Realism is needed
There is a message that needs to be heard by those who are not regular readers of Urgent Communications and its online counterpart, i.e., those who are not involved in public-safety communications. They need to know that the nationwide 700 MHz wireless broadband system for first responders is not today (nor will it be tomorrow) a replacement for traditional public-safety land-mobile-radio systems.
Unfortunately, numerous politicians across the country are assuming that they no longer need to fund public-safety LMR systems, because all communications are going to move to the new broadband system. There are several flaws with this position:
The system will not be constructed — with the exception of certain large urban areas — for quite a while. Even then, coverage at first will not be as extensive as existing LMR systems. Think about how long it took to build out cellular systems until there was coverage everywhere it was needed. In many parts of the country, coverage still is lacking.
Currently there is no funding mechanism for the system to be built. Hopefully that will change, but even if it does, it will take a long time to figure out the new regulatory regime, begin design, prepare RFPs and select vendors.
The system, as presently designed, is not capable of mission-critical voice communications. The balance of the suite of tools need to make this happen is being discussed, but the approval and design processes are such that such tools won't be available for quite some time. Ergo, while the system initially will do wondrous things with data and video, we're a long way from being able to replicate traditional public-safety land-mobile communications systems.
If the D Block isn't reallocated to public safety for this system, you can forget about this system replacing traditional public-safety voice communications ever. The capacity just isn't there.
A reasonable question is, "When might this network be a replacement for traditional LMR systems? Unfortunately, there are far too many unknowns to make any kind of accurate prediction. We are still in the midst of work with the FCC, ERIC, PSCR, etc., to figure out how this system will function. There are a host of very technical decisions that must be made. Some of these decisions are dependent upon whether the
D Block is reallocated, and whether there is funding.
Then, there is the question of governance. Most of the bills pending before Congress would replace the Public Safety Spectrum Trust — which currently holds the sector's 10 MHz of broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band — with a different entity. Assuming that happens, there will be a significant amount of time before the new entity is formed and operating. This means that nationwide deployment of this network will be delayed for an unknown period of time.
However, one thing we do know is that we are at least one product cycle away from a potential conversion of voice from LMR to LTE, even in the most urban of areas. Thus, it is critical that traditional public-safety systems remain funded through another product cycle. In more rural areas, there certainly will be a 10-year run before the broadband system adequately is built out and agencies even can consider joining the network, while at the same time abandoning their traditional LMR systems.
It is vital that we continue to educate decision makers on what this system will be, and what it won't be. With this goal in mind, we held an industry seminar in the San Francisco Bay Area recently. It was well received by those who only had limited information. We need to do much more.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.
Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.