It’s time to question the status quo
A filing recently submitted to the FCC suggests an entirely new way of looking at 700 MHz spectrum and holds the promise of provoking a new — and much needed — national debate regarding the future of first-responder communications, particularly as it relates to broadband.
Historically, public-safety communications have been plagued by insufficient spectrum, high costs of infrastructure and equipment, lack of interoperability and inadequate funding. Combine those difficulties with the new demands and needs placed upon systems by those who use them, and the present paradigm doesn’t do much to overcome those difficulties.
Almost every post-disaster report has elicited calls from the public to improve first-responder communications, be it from the perspective of operability, interoperability or the need for a national communications plan. Typically, the short-term answer to these calls has been to throw spectrum (very limited) and/or money at the problem, but without a national strategy that enables a long-term solution.
The most recent release of SAFECOM’s statement of requirements references public safety’s need for wireless broadband applications. Clearly, video streaming, mapping and GIS and GPS location — large data files all — will be needed to overcome potential terrorist threats and to respond to the catastrophic disasters of tomorrow. Broadband is essential to public safety’s ability to perform well when faced with such circumstances.
The aforementioned 700 MHz filing not only proposes a long-term vision but also demands that we open our minds to reconsider broadband. This novel proposal suggests a significant change in the thought process, from one of channelization, or specific bound frequencies, to one of diversity that achieves spectrum efficiency through applications that can expand or contract across a broader range. In simpler terms, a potential synergy occurs when commercial and public-safety spectrum is combined. (It should be noted that this proposal does not necessarily affect the 24 MHz in the 700 MHz band allocated to public safety once broadcasters vacate these airwaves.)
This proposal also offers the economy of scale that has been the missing ingredient in creating an affordable formula that lets communications systems evolve so they can provide public safety with services comparable to those available on the commercial market. If the 700 MHz spectrum can be allocated in such a way that commercial and public-safety airwaves are close enough (but safe from interference), then the development of a new generation of equipment for first responder communications may become a reality.
This proposal is more than just a concept. As one of the nation’s first 700 MHz pilot projects, the District of Columbia’s Wireless Accelerated Responder Network shows much promise and demonstrates how voice and data can be combined to provide real-time video, voice and other information between agencies. One example of how this can work occurred when the U.S. Park Police sent a live video feed from a helicopter to a command post during the last presidential inauguration.
One present barrier to the 700 MHz proposal is the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which requires that the 700 MHz spectrum be auctioned by January 2008. Hopefully, Congress will reconsider this mandate, as the 700 MHz proposal offers the rare opportunity to compare the effectiveness of maintaining the status quo (a commercial auction) versus the opportunity to permanently address the communications needs and requirements of public safety.
For the sake of public safety, the proposal deserves a fair hearing, and public-safety stakeholders should have a seat at the table. A future without broadband in public-safety communications is bleak. Given all of the new technology available today that is not yet in the hands of first responders — as well as the unique opportunity that this limited swath of 700 MHz spectrum presents — isn’t there sound reason to fully question the status quo?
Charles Werner is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department and a member of the SAFECOM Advisory committee.