Feds see that interoperable communications is easier said than done
A Department of Justice audit released this week that reveals the much-ballyhooed Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) may never happen underscores a couple of the difficult issues facing the development of broadband communications for governmental entities.
First, interoperability is hard. In our nation's capital, it has become chic for federal officials to criticize local and state public-safety entities for investing in private communications networks that do not enable interoperability with typically 5 to 10 neighboring jurisdictions when large-scale incidents occur.
But given an opportunity to pursue interoperability between just three agencies within the same government — the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Treasury — the agencies' relationship has "fractured," according to the audit. And this comes after spending six years and almost $200 million planning the project, a luxury many local and state agencies don't have.
This is not about technology, as either of the finalists would provide a solution that meets the stated needs of the IWN program. It's about agencies that are accustomed to working independently having to develop a common vision to share a vital asset.
Second, securing funding for government-owned communications systems is tough. For years, the industry has watched the IWN project closely, as is common when a network buildout is projected to cost $5 billion to $30 billion, depending on whose estimates are believed. But Congress has never indicated it would approve this kind of funding commitment, which helped undermine the effort.
State and local entities can empathize, as they also must get support from elected leaders before deploying networks. In addition, most local agencies also have to pass bond issues — approved by all voters, not just elected leaders — to pursue a major communications project. If federal agencies had to clear this hurdle for such projects, they might never get done.
Certainly something needs to get done, as the report notes that the DOJ system is "antiquated," with most sites in the network using equipment that is no longer supported by the manufacturer. Too much money is being wasted trying to keep this outdated system online until a new one can be built, and the realities of government procurement cycles make this a difficult situation for entities at all levels.
There has to be a better way, and the public-private proposals surrounding 700 MHz spectrum provide an intriguing starting point for such an alternative. Whether serving federal, state or local first responders, the fundamental need is for a nationwide, robust mobile broadband network that provides secure access to critical applications while ensuring operability through appropriate redundancy and hardening of the system.
There's no question that building and maintaining such a network will be expensive, so one of the keys is to only do it once. The idea of spending $10 billion to 30 billion on IWN to serve 80,000 federal users does not make economic sense, especially with the federal government also prepared to spend billions more on a wireless broadband network for its Secure Border Initiative and public safety seeking a way to fund a $20 billion network for itself.
These proposed networks share several characteristics. All need to provide mission-critical communications, all need unprecedented power backup and redundancy, all require coverage in areas that are unprofitable to commercial carriers, and all need fat pipes to backhaul IP traffic.
With these criteria provided, the rest of the solution is relatively straightforward. Serving multiple frequency bands, if needed, is possible using existing technologies and may be significantly easier with SDR and frequency-agile technologies becoming realistic in the short term (see the current issue of MRT to see how cryocooled chips from HYPRES can directly digitize all signals in a wide bandwidth, enabling a new business model for tower owners).
Whether establishing a public-private partnership is the best way to build and maintain this network is certainly worthy of debate, but building such a network also should help improve wireless and broadband coverage in less-populated locations, if planned properly.
As government establishes the key infrastructure — towers, power link, backhaul and conduits — to expand its network to these areas, it will make it much easier for carriers to make a business case for deploying base stations and laying fiber in these currently underserved areas.
Last year, Congress passed a law dictating that 60 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum be auctioned early next year. But, with the possibility of coupling some of that spectrum to build a network that can help resolve a host of high-profile problems — interoperability, broadband for first responders and closing the "digital divide" — Congress should take the time necessary to evaluate some of these alternatives, the ramifications of which cannot be explored or explained fully in lobbyists' sound bites that will dominate the next few months before auction rules have to be released.
That current auction schedule was based on the notion that 700 MHz auction revenues would help reduce the federal deficit (albeit the money is a drop in the bucket compared to the scope of that overall problem). But generating $10 billion to $15 billion in an auction only to spend $40 billion to $100 billion on multiple broadband networks that promise a host of inefficiencies doesn't make sense, if there is a chance that the same functionality can be provided via a single $20 billion network.
How can this be accomplished? There's no reason to change the current DTV transition date of Feb. 17, 2009, and there's no reason to change the current auction timetable. However, instead of auctioning the entire 60 MHz, Congress should consider auctioning 30 MHz immediately and taking additional time — perhaps a year — to determine whether the rest of the 700 MHz band can be better utilized as part of a nationwide broadband network.
Not only would such a strategy let Congress pursue innovative solutions to some sticky public-interest issues, the U.S. Treasury would see more revenue from the 30 MHz in the lower band than if it were part of a larger auction — the laws of supply and demand dictate higher bids, especially when winning the spectrum would let an operators deploy their networks earlier than those hoping to access the other 30 MHz.
Meanwhile, the FCC and Congress can look at all the alternatives, including the configuration of the 24 MHz already earmarked for public safety. Then, if Congress eventually determines it doesn't believe the other 30 MHz — or only a portion of the other 30 MHz — is needed for a nationwide network, it can conduct another auction the following year.
This seems like a more prudent path to pursue rather than trying to pay for multiple broadband networks to serve various federal, state and local agencies while wondering if a golden opportunity was missed because of a perceived need to conduct an auction according to the current schedule.
E-mail me at email@example.com.