Don’t believe everything you hear
Mark Twain’s response to the widely circulated news reports of his death in May 1897 — “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” — serves as a great lead-in to one of the most troubling public-safety communications rumors of our time. Unfortunately, as ads for my favorite imported ultimate driving machine point out, “Perception is Reality.”
While I'm working on a more detailed article on this topic for a future edition, now is a good time to review, from a 10,000-foot level, the very premature view held by many that public-safety land-mobile radio (LMR) — including its mission-critical voice (MCV) component — will, in the not-too-distant future, be replaced by broadband in the form of Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology.
Unfortunately, those who erroneously propagate this prediction are doing nobody any good because key members of Congress and their senior staffs today are convinced that eventually public safety no longer will need LMR. As a result, they already are mulling other future uses for today’s public-safety LMR spectrum, and have written “giveback” language into pending legislation. This is not in any way to say that broadband — supported by sufficient spectrum including the 700 MHz D Block — is not absolutely essential for public safety and support responders at the local, tribal, state and federal levels to successfully carry out their missions, particularly in the hundreds of metro areas where broadband’s benefits will shine, eventually saving countless lives.
However, it is imperative that we keep reality in the equation with regard to MCV communications. Remember, broadband technology will have to pass very tough end-user tests regarding coverage, reliability, restorability and usability (among others), before it will be accepted as a replacement for today’s LMR-based MCV systems.
It also is critical that the affordability factor be considered. Probably half of the continental U.S. (excluding Alaska) can be described as rural, very rural or desolate. This is especially true in states west of the Mississippi River, but I would suggest that counties that meet this description exist in every state with the exception of a few on the East Coast. Conservative estimates are that anywhere from 5 to 10 times the number of sites will be needed to deliver LTE coverage that is equal to the coverage provided by today’s LMR systems, particularly in the mountainous West. How is rural America going to afford that investment — for both initial deployment and sustainability — particularly in these financially strapped times?
At the same time, it is vital to understand that broadband sites also need critical infrastructure, i.e., power (ideally commercial) and backhaul. Unlike a large percentage of remote LMR sites in rural areas where all access is over-the-air from control stations and mobiles/portables, a significant “pipe” is required to connect each broadband site back to the network, hopefully in some kind of redundant configuration. While authoring this article, I’m sitting in one of Nevada’s most rural areas, one about as remote and rugged as you can imagine. With an average high-desert elevation greater than 4,000 feet, this county’s 3,789 square miles would hold (with room left over) the entire states of Delaware and Rhode Island. But it had a 2010 population of 783, having dropped from 971 in 2000. There are no incorporated cities in this county; indeed, it doesn’t even have a high school.
Except for accidental coverage due to reflection from granite faces or at high elevation points, there is no broadband coverage in this county except around a small town in the adjacent county on its eastern border. Infrastructure? Are you kidding me? I can drive for tens of miles down US-6 and, other than the pavement itself, see no signs whatsoever of human presence. How is a county like this supposed to build 40 or more LTE sites to ensure LMR-quality coverage? By the way, these same conditions can be found not far from some of our nation’s largest metropolitan areas — just consider the rugged Angeles National Forest that lies within Los Angeles County.
This is a real conundrum. Certainly every first responder and all supporting government, non-governmental and critical-infrastructure providers (even to include the entire sparse population) in these rural areas could make use of broadband. At the same time, there is a limit to what realistically is affordable and sustainable over the long term. Remember that in order to have equivalent coverage to LMR, public-safety LTE will need infrastructure at least as intense as today’s commercial cellular systems, and that infrastructure must be built to our much more stringent requirements. It should be noted that, in all of my inquiries, only the city of Seattle today makes that claim for its public cellular systems.
My belief then — and I’m supported by some very well educated and highly experienced colleagues on this issue — is that an investment in broadband simply is going to be unattainable for a significant geographical part of this great country. So let’s install LTE everywhere it makes sense, to include areas originally identified by the Public Safety Spectrum Trust as critical for coverage, e.g., highways, but recognize as we leave the starting gate that LMR will never go away in many parts of the U.S. Stay tuned!
John Powell is chairman of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council’s interoperability committee.