It’s OK if commercial carriers cash in on 700 MHz network
We often get thoughtful responses from our readers, and this week is no exception. On Tuesday, I had written in this space that I agreed wholeheartedly with the notion — expressed by two public-safety communications officials during a recent webinar I moderated — that the proposed nationwide broadband network for first responders that would operate in the 700 MHz band should be treated as a national imperative and that the federal government should get its checkbook out.
This should come as no surprise to anyone, as I have written at several junctures that the feds should be viewing this network as it did the interstate highway system a half century ago, i.e., as a vital public-works project that should be paid for with taxpayer dollars.
A couple of readers disagreed. They raised several issues between them, but were united in their concern that commercial operators could benefit financially from their involvement in this project, either by using a taxpayer-funded network to provide commercial services or by using public money to make their infrastructure more robust or technologically more advanced — or, perhaps, both.
My response to this is, “Who cares?” If the end result is a public-safety-grade, next-generation telecommunications network that will help first responders do their jobs better and keep them safer, then I say let the commercial operators benefit. In fact, this network isn’t going to get done unless the commercial operators do benefit, and big time. Otherwise, why would they — as publicly held entities that are under enormous shareholder pressure — even get involved? And they definitely need to be involved.
This actually came up during the webinar, which featured Steve Jennings, chief information officer for Harris County, Texas — in which Houston is located — and Jon Fullinwider, chief information officer (retired) for Los Angeles County. While both Jennings and Fullinwider believe the feds need to toss considerable money at this initiative, they agree that a public/private partnership will be essential for bringing it to fruition.
“[Federal] money will be available, but money that is in the form of a grant doesn’t take into account sustainability,” Jennings said. “Consequently, in a lot of efforts, what [public safety] can do is build it, but can we maintain it, can we upgrade it? That’s where I believe there is going to have to be more of a public/private partnership.”
Fullinwider opined that the complexity of this network would demand the involvement of the commercial wireless sector. “It’s not a core competency for … first responders to manage radio systems,” Fullinwider said. “Their core competency is to effectively utilize these resources so that they can be more responsive in meeting the challenges of an emergency situation.
“In many cases, a public/private partnership lets the public sector do what it does best — which is respond to the public — while letting the private sector do what it does best, which is to ensure operation efficiency, by putting in place a solid, sustainable communications infrastructure that will be there when our first responders need it.”
Fullinwider makes an excellent point. Typically, the for-profit sector — regardless of the specific market — attracts the brightest and most talented professionals, if for no other reason than it generally pays better than the public sector. It seems intuitive that this would be especially true in hyper-competitive markets such as the commercial wireless sector. I’m not suggesting for a moment that public-safety doesn’t possess its own cadre of extremely capable engineers. It does. What I am suggesting is that the commercial wireless sector has a much deeper talent pool — not to mention a ton of embedded infrastructure that could be leveraged — that would come in quite handy for a project of this scope.
So, the commercial sector is going to have to play a huge role in the buildout of this nationwide, next-generation network. For that to happen, any partnership between the wireless operators and public safety will have to be win-win. Personally, I hope the wireless operators make a boatload of money on this endeavor — because that would mean that this vital network actually got built.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.