Utilities, public safety could be ideal broadband partners
One of the many interesting sessions at the recent Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) conference in Minneapolis explored the potential for public safety to share its spectrum and much-anticipated 700 MHz LTE network with utilities.
Longtime public-safety communications leader Harlin McEwen acknowledged that many first-responder officials are wary of sharing spectrum with anyone and that public safety "will always want to control this public-safety spectrum … we are always going to want to be in charge."
But being in charge of broadband spectrum — the 20 MHz in the 700 MHz band and the 50 MHz in the 4.9 GHz band — does not preclude sharing with appropriate priority-access policies in place, McEwen said.
"I do believe that utilities should have access," he said. "We just have to come up with a way to manage that. We're willing to talk."
It's a discussion that should happen, because both the utilities and public-safety sectors bring complementary assets to the table. Public safety has the dedicated spectrum, something utilities long have wanted but are unlikely to secure in the near future. Meanwhile, utilities can bring lots of users, sites and other useful infrastructure, such as fiber for backhaul. And, of course, utilities have access to predictable streams of revenue, which could be helpful.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of utilities as a broadband partner to public safety is that both groups have very similar attitudes toward reliability.
"Should public safety compromise on the hardening? I don't think so," said Klaus Bender, senior director of standards and engineering for the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC), a trade association for the utilities sector.
"Utilities build hardened sites — you heard [a utility official] say that most of the sites that they deploy have three days of backup diesel generation. When have you heard of a [commercial wireless] site having three days of backup diesel generation? It's just not there."
In addition, McEwen noted that public safety depends on power provided by utilities.
"Power is the real foundation for lots of things for public safety," McEwen said. 'So, power restoration becomes a big deal — if we don't get the power back on, police, fire and EMS are at risk, and the public is at risk in trying to get services from them."
Despite all of these apparent symmetries between utilities and public safety, no one should be fooled into thinking that this partnership can be forged easily. There are lots of potential legal and business pitfalls, and just figuring out who should be at the negotiating table promises to be a challenge.
It will take time and considerable effort. However, if broadband partnerships between utilities and public safety can be crafted, the benefits promise to be immense, accelerating the development of both the smart grid and public-safety broadband while ensuring interoperability between two crucial sectors during times of crisis. Hopefully, the key players will take the necessary steps to pursue this possibility.
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