A message that Washington needs to hear, and heed
LAS VEGAS — Remember the old television commercials for the financial advice firm EF Hutton, which had as a tag line, “When EF Hutton talks, everyone listens”? A contemporary twist on that tag line would be, “When the nation’s largest wireless operator outlines a plan for the proposed nationwide broadband communications network for first responders, everyone in Washington should pay attention.”
Yesterday at the International Wireless Communications Exposition (IWCE), keynote speaker Steve Zipperstein, Verizon Wireless‘ vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, outlined a plan for the network that would give the 10 MHz of airwaves in the 700 MHz band, the so-called D Block, to public safety, rather than auction it to commercial operators. The spectrum would be allocated in the form of local, regional and state licenses. This is an interesting about-face. Recall that the wireless carriers, led by their lobbying group, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), were adamantly against giving the D Block to first responders when the notion of this network first was floated three years ago at IWCE by Cyren Call‘s Morgan O’Brien.
Under Verizon Wireless’ plan, agencies would figure out their individual needs and then contract with commercial operators through a bid process to build out the network, leveraging existing infrastructure, which would save considerable time and money, Zipperstein said. He noted that some estimates put the cost of building such a network from scratch at $60 billion or more.
The result would be a network of networks that would leverage IP technology to enable interoperable communications when major incidents requiring a multi-jurisdictional response occur. Also, public safety would have enough spectrum to meet its broadband needs and have local and/or regional control over the airwaves.
Here’s the best part: Verizon Wireless wants the taxpayers to foot the bill. Zipperstein called on Congress to create a stand-alone stimulus bill dedicated to public-safety interoperable broadband communications. He said that interoperable communications should no longer be treated as “some adjunct project,” but rather as a national security imperative, on the same level as “procuring aircraft carriers and fighter jets.”
I couldn’t agree more with this position. I have written at several junctures that the federal government should be looking at this network as it did the interstate highway system a half century ago. Of course, the difference between now and then is that today much of the highway already has been built, which is a huge advantage. Congress has proved that it can find money for initiatives when it wants to, even in a very tough economy. It needs to make this network a priority and fund it accordingly.
An important aspect of this plan is that the company, which authored it, wields incredible lobbying power on Capitol Hill. Harlin McEwen, the chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, which currently holds public safety’s 10 MHz of broadband airwaves in the 700 MHz band, asked during the keynote session whether the first responder sector could count Verizon Wireless and its lobbyists to be supportive should it embrace this new approach and lobby for it in Washington. Zipperstein didn’t hesitate in saying yes.
The underlying message delivered yesterday by the most powerful force in the commercial wireless sector is this: “If you want this network to become a reality, here’s how to get it done.” It’s a message that public safety, as well as federal lawmakers and policymakers, need to hear, loud and clear.
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