A fine line exists between consensus and repression
We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the need for the public-safety sector to reach consensus on major issues if it wants the federal government’s help — notably the proposed nationwide broadband network that would operate on recently freed spectrum in the 700 MHz band. That’s all well and good. Certainly, a strong, unified voice has greater resonance than one that is weak and fractious. But sometimes the strong voice shouts down the weaker voice, particularly when the latter is extolling a course of action that the former finds contrary to its own position. That’s bad.
This has happened a couple of times in recent memory in the public-safety communications sector. Recall, for instance, the so-called Consensus Plan, which defined an approach to resolve the interference that plagued operations in the 800 MHz band. Those who opposed the plan were vilified. We were among them. Our objection was the $850 million cap on its financial contribution that Nextel sought in exchange for agreeing to reconfigure the band. We argued that there was no way to know whether $850 million would be enough, because such a project had never before been attempted. To date, Nextel has projected that it will spend more than $3 billion on rebanding before the project is finished.
Recall, too, the outrage when some began suggesting that IP technologies could one day be used for public-safety communications. The consensus thinking at the time was that such a notion was tantamount to blasphemy, and those extolling it should be stoned. Some of the extollers were, at least figuratively. I can write this because we were, once again, among those swimming upstream on this issue. Today, the new consensus thinking is that IP won’t just be a part of the future for public-safety communications — it is the future.
Now it seems that history is repeating itself in the debate over how to bring the proposed 700 MHz network to fruition. The major issue is how to fund construction and continued operation of the network. Forget about all of the other policy issues associated with this network, including whether it can be built to public-safety specifications and whether first responders will be given priority access to it. None of it will matter unless the funding issue is resolved satisfactorily.
From what I understand, the majority of the power-brokers in public safety have come together on a single approach. There is one organization, however, that believes there’s another pathway — and it is being roundly criticized for not supporting the consensus.
I’m purposely not identifying the organization in question, because I believe it to be irrelevant. Also irrelevant is whether this organization is correct in its thinking. What is relevant is that the organization’s perspective isn’t dismissed out of hand solely because it goes against the flow. From my perch, unification on this matter is far less important than finding the right approach, and any and all suggestions from credible organizations should be given consideration, without malice. There’s only going to be one chance to get this right. Should the wrong approach be chosen, the result will be catastrophic.
There’s nothing wrong with being the lone voice in the wilderness. Let’s not forget that all of this is happening because of another lone voice, that of Morgan O’Brien. Was there anybody who thought a nationwide broadband network for first responders was possible before O’Brien shared his vision?
However this is decided, the end result must be a sustainable, ongoing source of funding to not only build the network, but to maintain and operate it. If that doesn’t happen, public safety — and the taxpayers it serves — will be stuck with the mother of all white elephants. Avoiding such a devastating outcome is going to require creative, perhaps unconventional thinking. Indeed, it may well require public safety to think far differently about spectrum allocation and network deployment than it has in the past. It also might require public safety to cede control of its spectrum and networks, a scary proposition.
All of this angst could have been avoided had Congress recognized the vital need for this network — which I believe will change public-safety communications in way that will have to be seen to be believed — and taken charge of it. Instead, it has sat on the sidelines.
This can, and should, be corrected. My suggestion would be for Congress to hand over the reins to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a unit of the Department of Commerce. The NTIA has its own spectrum-management office and, more importantly, its own research and engineering laboratory. And, as a unit of the DOC, it certainly would have access to some of the brightest economic minds our country has to offer. It seems as if all of the piece parts are in place for the NTIA to determine the ultimate course of this initiative. (Of course, Congress would have to take legislative action to transfer authority over the 700 MHz spectrum that would be used for this network from the FCC to the NTIA.)
Congress also should pony up the money for this network, rather than rely on a complicated funding scheme that might not work. It can find the money if it wants to. For that to happen, the only consensus needed would be for Congress to join public safety in the belief that this network is not just vitally important, but is essential.
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