Public/private partnership is needed
On Feb. 8, I testified before a Senate committee as a representative of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and APCO, to support the passage of legislation that would establish a nationwide broadband network to meet the demanding — and growing — communications needs of U.S. fire, police and emergency services personnel.
In front of a standing room-only crowd, I was joined on the panel by Harlin McEwen of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and National Sheriffs Association; Morgan O’Brien, chairman of Cyren Call Communications, the private company working with public safety on this initiative; Steve Largent, president of CTIA; and two public-safety communications vendor representatives.
I appreciated the opportunity to share my views. We in public safety urged Congress to pass legislation that would allocate 30 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz band — currently scheduled for auction next year as part of the DTV transition — to public safety and pave the way for the public/private partnership proposed by Cyren Call to build a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders.
As the hearing made clear, most agree that the public-safety community deserves seamless and interoperable communications tools. But, how to achieve this goal is where we differ. Knowing the complexity of spectrum allocations and the impact of our opponents’ well-funded misinformation campaign, it’s not surprising that such confusion exists. As I see it, there are two areas that need to be made clear.
First, though Largent testified otherwise, public safety does not have sufficient contiguous spectrum to support a robust network capable of voice and data transmissions needed for streaming audio and video, push-to-talk capabilities and location-based services — all of which first responders desperately need. The 700 MHz spectrum would fill such a need because of its unique propagation characteristics, which enable signals to travel up to 30 miles and penetrate dense foliage and walls with minimal signal deterioration.
Equally critical is an economic engine that will make interoperability and state-of-the-art communications viable. For anyone who has reviewed the budgets of public-safety agencies or the current federal budget, it is indisputable that the public sector has never been able to pay for the construction and management of a national communications network. Therefore, a public/private partnership is essential. The Cyren Call plan would stimulate competition and innovation by presenting the opportunity for commercial entities to enter into mutually beneficial agreements with a public-safety broadband trust to lease secondary use of the spectrum. The commercial carriers would benefit by gaining access to more spectrum, while public safety benefits by having a network platform built to its specifications.
The congressional hearing was an important step, but there is a long path ahead. We need decision-makers to better understand the communications needs of first responders and to hear from public-safety officials in their home states that piecemeal solutions are not enough. We must take advantage of this landmark opportunity to gain access to spectrum. A public-private partnership is needed to make this happen and first responders need this to happen now.
Charles Werner is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department, Chair of the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee and a member of the SAFECOM executive committee.