Dowd is right, wrong on 700 MHz stance
Charles Dowd, the deputy chief of the New York City Police Department in charge of its communications networks, wants the FCC to abandon its plan for a nationwide wireless broadband network that would be shared by commercial operators and first responders. Instead, he wants the FCC, with Congress’s blessing, to give local government entities public safety’s 10 MHz of spectrum in the band and the 10 MHz of commercial D Block spectrum—currently set to be paired with the public safety airwaves to form the spectral backbone for the shared network—so NYC can build its own whiz-bang network. Dowd isn’t alone, as major cities across the country are lining up in support of this idea. Dowd and his compatriots couldn’t be more right in their thinking. And they couldn’t be more wrong.
I’ve always believed that simpler is better. Given that, I’ve always thought that the FCC’s plan for the buildout of the network is much too complicated. It’s likely that no national licensee will step forward to claim the commercial spectrum, which means that the buildout would be left to regional licensees that will have widely varying resources and aptitudes to lend to the project. Chaos would ensue if any of those licensees prove to be incapable. Even if a national licensee emerged, the performance and preemptive-access requirements that would be placed upon the commercial operator(s) in this shared-network arrangement are equally vexing and, perhaps, deal-breakers.
So, Dowd is correct in the notion that it would be simpler and better for public-safety agencies to build out their own advanced broadband networks, and gaining full access to the 20 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum that became available as a result of the digital television transition would make that more realistic. I have written several times since Cyren Call’s Morgan O’Brien first floated the idea of a shared network nearly three years ago that not only should public safety build the network to its needs, Congress should fund the estimated $20 billion project and forget about the unprecedented public/private model. This is the U.S.—the money can be found. It’s all a matter of priority, and Congress should be looking at the proposed nationwide first responder broadband communications network as it once did the interstate highway system, which not only sparked a transportation boom and changed how people and goods move about the country, but it benefited both urban and rural areas.
But that’s not going to happen, especially not in this economic climate. And that’s where Dowd’s notion unravels. Sure, New York and other major cities might have the wherewithal to build their own networks, but what about the rest of the country? What would ensue is the same “haves versus have-nots” dichotomy between agencies in the densely populated regions of the country—i.e., major metropolitan areas—and those in the sparsely populated—i.e., rural areas–that has plagued first-responder communications for decades.
To his credit, Dowd has acknowledged the challenge that the rural piece of the puzzle presents, noting that he doesn’t have a solution at the moment but would like to find a consensus answer within the public-safety community. Nevertheless, he and many of his peers appear more than willing to move forward with their own self-serving plan that likely would preclude thousands of smaller agencies from participating in the broadband future. It’s exactly the type of “me-first” parochial thinking that the public-safety sector as a whole needs to abandon if it’s going to bring its communications infrastructure into the 21st century.
Instead of lobbying to serve their own interests, I’d like to see officials from the major cities lean on Congress to fund a public-safety buildout of this vital network, even if it would cost twice as much as current estimates. Sooner or later—perhaps in as little as three years—the U.S. will pull its troops out of Iraq, which would free up the $12 billion per month taxpayers currently are spending on the war effort. Apply the savings to the network buildout, and the project would be funded inside of four months.
Of course, nothing in Washington is ever that simple. But there’s really no reason that it couldn’t be, at least in this case. As in most things in life, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
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