FCC’s public-safety broadband plan filled with questions of priority
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and his public-safety-bureau team today unveiled further details of the proposal for a nationwide broadband wireless network for first responders that is expected to be part of the national broadband plan that will be submitted to Congress in less than three weeks.
Whether the plan can be executed successfully — resulting in a network that public-safety agencies are willing to use and can afford to access — may revolve around a sense of priority in several key areas.
National priorities: Do the FCC and Congress want to make this network happen? Genachowski described public-safety access to broadband as a “national priority” and said the FCC would recommend that Congress appropriate $12 billion to $16 billion in federal funding toward the project during the next decade. If this funding is not available in time for commercial carriers to deploy their networks and the public-safety network at the same time using shared infrastructure, the $6 billion deployment price tag is expected to double, according to the FCC.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill often speak eloquently about the importance of public safety, but they have been tight-fisted at times when it comes to providing funding to first responders. Whether a recommendation from the FCC will be enough to convince Congress to spend an unprecedented amount of money — and more may be needed, according to some industry sources — on a public-safety network is certainly a critical question, because the network likely will not come to fruition without a large infusion of federal funding.
“The private sector simply is not going to build a nationwide, state-of-the-art, interoperable broadband network for public safety on its own dime,” Genachowski said. “The bottom line is that, if we want to deliver on what our first responders need to protect our communities and loved ones, public money will need to be put toward tackling this national priority.”
Spectral priorities: The FCC plans to auction the D Block and not recommend to Congress that the D Block be reallocated to public safety, representing a huge blow to many in the first-responder community. Public-safety officials say they will continue to pursue reallocation legislation in Congress — where the decision ultimately lies — but the odds of passing this type of new law without a recommendation from the country’s expert agency on spectrum policy at this late date are very slim.
Without the D Block, public safety has significantly reduced flexibility as attempts to forge partnerships with commercial carriers, critical-infrastructure providers and other government entities. In dense urban areas, many question whether the 10 MHz spectrum block licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) will be enough to meet the needs of public safety alone, much less those of these other potential partners.
Technical priorities: Of course, when large incidents occur, public safety’s need for communications increases dramatically. Such a scenario may result in more first-responder information traffic needing to be transmitted than can sent over the PSST spectral pipe. The national broadband plan proposes to address this by requiring all 700 MHz carriers to allow public to roam onto their commercial LTE networks with priority access at “most-favored nation” rates.
Exactly what is meant by priority access is unclear at this time, but it could prove to be a pivotal issue. Public safety long has had priority on commercial voice networks, but many first responders consider the status to be of little value, because they are given priority only when a line becomes clear. In times of large emergencies, networks often get so jammed by consumer traffic that it’s impossible for a public-safety user to get a free line in a timely manner.
Public safety would like pre-emptive access, meaning the first responder’s request for access to the commercial network would be accepted immediately, even if it means knocking someone else off the network. Of course, commercial carriers understandably are fearful of this notion, because they do not want to alienate paying customers by kicking them off the network, particularly in times of crisis.
In a broadband data environment, the situation is a little different. Instead of kicking users off the network entirely, the users’ data throughput rates could be reduced, allowing prioritized public-safety traffic to get through. Whether carriers would be willing to accept such an arrangement still is questionable and could cause public-safety headaches. For instance, what if the commercial user whose bandwidth is being “dialed down” is trying to send information to 911 or is a video camera that has access to an important view of an incident?
Working out such policy complications in a manner that is economically viable for both commercial partners and first-responder agencies will be critical to making the FCC proposal effective for public safety. This is certainly feasible for “normal” day-to-day situations, but establishing policies that provide public safety with the broadband access it needs in times of large-scale emergencies — when public safety needs access the most and commercial user also are desperate for bandwidth — promises to be a much greater challenge.
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