FCC pursuing new spectrum policy for public-safety communications, official says
FCC officials are taking a new approach to public-safety spectrum policy, abandoning exclusive-use airwaves in favor of multi-purpose broadband frequencies that can be leveraged to support wireless communications for both first responders and the general public, according to an FCC official.
David Furth, deputy chief of the FCC’s public-safety and homeland-security bureau, described the philosophical change as a “transformation,” noting that the FCC historically allocated spectrum for public safety’s exclusive use when he joined the agency in the early 1990s.
“Those exclusive allocations are still there, they’re very important, and I think they will continue to be very important for certainly the indefinite future, because that’s where a lot of the mission-critical communications that public safety relies on take place,” Furth said last week as part of a keynote interview during Mission Critical Partners’ Conference for Advancing Public Safety (CAPS) online event.
“But what we’re also seeing is that that kind of historically siloed approach to public-safety spectrum is not the model that we are likely to be using going forward, and there are a whole host of reasons for that.”
Advances in technology—specifically, “the explosion of broadband”—in terms of both functionality and reliability are key factors that have driven the FCC’s new direction in public-safety spectrum policy, Furth said.
“These broadband networks, which are multi-use, they can support public safety as much as a siloed network, and they can do so much more cost effectively than standalone networks,” Furth said. “As broadband technology gets better—as networks get better, as we move from 3G to 4G to 5G—what we’re seeing is that those multi-purpose networks can serve commercial needs—they can serve the public—but they can also provide public safety with the reliable and the secure—indeed, mission-critical—types of communications that public safety requires.
“I remember when there was a debate going on within the commission and in the public-safety community about whether commercial networks would meet public safety’s requirements. I think we are now well past that debate. Now, it is going to be about how they do it, how they compete to do it, and I think public safety benefits from that.”
In the broadband arena, public-safety agencies are being given unprecedented levels of choice and cost-effective solutions, including FirstNet—the nationwide public-safety broadband network operated by AT&T on behalf of the FirstNet Authority—according to Furth.
“There’s a lot of broadband technology on a variety of bands that can be used by public safety. A prime example of that is FirstNet, but it’s not the only example,” he said. “What we’re seeing, for the first time, is commercial providers that are actually in multiple bands, and they’re competing with one another to serve public safety. That is not something that was going on when I first came to the commission.”
Indeed, key players in the advocacy effort that resulted in legislation that established FirstNet repeatedly have noted that one key reason Congress agreed to allocate the 700 MHz D Block spectrum for public-safety use was confirmation from nationwide carriers that they would not provide first responders with priority and preemption.
A decade later, FirstNet subscribers have priority and preemption not only on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to the FirstNet Authority, but they have priority and preemption across all AT&T LTE bands. In addition, carriers like Verizon and U.S. Cellular subsequently have announced plans to provide public safety with priority access on their networks.
Many public-safety broadband proponents have noted that the fact that these swaths of broadband spectrum also support commercial usage means that public-safety users in the band have a much broader choice of devices and solutions than they do when accessing private LMR networks.
Furth said the FCC hopes to foster similar examples in the future.
“Our overriding goal, in terms of spectrum policy, is to make as much spectrum available as possible, particularly for 5G and for advanced technology, because that’s going to benefit everybody,” Furth said. “It’s going to benefit all spectrum users, and it’s going to benefit public safety, as well as the rest of the spectrum community.”
Furth said he believes 5G networks will “complement” 4G network, not replace them. However, he said key characteristics of 5G—for instance, the ability to support the transmission of high-resolution video in real time—promise to be very helpful to first responders.
In addition, the ability for 5G to leverage millimeter-wave spectrum is opening up new possibilities for public safety—and for FCC policymakers, Furth said.
“We’re now licensing 5G in bands that, 20 years ago, nobody thought could be used for anything,” Furth said. “They just thought these were high microwave bands and couldn’t possibly be used for the types of applications we’re seeing now.
“So, technology has really pushed the envelope, and the commission’s primary job is to provide as much bandwidth as possible for these types of uses. It’s a public-safety issue. It’s an issue of service to the public. It’s a global-competitive issue. So, for all of these reasons, 5G is really important.