Utilities could be the broadband partner public safety needs
During the past year, public-safety representatives have done a good job on reaching consensus on several key issues regarding a proposed nationwide wireless broadband network that would allow first responders to utilize a variety of bandwidth-intensive mobile applications and would provide a valuable interoperability bridge.
To date, the public-safety community has come together around the notions that such a network should be based on LTE technology and that the 700 MHz D Block should be reallocated to public safety. In addition, everyone agrees that finding the money to deploy and maintain such a network on a nationwide basis is a massive obstacle.
Almost two years ago, the FCC tried to forge a public-private partnership between public safety and a commercial operator during the auction of the D Block, but that auction infamously failed to attract a qualifying bid. There’s been a lot of fingerpointing about what went wrong in that auction, but the bottom line is that many question whether the goals of a commercial wireless carrier that answers to stockholders can ever be effectively merged with those of public safety, which requires greater reliability and coverage than any commercial carrier can provide profitably.
By comparison, electric utilities and other critical-infrastructure entities could be a much more logical partner for public safety. Like public safety, they need communications that work even when commercial networks are down or the power is out. They often have to provide services to geographic areas that have so few potential customers that no free-market commercial carrier would ever bother to cover.
As with public safety, broadband applications in the utility industry are still in their infancy stages, but leaders in the sector realize their importance in providing more reliable energy to a customer base in an efficient manner that generates profits for the utility. Much of the promise around the benefits of a smart grid revolves around broadband access, industry leaders told the FCC during a recent field hearing.
Of course, there are differences between utilities and public safety. Many smart-grid applications can be achieved via fixed solutions, not the mobile solutions that public safety wants. And, while government-owned utilities exist, most are private companies, which could make partnerships with government-run public-safety entities more difficult to negotiate.
Still, utilities have assets that a public-safety-grade broadband network could easily leverage—lots of right of way, tower space and access to financing. Public safety can bring some of its own assets in these areas to the table, as well as spectrum resources that utilities have been seeking for years.
The concept of utilities and public safety partnering in the communications arena is nothing new, as examples of such partnerships exist on the LMR side of the house. Of course, any such partnership is much easier to right about than to execute, but both sides would seem to have plenty of motivation.
Alone, it may be difficult for either the utility or public-safety community to realize its broadband aspirations. However, a partnership that addresses the key needs of two of the nation’s most important sectors would be powerful—perhaps even powerful enough to persuade Congress to open its coffers in supporting the effort.