Public safety anxiously awaits 700 MHz broadband direction
One of my favorite sayings is, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” because it often is so true. No matter how much effort and preparation is put toward a particular goal, a change in circumstances may dictate that the initiative must be altered, if not scrapped altogether.
Examples are numerous, and they can vary from something relatively mundane — altering a travel plan because a road is under construction, or cancelling a steakhouse reservation after learning that your companion is a vegetarian — to something very significant.
An untimely death in the family may mean that a high-school senior must enter the job market instead of attending college the following year. One of the unluckiest business stories I’ve heard was from a former executive of a startup that was scheduled to sign the papers for a funding round on Sept. 12, 2001. After the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent economic downturn, that company’s plans had to be shelved.
Sometimes, even good news can create a change of plans. That may be the scenario that public safety is facing today after Congress enacted a law in February that reallocated the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety and called for $7 billion in funding for the buildout of a nationwide public-safety broadband network.
By most accounts, this new law represented some of the best news that first responders had received from Washington, D.C., in decades. However, some of those most instrumental in stating the case for public safety’s need for additional spectrum and funding — entities that have been the early movers in the LTE space — have been left in a rather uncomfortable limbo while anxiously awaiting word from the nation’s capital about the next steps they should take.
Currently, there are 21 entities that have an FCC waiver that would allow them build out LTE networks on 700 MHz spectrum, and even more have asked the agency to grant them a similar waiver.
In an FCC proceeding on the subject, commenters have expressed overwhelming support for public-safety entities to proceed with existing plans to build LTE networks. Of course, most of the commenters are first-response agencies that want to pursue these plans, so their positions are expected.
Most of the time, such comments likely would influence the FCC to act as “the record” suggests. However, it’s very possible that will not be the case in this instance, because officials for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) have made it clear that they would prefer that public-safety LTE deployments be delayed until the FirstNet board is appointed and establishes its plan for the nationwide network. The goal is to avoid investments in equipment that might not fit the eventual nationwide framework.
What public safety does not want is a repeat of the LMR buildout scenario, which resulted in vendor-specific nuances undermining interoperability and economies of scales, according to Charles Werner, fire chief for the city of Charlottesville, Va.
“We need to move forward cautiously and make sure that we are aligning ourselves with the process that’s been put in place, so we can make sure that we get it right the first time,” Werner said.
Given the circumstances, most Beltway sources believe that entities seeking 700 MHz broadband waivers that are pending will not get approval from the FCC. In addition, those waiver jurisdictions that lack funding may not get support for continuing to pursue existing plans.
But there is considerably less consensus about what should be done with the early movers that have a waiver and the funding needed to execute plans — and, in some cases, already have contracts in place.
For the most part, the funding is coming from federal grants, and the last thing NTIA wants is to have early movers spend tens of millions of dollars on systems that could be built more efficiently under a nationwide model. On the other hand, government officials and vendor representatives understandably want to see their visions and considerable efforts come to fruition, especially after telling their elected officials of NTIA’s previous hard-line stance that there would be no deadline extensions associated with stimulus grant money.
That direction meant many of these networks have to be two-thirds complete by Aug. 1, which is less than three months away, or the entity could lose the grant funding. NTIA officials have indicated that there is a possibility that these deadlines could be extended, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Getting such extension could be problematic politically — a congressional hearing on the subject of stimulus funds is scheduled for next week — but doing so may be critical to providing clarity for public-safety entities and vendors during the short term.
Meanwhile, federal officials will have to grapple with the difficult decision of halting all LTE projects or allowing a few to proceed, so the FirstNet board can reference real-world LTE deployments when making long-term network decisions, instead of having to depend solely on a flood of white papers that may have conflicting information.
Hopefully, people much smarter than me will make the right choices, even if it is not what the early movers planned and have worked so diligently to execute. The fact is that the circumstances have changed, and as Werner noted, it’s important that this network is built correctly from the beginning.
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