Rural 700 MHz filings worthy of attention
Waiver requests allowing early wireless broadband network buildouts for public-safety use in the 700 MHz band are not new, but they had come from governmental entities that typically have access to considerable funding resources — until last week.
Commercial wireless operator Flow Mobile — formerly Extend America — asked for a waiver that would let the company build a demonstration network in North Dakota that could serve as model for a statewide deployment. The state of New Mexico also filed a waiver request.
These are two of the most rural states in the country, with New Mexico having 15 people per square mile, and North Dakota having a little more than 9 people per square mile, according to the latest census figures. By comparison, the national average is 79.6 people per square mile, the state of New York has 401.9 people per square mile and the city of New York boasts 26,402 residents per square mile.
First responders in New Mexico and North Dakota arguably have just as much need for broadband communications capability as those in New York, but the economics of building out wireless networks in New York — commercially or privately — are much better than in rural states. Base-station sites cost the same, but there are many more customers/taxpayers in New York to pay for system deployment and maintenance.
The New Mexico and North Dakota filings are important because those states represent the rural areas that many industry observers have feared would be left behind for many years as a nationwide system is pursued. But population density is not the only aspect of the filings that has captured attention.
While New Mexico’s waiver request is fairly straightforward, the North Dakota filing is not. The request comes not from a governmental entity but request from a company. In addition, Flow Mobile is seeking permission not only to access public-safety broadband spectrum licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), but it wants to build a demonstration network on 700 MHz narrowband frequencies in the state.
Now, the idea of commercial companies filing waiver requests to use public-safety spectrum — particularly narrowband airwaves — for broadband use is probably going to raise the ire of many in the first-responder community worried about the national precedent it would set. However, in this case, the notion makes some sense; the state of North Dakota has given its blessing to the project, and state officials indicate there are no plans for networks to be built on the narrowband channels in the near future.
An intriguing element of the Flow Mobile proposal is its undisclosed “4G-like” technology, which the company claims is a “game-changing” breakthrough and can accommodate all technologies, including LTE, which recently has been endorsed by several key public-safety organizations as the 700 MHz broadband technology of choice.
At the moment, Flow Mobile is remaining hush about its technology. However, in a presentation to the FCC last month, company representatives unveiled a plan to build a shared commercial/public-safety network covering 11 rural states that would cost $431 million. That’s several billion dollars less than any other estimate, and is even less than money spent on the recently completed broadband network built by Northrop Grumman for New York City.
A very affordable technology that can support commercial and public-safety usage while interoperating with any other protocol? It almost sounds too good to be true. Hopefully, Flow Mobile will get an opportunity to demonstrate the validity of its technology and business plan. If it can do so successfully, providing first responders with broadband in rural areas may be much a easier issue to resolve than expected.