What a difference a year makes
ORLANDO — A key topic of this week’s Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Winter Summit is 700 MHz wireless broadband for first responders. This is not surprising, because the issue has been headlining first-responder trade shows and conferences for more than three years.
But the tone surrounding the discussion this year is significantly different than it was 12 months ago. At that time, while the world’s attention was focused on the historic and clear election of new U.S. President Barack Obama, the notion of a nationwide public-safety broadband network appeared to be little more than far-fetched dream.
Remember, public safety was fragmented on the issue, with many questioning whether its 700 MHz license holder — the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) — should be representing the first-responder community in the debate, as big cities offered their own plans for the spectrum. Meanwhile, industry disagreed with the PSST’s positions, FCC was at a standstill and Congress did not seem the least bit interested in the matter. Even a trillion-dollar stimulus package that seemed to promise something for every sector treated public safety as an afterthought, and funding for 700 MHz deployments was not even mentioned.
Today, the landscape has transformed remarkably. Public-safety organizations have rallied behind a single technology — LTE — and set aside differences to pursue reallocation of commercial D Block spectrum for first-responder uses. Big-city chiefs, the PSST and other public-safety organizations are presenting a united front to federal lawmakers and policy-makers.
“It’s nice to have everyone moving in the same direction,” one public-safety official said yesterday.
And the momentum is not just limited to public safety. The two largest wireless carriers — Verizon and AT&T — are supporting the reallocation of the D Block to first responders, as are many key commercial and public-safety vendors.
Meanwhile, other realities may benefit the public-safety position, as well. In seven weeks, the FCC is supposed to submit a national broadband plan to Congress, which finally may be able to pay attention to items other than the health-care-reform debate that has dominated its time during much of the last year.
The fact that we’ve seen a nearby natural disaster — the horrendous earthquakes in Haiti — and near miss of a potentially tragic man-made incident — the failed terrorist attempt in Detroit — should serve as unwanted reminders why first responders need the best communications possible. In addition, it would seem that political lawmakers and policy-makers in Washington could use a bipartisan “victory” that agreement on a public-safety broadband network could bring in the wake of the highly divisive health-care debate.
Clearly, it seems that public safety has some momentum behind its efforts to secure the D Block — and, hopefully, some funding to ensure that the network deployment is nationwide, not just something for the most densely populated areas of the country.
Will it be enough to make that 700 MHz broadband vision a reality? Even the most politically savvy would dare not speculate, but public-safety officials seem to be more encouraged than at any time in recent memory.