Nationwide network has public safety scrambling for answers
It’s been almost a month since the public-safety community learned that it would get access to the 700 MHz D Block and about three weeks since President Barack Obama signed the enabling legislation into law. While public-safety officials certainly are happy that the new law is in place, the focus already clearly has shifted from celebrating to executing the vision contemplated in the law.
One of best parts about this law is that public-safety officials finally know that first responders will have the D Block, $7 billion in funding and that the end goal is a single national network. So, they don’t have to make presentations to elected officials that are filled with conditional phrases such as “if we get enough spectrum” or “if a public-safety LTE market evolves.”
While money, spectrum and a nationwide vision are very critical “knowns,” a number of unknowns still exist, and the list seems to increase by the day as people throughout the industry try to get a feeling about how all of this will work. During the last three weeks, here are some — but certainly not all — of the intriguing questions that have arisen, and what we’ve learned to date:
When will public safety have to vacate the T-Band? The legislation states that T-Band agencies will need to relocate their narrowband LMR operations in less than a decade, so that the FCC can conduct an auction of the cleared spectrum — or spectrum in another band after repacking. The wrinkle in all of this is that the legislation does not call for clearing the business/industrial users from the T-Band. Without these users being cleared, will it make sense to conduct an auction of the spectrum?
Should my public-safety agency continue to invest in the new LMR systems we’re building? For now, the consensus answer is, “Yes” — after all, there isn’t a mission-critical-voice alternative in the LTE space, particularly for off-network/direct-mode communications. However, this question could be much more difficult to answer in a few years. There were several non-mission-critical push-to-talk solutions on the IWCE floor last month, and some believe a mission-critical solution could be available in 5-10 years. Of course, others believe it will be decades before public safety can count on mission-critical voice over LTE.
Will this law change the plans of 700 MHz waiver recipients? For those that have funding, it appears that the waiver recipients plan to proceed with their existing deployment plans.
How will procurement work? The legislation states that the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) will create or approve all RFPs. However, it’s not clear whether that means the network will be bid as a large federal contract, that each state will be allowed to contract with separate approved vendors, or that an even more granular approach may be pursued. Meanwhile, the language in the law seems to encourage public-private partnerships, but there is not much guidance about how those should be structured.
Can public safety partner with critical-infrastructure entities, such as utilities and transportation entities? At least one part of the law indicates that such agreements can be made, but some of these partners may be deemed “secondary” users. If “secondary” is interpreted to mean that these entities can pushed off the network entirely, they probably will not want to participate. However, if “secondary” means that the critical-infrastructure users’ bandwidth may be reduced, but the most vital functions would still receive guaranteed throughput, there appears to be some potential win-win scenarios that could be realized.
There also are some other very interesting questions that have arisen, such as whether the new law alters the FCC’s role in first-responder communications or whether the NTIA will want — or need — a larger role than simply overseeing the buildout and operation of this nationwide network.
While this last question could take decades to answer, some issues regarding the new network can be addressed sooner — if not today, certainly after the FirstNet is established and operating.
For the latest information from some well-placed sources, please join us for our webinar this Thursday, March 15, at 2 p.m. EST.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.