By leveraging 10 MHz of existing broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz and roaming agreements with commercial carriers, public safety will have the capacity and spectrum resources to fulfill its communications needs during even major incidents, FCC Chief Technologist Jon Peha said yesterday.

In findings that will be detailed in a white paper the FCC plans to release later this month, Peha said the agency researched three scenarios — a bridge collapse in Minneapolis, a hurricane in Houston and dirty-bomb attack in midtown Manhattan during the middle of the day — to determine whether LTE networks using only the 10 MHz of spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) would be able to handle public safety’s broadband needs for a variety of applications, including data, video and mapping.

“In each of these scenarios, we found that the capacity is sufficient,” Peha said, noting that the FCC plan calls for public safety to have priority access while roaming on commercial network when a large-scale disaster requires excess capacity.

Sponsored by the New America Foundation, the panel entitled “The Wireless Future of Public Safety” did not include any representatives of public-safety organizations, although two panelists — Robert LeGrande, a consultant and former CTO for Washington, D.C., and Steve Sharkey, Motorola senior director for regulatory and spectrum policy — expressed many of the opinions voice by public-safety officials on the subject.

Motorola’s research results about the amount of spectrum first responders will need differs considerably from the FCC’s study, Sharkey said. Not only will 10 MHz not be enough to address major incidents, it will not be enough to handle public safety’s day-to-day needs, he said.

“We’ve got some concerns about what the FCC proposal to auction the D Block,” Sharkey said, noting that Motorola believes Congress should reallocate the D Block to public safety. “Under the current plan, public safety won’t have sufficient capacity to meet their requirement. The plan, therefore, will effectively force public safety into working with just the D Block licensee … and that it will create too great a dependency on the carrier to meet [public safety’s] day-to-day requirements for capacity.”

Sharkey also reiterated Motorola’s position that a guard band would be needed between the PSST spectrum and the adjacent D Block frequencies, which would greatly devalue the spectrum for either public safety or the D Block licensee.

Ed Thomas, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Wiltshire and Grannis and a former chief engineer at the FCC, said he does not believe interference will be an issue between the D Block and public-safety networks, because both would use LTE.

Thomas expressed support for the FCC plan, noting the importance of leveraging commercial technologies and carrier assets to build a more robust network for first responders at a relatively affordable price of $6.5 billion. In addition, Thomas offered a plan of action for public-safety officials wanting more spectrum for broadband applications.

“The other secret is that they do, indeed, have 24 MHz at 700 MHz. Now half of that is, by FCC rules, dedicated to P25 narrowband transmission,” he said. “Frankly, if I were in public safety, the first thing I would be doing is petitioning the FCC to let me use the entire public-safety allocation for broadband or anything I want, so I’ve got it and haven’t even impinged on the D Block.”

Kathleen Ham, managing director for T-Mobile, echoed this sentiment, stating that public-safety officials should “expand their horizons” beyond the D Block debate.

“It just makes sense that voice is going to be a packet — whether you like it or not — in the future, and public safety needs to get with that program early on,” Ham said. “Plus, public safety has other spectrum holdings, … so there are lots of other opportunities — whether it’s in the 800 MHz band, the 400 MHz band or the 4.9 GHz band—for public safety to look to meet its needs.”

LeGrande said public-safety representatives understand that mission-critical voice eventually will be carried over broadband networks, but first responders are not in a position to stop using narrowband LMR systems in the near future. Even when that time comes, the D Block promises to be more beneficial to public safety in the long term, he said.

“You can pick any frequency in the public-safety holding, but none will be better for public safety’s future than the D Block — certainly not 4.9 GHz, certainly not 800,” LeGrande said. “None of that is better than that one piece of contiguous spectrum [the D Block plus the adjacent PSST spectrum]. We don’t need to debate that, because we know what’s best for public safety.”

While the FCC and commercial carriers like T-Mobile advocate that public safety should embrace the ideas of priority roaming to resolve any capacity issues, Sharkey suggested a new perspective should be considered.

“Maybe what we should do here is turn this from public safety being asked to accept the hope that these roaming agreements will be sufficient and instead allocate the spectrum to public safety and allow them to lease any excess capacity back to commercial users,” he said. “So it’s very much the same kind of approach, but it turns some of the control issues back to public safety and provides them a higher level of assurance that they’ll have that when they need it.”

Aside from the D Block debate, panelists largely agreed on most other key issues, including the need for funding to help build the network. Thomas said he is worried that the D Block debate could undermine the efforts to secure appropriations from Congress.

“My biggest fear is … that we’re sitting here with a plan that has funding attached to it — at least $6.5 billion that wasn’t there, if Congress approves it, and there’s also expenses of $1.3 billion per year — and the FCC is going to Congress to try to get this money,” Thomas said. “If we start with this intramural thing, it wouldn’t mean a darnn thing if you got this extra 10 MHz, if the funding doesn’t occur.”