28 days and counting
Exactly one month from today, the FCC is required to submit its national broadband plan to Congress. Based on comments made by Jamie Barnett, chief of the agency’s public safety and homeland security bureau, the much-anticipated report will not include any recommendation that the 700 MHz D Block should be reallocated for public-safety usage instead of the current plans for commercial operation on the spectrum.
However, Barnett’s statements three weeks ago offered hope that FCC officials have some ideas for making the deployment of a nationwide public-safety wireless broadband network a reality. Since then, I’ve spoken with a number of vendors and industry officials to get their thoughts on some of the proposals mentioned.
One key proposal Barnett mentioned was “one truck roll” to deploy a public-safety broadband network in a given area. The idea is that, as commercial wireless carriers build out their 4G 700 MHz networks, they also would deploy a public-safety network using the same basic infrastructure.
It’s a logical way to save money, as significant costs in a network buildout involve securing a site and tower space and deploying network infrastructure. If public safety could piggyback on the commercial buildout and only equipment costs were incurred, the overall price tag would be a fraction of what a greenfield public-safety network buildout would cost.
Is it realistic? Vendors told me that, from technical standpoint, a lot of network assets could be shared between a commercial carrier and public safety. In fact, some mentioned the possibility that public-safety access via public-safety spectrum could be included as a card in the carrier’s base-station gear. Where such an approach works, it would greatly reduce the deployment costs, and the “savings” could be used to build out coverage in remote areas and reinforce critical sites in the manner first responders want for a mission-critical network.
While technically possible, it’s questionable whether public safety would accept such an arrangement on a widespread basis. Some public-safety officials are simply wary of all wireless commercial networks and want the control that comes with operating a separate network. Others seem more than willing to let a commercial operator handle all the networking headaches, as long as they can control policies impacting public safety within the network.
Another idea Barnett proposed was the use of higher power levels for signals by first responders to expand coverage areas and enhance in-building coverage. Barnett did not provide a much detail about this idea, but several vendors have expressed concern about the notion, saying that carriers would not be willing to share network infrastructure with public safety if the signal power levels between the networks differed enough to create interference issues — not only with commercial carrier network, but also with public-safety narrowband voice networks in the 700 MHz swath.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the broadband plan will be what kind of funding mechanisms the FCC will propose that Congress adopt to fund the deployment and maintenance of a public-safety broadband network. There are myriad possibilities, from outright federal grant to a new tax or an extension of the universal service program to include support for public-safety broadband networks.
Virtually any funding recommendations will be welcomed by public safety, as the finances associated with nationwide public-safety network are clearly a major issue in making such a system a reality, regardless whether the network is built out privately or via some sort of partnership with commercial providers.
Hopefully, whatever funding ideas the FCC proposes next month also will be welcomed by lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
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