A CTIA-sponsored report released yesterday acknowledged that a public-private partnership arrangement might be the most realistic avenue to build and maintain a nationwide, next-generation broadband network for public safety.

Co-authored by Dale Hatfield and Phil Weiser of the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons telecommunications program, the 37-page report reflects discussions conducted in April during an exclusive two-day conference featuring leaders of public safety and commercial entities—groups that often have disagreed publicly on the subject in the context of 700 MHz spectrum allocations.

“It was remarkable that the participants were able to reach a basic consensus on a number of key points in a debate where overheated rhetoric has sometimes obscured important common ground and concerns,” the report states, noting public safety’s need for a next-generation network and a new policy model.

Traditionally, public safety has relied on local entities building their own networks, but this approach has been a barrier to interoperability and prevented public safety from achieving the economies of scale necessary to reduce the cost of its equipment. In a next-generation-network paradigm, local agencies would not have to operate their own communications networks.

“To facilitate interoperability and achieve economies of scale, networks should be operated at higher levels, and local agencies should be empowered with the ability to use information and communications technology as needed without bearing the responsibility for running advanced networks,” the report states.

While this is the long-term goal, the report acknowledges public safety will continue to rely on its legacy systems for many years to come while the next-generation networks are proven to be reliable enough to handle all of public safety’s voice, data and video needs.

In terms of establishing a next-generation network, the report focuses on two models. The “government as contractor” model more closely resembles the existing method for building public-safety communications methods, so it is a “straightforward” approach. However, there are considerable questions whether Congress is willing to appropriate the $20 billion necessary to make this solution work.

In searching for a “second-best option,” the report discusses at length a “public safety spectrum licensee” model similar to those proposed by Cyren Call and Frontline Wireless in the 700 MHz band. While the potential of such public-private partnership is great, it is important that public safety’s interests are not overshadowed by a commercial operator’s desire to make money, the report states..

“In short, if commercial providers who gain access to spectrum with a requirement to serve public safety are able to skimp on key requirements without any real consequences, they will have considerable incentives to do so,” it says.

In an interview with MRT, Weiser said the key is to establish clear rules governing the partnership initially and to ensure that those agreements are enforceable—something the report suggests can be done through the use of liens and performance bonds.

Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville, Va., fire department and a participant in the roundtable discussion, said he was pleased that the report contained “realistic and reasonable” observations and recommendations. Given some of the lobbying tactics employed by CTIA and related entities in opposition to public safety’s call for a public-private partnership in the 700 MHz band, some public-safety officials initially were concerned that the roundtable discussion and report would be skewed toward commercial interests.

“It was better than I anticipated,” Werner said during an interview with MRT. “There was so much skepticism going into that meeting that public safety didn’t know if its representatives were going to go.”

Both Werner and Weiser expressed their beliefs that commercial operators would be interested in partnering with public safety to build a nationwide broadband network. Weiser said there are considerable challenges in developing an agreement that is mutually beneficial to both parties but emphasized that “I don’t think it’s insurmountable.”