address: March 18, 12:30-1:15 p.m., Chris Hackett, vice president of business and government solutions, Sprint Nextel

Conference Tracks: Mobile voice and data communications; infrastructure, networks and systems; interoperability; regulatory and legislative update; and emerging technologies

General Workshop: March 18, 1:30-5 p.m., TETRA in the U.S.

Dealers Workshop: March 18, 12:30-2:30 p.m., New technologies for dealers

Networking Reception: March 18, 6-8 p.m., Las Vegas Hilton

General Session: March 19, 8:30-10 a.m., Point-counterpoint: IP for mission-critical communications — what works and what doesn't?

General Session: 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., IEEE's Wireless Communications Engineering Technologies (WCET) certification program

Exhibitors List: www.iwceexpo.com