Tuesday’s speech by FCC public-safety bureau chief Jamie Barnett at the APCO Winter Summit regarding a nationwide broadband network was perceived by many in the first-responder community as a classic good news/bad news event.

The good news: Barnett said the broadband plan the FCC has to submit to Congress by March 17 will identify a nationwide public-safety broadband network as a priority and will include a plan to make it happen. The bad news: Barnett described a network configuration that differs significantly from what many in public safety have envisioned, particularly his statement that he does not expect the FCC to recommend that Congress reallocate the D Block for first-responder usage instead of auctioning the spectrum to commercial operators.

Of course, the mere fact that Barnett said anything of substance was notable. In the past, FCC bureau chiefs and staffers have appeared at conferences/trade shows and fielded questions about ongoing proceedings, but their responses typically were so vague and guarded that they offered little insight into the agency’s thinking. Even the biggest FCC critics in the public-safety community have applauded Barnett and the rest of agency for its refreshing openness in this and other proceedings.

Barnett’s message that first responders need an interoperable broadband network that is nationwide and public-safety grade was welcomed by all in attendance. Also, the notion that deployment could be done much quicker and more cost-effectively if done in conjunction with as commercial wireless carriers’ 700 MHz LTE networks was well-received, although a lot of technical and logistical questions need to be addressed.

The concept that public-safety users would be able to roam nationwide onto commercial carriers’ 700 MHz network with priority — and carriers would be able to lease public-safety spectrum now licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) when it is not being used — was perceived by many as a mixed bag.

One advantage to the approach is that including PSST spectrum in commercial devices would result in massive economies of scale, which should lead to less expensive equipment. It also would mean that first responders would not need separate cellular and public-safety communications devices.

Of course, having PSST spectrum in commercial devices means some commercial users could try to hack into the public-safety network, but most believe that such threats can be addressed. A bigger question involves the usefulness of such a roaming arrangement — after all, public safety would need to roam most when responding to a major incident, which is exactly when the commercial carriers need their network capacity, as well. However, the ability for most carriers to shift commercial users’ traffic to other bands such as 1.9 GHz offers hope that a roaming arrangement could prove valuable to public safety.

Clearly, Barnett’s statement that the FCC’s broadband plan likely won’t include a recommendation to reallocate the D Block to public safety was unpopular among first responders. It should be noted that Barnett did not indicate that the FCC opposed such a reallocation — he even referred to it as “Plan A” for public safety — but he said the FCC has to formulate a plan that does not involve the D Block, because current law requires the agency to auction it.

Some noted that leaving public safety with just the 10 MHz of PSST broadband spectrum would increase the cost of the network, because more sites would be needed to provide the desired data throughputs and coverage. Others said that 10 MHz soon may not be enough to run all the data applications public safety needs in urban areas, much less the applications of other governmental/utility/critical infrastructures entities many believe should be included for operational-efficiency and financial reasons.

Barnett said that the FCC is looking for additional spectrum elsewhere, and that public safety likely would receive more airwaves in such new bands. While public-safety officials said they always would welcome new spectrum, the fact that the D Block is so close to public safety’s existing narrowband spectrum at 700 MHz and 800 MHz — spectrum that could be transitioned for broadband use in future decades — makes the D Block airwaves especially valuable.

“It’s not that public safety just needs an additional 10 MHz of spectrum; it’s that it needs this spectrum,” said Robert LeGrande, a consultant who built a wireless broadband network dedicated for public safety while serving as the chief technology officer for the District of Columbia.

With this in mind, public-safety representatives have vowed to push members of Congress even harder to introduce legislation to reallocate the D Block to public safety. It’s a worthy notion, but the first-responder community should realize that it’s facing a steep uphill battle as lawmakers focus their attention on issues such as job creation, health care and November elections.

“Public-safety interoperability is not going to get a congressman or senator re-elected, so there is no motivation for them to do anything,” mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said. “The two things they react to are votes and money — and public safety has neither.”

Getting a D Block bill passed will be even more difficult without a recommendation from the FCC in the national broadband plan. After all, why should federal lawmakers spend a lot of time and effort on D Block legislation that is not endorsed by the FCC, which is the federal government’s expert agency on public-safety spectrum?

Barnett said the FCC will include recommendations in the national broadband plan regarding possible ways to fund a nationwide broadband network, which is great and should be helpful to Congress (and will be the topic of future columns). But the bottom line is that the FCC has no funding power.

However, the FCC is the national expert agency overseeing spectrum policy. Given that, a recommendation from the FCC regarding the best use of the D Block for the nation’s future not only would seem appropriate but the kind of help Congress needs from the agency as it wrestles with this issue.

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