Band 14 in every cellular device?
By Bill Schrier
Here’s an intriguing question: Should Band 14 be in every mobile device sold in the United States?
Band 14 is the spectrum licensed to the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) to create a nationwide public-safety wireless broadband network. Band 14 represents 20 MHz of highly desirable spectrum in the 700 MHz band that provides good propagation in urban and rural areas and decent penetration into buildings.
First responders will have priority on this network, but the federal legislation that created FirstNet and authorized network construction allows for much wider use—indeed, any responder, virtually any government user, and even commercial entities and consumers in certain circumstances. In broadening the potential use of these airwaves, Congress likely intended that, in rural and remote areas—which are not profitable for commercial wireless carriers—FirstNet’s network and spectrum could serve a wide variety of needs, including those of families, small businesses and education, as well as traditional public-safety responders.
So, it could be argued that every wireless device sold anywhere in the United States should have Band 14 capability built-in. And there are some advantages to having Band 14 in every mobile device.
First, the chipsets for Band 14 should become significantly less expensive, because they’d end up in 300 million or more smartphones, tablet computers, electric meters and other devices. Next, Band 14 could be used for alerting. If Band 14 was in every device—along with a bit of software—public officials could send an alert to every device in the area surrounding, say, a Boston Marathon bombing incident, or every device in the path of a Moore, Okla.- style F5 tornado. Perhaps Band 14 also could be used for 911 calls from consumer phones, as well as the transmission of text and images from those phones in places where next-generation 911 is available.
Furthermore, many of us working on the FirstNet initiative are concerned about the sustainability and viability of the network. Commercial networks have 20, 40 or 100 million users over which they can spread the cost of upgrades and maintenance. In contrast, FirstNet is likely to have only a few million—perhaps 10 to 14 million at most. But the FirstNet network must cover virtually the entire country—not just populated areas. Moreover, it must be hardened to withstand a disaster, and the monthly cost to responders must be close to the monthly charges of the commercial networks.
Is that financially feasible?
Well, if Band 14 is in every device, the FCC might mandate an additional charge to consumers and business users for that capability. Even 50 cents per month across 300 million commercial devices will generate $150 million each month, almost $2 billion each year, to help support and sustain the FirstNet network. Commercial carriers and others may not like the additional charge, but it would be a small price to pay for alerting citizens during disasters and allowing a more reliable connection to 911.
There are disadvantages to such a plan, of course. Having Band 14 in every device—especially with transmit enabled—might enable hackers to interfere with public safety’s use of the FirstNet network, or compromise the network itself. And at times when the network is overloaded with public-safety use, it would not be available for citizen 911 calls or alerting.
Nevertheless, as the design and development of the FirstNet network proceeds, we should consider having it directly benefit every citizen, every consumer and every business in the nation, as well as first responders.
Bill Schrier is senior policy advisor in the state of Washington’s Office of the Chief Information Officer, and chairs the state’s interoperability executive committee. Previously, he was CIO for the city of Seattle.