O’Brien offers intriguing 700 MHz broadband perspective
It's hard to believe that it has been less than seven years since Nextel founder Morgan O'Brien unveiled his vision for a nationwide broadband network for public safety at IWCE 2006, amid considerable skepticism. Today, the pieces are in place to make such a network a reality — a transformation that O'Brien applauded during a recent phone conversation.
Since Congress passed the law that reallocated the D Block and called for $7 billion in federal funds to help pay for the network 11 months ago, some in public safety have expressed frustration that more tangible strides — in the form of LTE deployments and definitive plans — have not yet come from FirstNet, although sources indicate that could change in the coming weeks.
Even if it doesn't, the change in the public-safety broadband landscape has been remarkable, O'Brien reminded.
"Because you're always looking forward at the next mountain that has to be climbed, you sometimes lose perspective that we have some pretty significant mountains behind us," he said.
Indeed, when O'Brien unveiled his idea that commercial broadband technology should be leveraged to build a broadband network for first responders, the notion largely was scoffed at by public-safety officials. After all, public safety had just worked hard to get the FCC to allocate 700 MHz spectrum for wideband technology, which traditional public-safety vendors were ready to provide, so there was no way to get the 30 MHz of broadband spectrum that O'Brien called for.
"If I look back and say, 'What needed to be done?' for this to be realized, you had to capture that spectrum and make sure that it didn't all get auctioned off; you had to make sure that public safety didn't deploy a bunch of wideband networks, which was the prospect back then," O'Brien said. "While I would like there to be more spectrum, I think that 20 MHz is pretty darn great."
Furthermore, commercial mobile data was in its infancy, so it was hard for anyone in public safety to contemplate what kind of devices or applications that a first responder would use. Even today, the applications side of the equation does not have as much clarity as some would like, but the proliferation of commercial applications on smartphones and tablets in the consumer realm has most feeling comfortable that public safety will find mobile broadband useful.
Then, there was a natural distrust of commercial technology by public-safety officials, even though the need for hardening the system and devices for first responders was acknowledged from the beginning.
"We had to sell the concept of public safety being on a commercial technology — again, that fight is pretty much behind us." O'Brien said. "The conventional wisdom now that public safety will be moving all of these fantastic applications on the basis of a global standard that's driven by global numbers — that's pretty amazing."
Then, there's the matter of funding the buildout of the network.
"I think $7 billion [earmarked by Congress] is $7 billion more than I thought the federal government would ever kick in, so color me extremely happy that it's there," O'Brien said.
In other words, public safety has made huge strides during the past several years toward reaching the goal of a nationwide LTE network for first responders. While O'Brien acknowledges that some very daunting challenges remain — something we'll discuss in future columns — the fact that so many of the vital pieces to this public-safety broadband puzzle have been put in place should be encouraging to everyone involved.
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