New Sprint first-responder proposal a Band-Aid
Struggling Sprint Nextel has pitched its own economic stimulus plan to the Obama administration, and it has to do with public safety. The operator, which has seen its customers defect at an alarming rate over many quarters, says it wants $2 billion from the proposed $825 billion stimulus package to provide first responders with an emergency interoperable wireless communications network capable of responding to emergencies anywhere in the U.S. within four hours. The carrier would use fleets of trucks equipped with satellite backhaul and pre-programmed push-to-talk mobile devices, presumably iDEN devices, to make it all come together.
The proposed network, said Sprint in a recent letter to the Obama transition team, would provide interoperability with existing public-safety communications, cost a fraction of what it would cost to construct a 700 MHz nationwide public safety/commercial network and could be accomplished in a year. One major drawback: Mobile broadband won’t come with the package unless more money is granted; moreover, it’s not clear how Sprint would deploy that capability. The letter states that the company’s National Emergency Response Teams, or NERTs—which would respond to emergencies within four hours—have the ability to provide 4G capability for emergency communications deployments. Sprint, however, makes no mention as to what 4G technology is being leveraged. It no longer has direct control of its WiMAX assets, as it contributed those to Clearwire, and is now wholesaling WiMAX service back from Clearwire.
It’s interesting that Sprint is pitching this now, after not being able to find any buyers for its iDEN network in the fall. It was looking for a buyer to assume at least $5.4 billion in debt, but none emerged in this economic climate. Could a government grant help the ailing operator? I don’t believe what Sprint is pitching is the end-all ideal solution for public safety. The first-responder community needs instantaneous interoperable communications and a permanent fix. Does it really want to rely on a fleet of trucks to achieve temporary interoperable communications at an incident? Another problem: Sprint’s proposal does not offer a mobile broadband network that first responders need to do their jobs better every day, not just when a major event occurs.
One could argue that beggars can’t be choosers, especially in light of all of the failed initiatives so far—interoperability grants and the 700 MHz D-block auction to name just two. But public safety can’t stick a Band-Aid on the interoperability problem and expect it to go away. Rather, Sprint’s proposal sounds like a good interim solution until a permanent one is found—regardless of how painful and expensive it is.
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