It’s time to face reality on 700 MHz
A couple of years ago, I needed to buy a car. Having been burned on a used car once, I decided to stay true to my vow to always buy new. I also decided that this car was going to have a soft top — I had a convertible once before and liked it.
Immediately a couple of challenges arose. First, new convertibles were out of the price range I had set for the purchase. (I am very thrifty; some would say I’m cheap). Second, convertibles typically are rear-wheel-drive vehicles, which make them lousy in the snow — something to which I had to give considerable heed, because I live in Chicago.
Ultimately, I bought a Jeep. It requires a lot more time and effort to bring down the top compared with the average convertible, but it is fantastic in the snow. All things considered, it was the only workable solution.
Events of this week brought me back to that decision. Comments from interested parties regarding the building of a nationwide broadband network in the 700 MHz band for first responders by a public/private partnership continue to roll in to the FCC (see story below). And with each filing the evidence mounts that such a notion is unworkable, and that Congress, the FCC and the first-responder community should start focusing on options that are workable.
The proposal offered by Cyren Call isn’t going to fly because there’s no way Congress will cede 30 MHz of prime spectrum to the project, not when the politically influential wireless carriers are lusting for them. (Even if Congress were to show unusual fortitude in the matter, it probably is too late to enact enabling legislation.)
I also doubt seriously that Congress is going to go along with Frontline Wireless’ plan, which calls for the spectrum to be auctioned, but also places limitations on who can bid, effectively freezing out commercial carriers — which not coincidentally have the deepest pockets and lust for the airwaves scheduled to be vacated by broadcasters in 2009, which they plan to use for 4G voice and data services. Does anyone really think Congress would agree to keep the entities most capable of driving up the bidding from participating in the auction?
Just as troubling is Frontline’s suggestion that the FCC mediate disputes between the auction winner and a national public-safety licensee regarding network parameters and service requirements. Given the FCC’s inability to effectively manage the 800 MHz rebanding fiasco, why would anyone in his or her right mind suggest letting the commission handle this? As Albert Einstein reportedly once said, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.
There might be another way to create a nationwide broadband data network using the 12 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum already allocated to public safety. In the June print edition of MRT (which you also can access online at www.mrtmag.com), contributing writer Doug Mohney reports on a network-of-networks concept being pursued by first responders in the National Capital Region (NCR) — which covers the District of Columbia and several counties in Maryland and Virginia — and in California and Arizona.
I’ll let you get the full details from the article, but the short version is this: The NCR has deployed a regional wireless broadband network (RWBN) — the nation’s first broadband network in the 700 MHz band — using 1xEV-DO Rev. A technology, which offers downstream data rates of 3.1 MB/s and upstream rates of up to 1.8 Mb/s. The key to the network-of-networks concept is the RWBN’s procurement contract, which allows agencies in other parts of the country to purchase equipment and services; already the city of San Diego, the Silicon Valley region and the city of Phoenix are preparing to leverage the contract to build compatible 700 MHz broadband data networks. Once they do, the idea is to interconnect the networks virtually using IP technology.
On the surface, the idea seems to make sense. Beneath the layers, however, challenges loom, primarily from a funding perspective. (I know — big surprise.) According to our sources, the NCR received a considerable amount of federal grant money to pay for its network. Other jurisdictions won’t be as fortunate. So, there will be sizable coverage gaps in a network-of-networks approach, as not every public-safety agency will have the wherewithal to pull together a broadband wireless data network supported solely by local taxpayers. This compares unfavorably with the Cyren Call and Frontline proposals, both of which describe a terrestrial network that ultimately would cover 98% of the nation’s population.
Also, it’s not like a network-of-networks approach would cost a lot less than the $20 billion suggested by Cyren Call’s Morgan O’Brien for a truly nationwide network built via a public/private partnership. Last year, at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials annual conference in Orlando, Robert LaGrande, deputy chief technical officer for the District of Columbia, estimated it would cost about $12 billion to deploy networks in 200 jurisdictions, in a grassroots effort to spread broadband to first responders across the land. That’s still a big number. Again, where will these local agencies find the money?
The network-of-networks approach is starting to look a little like my Jeep — not the ideal situation, by far, but the one that’s most workable. Yes there will be coverage gaps, but it’s reasonable to think that there would be enough federal funds available to ensure compatible networks are built to serve the nation’s largest cities — which are the ones most likely to be terrorist targets. Wouldn’t that be better than nothing at all, which likely will be the end result of the Cyren Call/Frontline debate?
I know that the first responder community will find the “something is better than nothing,” notion distasteful. I understand. I find it distasteful too. I think first responders should have much better communications equipment, and think it insane that teenagers are walking around with more sophisticated devices. In fact, if I were in charge, I would reinstate the local telephone excise tax to fund a nationwide broadband network built and controlled by public safety. In previous columns I have pointed out that the $20 billion cost spread across the nation’s 200 million mobile phone subscribers over 10 years would come to 83 cents per subscriber per month. But let’s be realistic here: there isn’t a federal lawmaker alive who will crawl out onto that limb with the 2008 elections looming.
Sometimes, the best place to look for success is where you can find it. My suggestion is that Congress and the FCC start with their own back yard.
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