Finally, something we can agree on
Yesterday, the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons telecommunications program released a CTIA-sponsored report entitled, Toward a Next Generation Network for Public Safety Communications, based on information gathered during an April roundtable on the subject, which also was sponsored by CTIA.
Public-safety leaders initially viewed CTIA’s sponsorship with uneasiness, almost from the moment the wireless carriers’ trade organization’s leader, Steve Largent, chose to announce the roundtable during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in February instead of consulting public safety first.
After seeing some of the questionable lobbying disinformation tactics used by wireless carriers regarding the 700 MHz debate and the fact that public safety would be outnumbered 3:1 at the exclusive roundtable, many public-safety officials were afraid their presence at the roundtable would be exploited to justify CTIA’s positions. Many privately said they were tempted to decline their invitations.
Thankfully, they didn’t. Like other members of the press, MRT did not get to attend the private session, but all accounts from participants indicated that the discussion was lively, frank and balanced — just what has been needed on this subject.
And, to the credit of co-authors Dale Hatfield and Phil Weiser, the report reflects such a debate. Noticeably absent from the report is the fingerpointing and nonsensical claims that public safety already has more spectrum than it needs — tactics that have been at the heart of wireless carriers’ political lobbying sound bites. And nowhere does the report claim that commercial wireless networks as they exist today are built to handle public safety’s needs.
Instead, the report takes a hard look at what it will take to establish a next-generation wireless network for public safety using commercial technologies. The report identifies two ways to achieve this: (1) Have the government contract with a carrier/vendor/system integrator for this purpose, or (2) pursue a public-private partnership along the line of the Cyren Call or Frontline Wireless proposals.
The report expresses its preference for the first option, which would leave public safety clearly in control of the network it uses. But the report also notes that getting the funding — estimated to be $20 billion by some — necessary to make such a contractual arrangement happen is a questionable proposition.
If Congress will not make such a funding commitment, the report states that having a national public-safety licensee work with commercial carriers in a public-private partnership may be the “second-best option.” Although not included in the report, perhaps the best news coming from the roundtable was that incumbent wireless carriers apparently expressed interest in participating in such a public-private partnership — a stark contrast to the opposition they have made publicly to such a notion.
While stopping short of detailing exactly how to structure such a partnership, the report makes several salient points about what should be included.
For instance, a national public-safety licensee needs to be governed by a board that is technically savvy, able to act without undue FCC review and represents the public interest, particularly that of public safety. And any public-private agreement has to ensure that the commercial partner upholds its commitment to public safety, perhaps via enforceable language that includes a performance bond or liens. Without such language, public safety could be put in jeopardy.
“To cover all geographic areas can also substantially increase costs because public-safety agencies require coverage in all areas, not merely in the ones that are otherwise economical for commercial providers,” the report states. “In short, if commercial providers who gain access to spectrum with a requirement to serve public safety are able to skimp on key requirements without any real consequences, they will have considerable incentives to do so.”
With this in mind, it seems paramount that these critical arrangements are established well before the 700 MHz auction, if Congress and the FCC decide to pursue a nationwide broadband network via the Frontline Wireless proposal.
If there is going to be a national public-safety licensee for at least some of the spectrum used for this purpose, that entity needs to be identified soon — and it needs to quickly let potential bidders know what public-safety users expect from the arrangement.
While Frontline Wireless’ contention public safety and a commercial partner should not be limited by too many upfront rules has some merit, waiting until after the auction to negotiate key points of a public-private agreement is too much of a crapshoot for both parties.
Public safety needs to know that its broadband needs will be met through a public-private arrangement before local entities halt their own plans to build their own networks on the spectrum. And commercial operators deserve to know their obligations to public safety before the auction — without that knowledge, the chances that an operator will improperly value the spectrum in its bidding are just too great.
In this case, overbidding for spectrum not only could result in financial failure for a commercial operator, it could leave public safety lacking communications tools it needs. With so much at stake, it’s important that Congress and the FCC establish appropriate rules for a public-private partnership before the auction, even if it means delaying the deposit of auction proceeds into the U.S. Treasury by a few months.
Given the surprising consensus reached at the Flatirons roundtable, there seems little question that a viable public-private partnership arrangement can be reached. Hopefully, the key parties will continue to leave the political rhetoric behind and build on this consensus to identify the key components of a deal that will work for everyone.
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