As 700 MHz plans heat up, don’t forget the costs involved
It’s no secret that many of the country’s major metropolitan areas are chomping at the bit to deploy mobile broadband networks in the 700 MHz band. Already, eight public-safety groups have said they want Congress to allocate the 10 MHz of commercial D Block spectrum in the 700 MHz band for public-safety use. Current D-Block rules call for a commercial operator to bid for the spectrum and build a nationwide network on behalf of public safety, but now it’s clear the first-responder community wants to get its own hands on this spectrum.
While lots of pieces are coming together to make broadband deployments in the 700 MHz band a reality sooner rather than later (you can get a recap of what has happened here), I can’t help but wonder how expensive a proposition this would be — and how realistic an aggressive timetable would be — for many public-safety agencies. Remember that the primary reason a public/private partnership was conceived in the first place was to defray the high costs and complexity of this network. Any public-safety agency would really have to think outside the box when it comes to leveraging equipment and rollout costs should it decide to move forward without a commercial partner.
It’s looking like Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology will be the winner in the public-safety 700 MHz band as the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) endorsed the technology earlier this month. It makes sense given the fact that the country’s two largest operators — Verizon and AT&T — have chosen LTE as the technology for their 4G networks, which also will operate in the 700 MHz band. Also, AT&T has expressed interest in asking its vendors to include public-safety bands in future LTE devices. This bodes well for public safety should it ultimately opt to work with a commercial operator—or several.
That’s something the public-safety sector should consider seriously. LTE is a brand new technology with no economies of scale to date, which should give even large agencies thinking about going it alone some pause, particularly because they would have considerably less buying power than even a regional operator, much less a behemoth like Verizon or AT&T. In addition, the wireless operators haven’t provided much guidance concerning their anticipated LTE capex. Consequently, any public-safety entity contemplating its own buildout should proceed with extreme caution.
Agencies also should consider that the U.S. market will be one of the most aggressive LTE markets in the world. In addition to Verizon and AT&T, regional players like MetroPCS and US Cellular plan early rollouts of LTE in 2010. Rural operator CenturyTel has indicated plans to use LTE to bridge the digital divide in areas that are difficult and expensive to reach with wired services. All of these operators have plans to recoup their investments by selling commercial service. The public-safety community will not.
That’s why it will be critical for any municipalities considering a solo 700 MHz play to look at these networks as multi-use networks by getting a buy-in from other government agencies besides the public-safety community. I have pointed to New York City in the past as a model, and I will point to it again. The city has deployed a TD-CDMA network that is upgradable to LTE in the 2.5 GHz band (it now is asking for 700 MHz spectrum so it can offer better in-building coverage). The deployment was an expensive undertaking at $500 million, but agencies across the city are saving money because it has evolved into a network that supports more than 19 municipal departments and more than 50 discrete applications, which range from mobile access to fingerprint records for law enforcement to remote meter reading for the water department. Most important, public safety has priority access on the network.
Moreover, NYC’s mobile broadband network is an example of what Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility are proposing. They are calling for regional or local licensees in the public-safety sector to solicit commercial operators via a bid process to construct networks — built to a national standard to enable interoperability — that likely would try to leverage existing infrastructure, which would save enormous time and money.
There is no doubt that mobile broadband is a game-changer in terms of technical capabilities. It is critical. I just hope that many agencies don’t feel they are stymied by cost, which is the same problem facing many agencies in the Project 25 world. While grants will be coming down the pike, the public-safety community has learned through the P25 experience that such handouts aren’t a panacea for handling the costs involved with constructing and maintaining a network.
Agencies already have learned a lot from P25 — most notably that partnering with other jurisdictions creates interoperability and cuts down on costs. But if the public-safety community wants to be first-movers in a brand new technology that commercial operators themselves will be cutting their teeth on, they definitely need to find ways to justify to their constituents why hefty investments are necessary now in mobile broadband but could end up saving taxpayer money later.