Public safety in limbo while feds try to execute new law
It’s been six weeks since President Barack Obama signed into law the legislation reallocating the D Block to public safety while providing $7 billion to fund the buildout of a nationwide broadband network for first responders. While public safety remains clearly excited about the prospect, the initial euphoria definitely has died down as officials are asking, “How is all of this going to be executed?”
That one simple query can spawn a host of questions, most of which remain unanswered at this moment. The absence of answers is not because leadership is not working to find them — quite the contrary, there are meetings being conducted daily to address the various aspects of this massive project — but these things take time.
Unfortunately, the timing is proving to be less than ideal for a number of public-safety agencies that are trying to follow the rules but do not want to take actions that must be undone in the future or result in a waste of scarce resources like money and staff time.
For example, 700 MHz waiver recipients that have received federal grants under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) have spent the last year planning the first public-safety LTE networks at a frenzied pace, trying to meet the BTOP mandate of completing two-thirds of their projects as early as August. Officials at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) were clear that no deadline extensions would be given, and grantees worked with appropriate urgency to meet the timeline.
Now that the law has been enacted, NTIA is delivering a much different message, advising BTOP recipients to consider halting their LTE deployment plans until the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is established and determines how the nationwide network will be designed.
From the outside, this makes sense. After all, the U.S. government has earmarked $375 million in federal grants to these projects, and it would be a shame to see any of this wasted on gear that does not fit into the nationwide architecture. This is especially true in this case, because no one believes the $7 billion allocated in the new law will be enough to provide the nationwide LTE coverage that public safety wants.
For instance, several industry observers have noted that the planned early LTE buildouts include about as many LTE cores as carriers like Verizon and AT&T will use for their much larger nationwide networks. In addition, most agree that the locations of those cores likely would be different in a nationwide architecture, for reasons of geographic diversity and reliability.
“If you really designed a truly nationwide network, it wouldn’t look the same as having the seven BTOP jurisdictions build out their individual networks,” said Bill Schrier, chairman of the Operator Advisory Committee — a group of jurisdictions that have received waivers to utilize public-safety broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band.
But being told to wait has to be frustrating to many of these entities, especially after staffers have told their policymakers that decisions about these LTE projects had to be made quickly — quicker than many wanted — to meet federal grant guidelines. And it may be even tougher on the vendors, which likely dedicated resources and manufactured products for rapid deployment to meet the terms of multimillion-dollar contracts that suddenly are on hold.
A similar “hurry up and wait” scenario is playing out for public-safety agencies operating on T-Band spectrum. With the narrowbanding deadline looming at the end of the year and the FCC frowning on extension requests, these entities have to vacate their airwaves during the next decade, according to the new law. As the city of Chicago has noted, a nine-year window is not enough for a public entity to make fiscally responsible investments.
Although there has been talk of waiving the narrowbanding mandate for T-Band users, current rules dictate that narrowbanding still must be complete in eight months or the licensee is violating FCC rules.
This is an exciting time for public safety, but it is a very confusing time, as well. Hopefully, officials at the FCC, NTIA and other relevant agencies can establish new rules quickly to provide the first-responder sector with some much-needed clarity — and possibly some extended timetables — so public-safety representatives at all levels can make prudent, informed communications decisions.