After 800 MHz triumph, challenges loom
The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials played an important role in the negotiations that led to the rebanding of 800 MHz spectrum, which will begin this year. Recently, MRT chatted with APCO President Greg Ballentine about the FCC’s order and the rebanding process, as well as other technology issues APCO is watching closely.
MRT: What are the concerns of public-safety communications right now?
Ballentine: I don’t know if there has been a time in history when there have been so many issues affecting public-safety communications. Of course, one is the 800 MHz rebanding issue, which we have been talking about for several years. We still have to work out some details, but it’s exciting that we’re getting close to making some real progress.
MRT: APCO took a leading role in the negotiations from the beginning. Why was that important?
Ballentine: A lot of public-safety agencies don’t have the resources to represent themselves in this process. APCO sees that as its role. We are a member-driven association, and we have tried every step of the way to ensure that our members’ concerns were addressed in this process. In fact, we tried to anticipate the concerns they should have, even if they didn’t realize that themselves.
MRT: Was APCO pleased with the choice of the Transition Administrator, which will oversee and guide the rebanding process?
Ballentine: We think it was a good choice. APCO was one of five entities that had a seat on the Transition Administrator selection process, and we were the only public-safety entity at the table. The process went smoothly. It could have turned into a very political process. In fact, there were some companies I won’t name that reached out to APCO board members in an attempt to influence the decision, but the APCO board made a conscious decision very early on that we would stay out of the process from a specific-company standpoint.
MRT: How will public-safety agencies approach rebanding? For example, will large agencies tend to handle the rebanding themselves while smaller agencies outsource?
Ballentine: Across the country I think you are going to see a number of different approaches and strategies to the rebanding effort. Clearly, some agencies will be able to absorb the responsibilities in-house because they have the personnel and resources to do that. But some of the smaller agencies — and even some of the larger ones who aren’t comfortable doing it in-house — will look to outsource. Both models can work. We see it as our job to help those agencies make the decision that’s best for them.
MRT: Is there any advantage to one model over the other?
Ballentine: I don’t think we can answer that question globally. I think there are advantages to outsourcing if you don’t have the necessary internal resources or expertise. But there are some advantages to doing it in-house if you do have those resources and expertise. It really is a local decision based on the agency’s best interests.
MRT: What is you assessment of the FCC’s handling of the 800 MHz proceeding?
Ballentine: The commission has treated public-safety issues seriously and has — in numerous orders — come out with what we believe was the right decision. However, there is a concern that it takes a long time for the commission to act. While that might be appropriate in certain cases where there is a lot of information that has to be analyzed and researched, we sometimes get frustrated because it doesn’t seem it should take as long as it does. So we think there is room for improvement.
MRT: What else is on APCO’s radar screen beyond 800 MHz rebanding?
Ballentine: Technology is evolving so quickly — we have come light years in just the past four to five years in terms of the new technologies that have been introduced. That has caused APCO and public safety to be engaged in all of these new technologies as they come on the market to ensure that they are not adversely affecting us. Also, if I were asked whether the magic bullet has emerged in terms of new technologies to solve the interoperability problem, at this point, I would say no. A lot of people are putting their faith in some of these gateway devices, but we believe that interoperability is a lot more than technology.
MRT: What else is involved?
Ballentine: A major component is interagency cooperation. Sometimes that gets lost because you think interoperability is strictly a spectrum issue or a technology issue, and it isn’t. It requires planning and partnership. It’s also an exercise and training issue. This will continue to be hypercritical until the technology evolves.
MRT: Are there other areas of concern?
Ballentine: We’re involved with the FCC’s NRIC process at the moment, and one of the focus groups is analyzing whether wireless 911 accuracy will be tested at the national level, the state level, at the PSAP level or not at all. We have asked the FCC to make a quick decision on this because we don’t believe that the NRIC process will reach consensus. There are so many people at the table with different agendas — clearly the wireless service providers have a different mission than public-safety agencies. Both sides need to be able to have their positions heard, but to expect that we will be able to sit at the table and resolve this issue without FCC leadership and guidance is naive.
MRT: What is your assessment of APCO’s Project 25 initiative?
Ballentine: At a high level, initially and throughout the project, we expected that it would move quicker than it has. But when you drill down to why it hasn’t moved quicker, it’s because of the process, which is a valid process. Once we arrive at a standard, I think we’re going to be assured that the process resulted in an industry-specific and technology- and vendor-neutral standard that will benefit public safety. It has taken longer than we anticipated and all of us — including those leading the process — are disappointed by that, but we can’t compromise the quality of the standard for speed. Also, Project 25 is quite different today than when it started because we’re trying to be responsive to evolving technologies while still adhering to our principles. It’s been a moving goalpost.
Greg Ballentine is director of public-safety and emergency services for the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City, Mo. A 20-year public-safety communications veteran, Ballentine holds a seat on the U.S. Department of Transportation Public Safety Advisory Group and was recently appointed by Missouri Governor Bob Holden to the Governor’s Advisory Board for 911 Oversight.