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Mention the term "first responder," and fire, EMS and law-enforcement personnel typically come to mind for most people. But the scope of what constitutes a first responder has evolved significantly during the past decade, thanks in large part to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) placing a significant emphasis on protecting critical infrastructure throughout the nation.
With public safety on the verge of embarking on the buildout of a nationwide 700 MHz broadband network for first responders, this notion is being revisited as key decision-makers try to determine which sectors should have access to the network and under what circumstances.
One of the most compelling cases for inclusion on the network has come from utilities. Traditionally not considered a first-responder sector by the FCC, utilities' role in emergency response has gained recognition during the past several years, from high-profile international incidents like the post-tsunami nuclear scare in Japan last year to the simple reality that any emergency-response effort is greatly enhanced when utilities' networks are working properly.
"I don't know of a police station, fire department, hospital or EMS unit that doesn't operate on local electricity," Richard Mirgon, former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) said. "We've got generators, but generators are only good for so long. Our radios have batteries that need to be charged. It becomes a critical facility."
A potential partnership between public safety and utilities could provide many synergistic benefits from a financial and operational perspective. From a requirement standpoint, both sectors have a desire to use broadband applications that can greatly enhance their efficiencies, and both require highly reliable communications networks that will work even when commercial networks are overloaded or unavailable for other reasons.
In addition, the two sectors can bring assets to the network that appear very complementary. With 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum in the 700 MHz band, public safety has the kind of spectral foundation that utilities want to help them implement smart-grid technologies that can make the commercial power grid more reliable, efficient and customer friendly.
Meanwhile, utilities have valuable infrastructure assets such as rights of way, potential LTE base-station sites and fiber infrastructure — some of which are located in rural areas that commercial wireless carriers do not want to serve — that are designed to meet the same hardened standards that public safety has. Utilities also have reliable revenue streams and a potentially significant user base that could improve coverage and capacity on the network, as well as created better economies of scale for devices.
Given this, utility representatives are talking with officials from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), public safety and other relevant agencies in an effort to ensure that utilities are considered as a potential partner in the first-responder broadband network, said Klaus Bender, senior director of standards and engineering for the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC), a trade association for the utilities sector.
"It's going to boil down to business cases, and how much sense it makes for utilities," Bender said. "But we have the need for the spectrum, and we have ability to build hardened sites that comply with what public safety is looking for — and they need a business partner. It makes a lot of sense."
Indeed, the prospects are promising, but executing deals to make such a partnership a reality could be complicated, according to Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST).
"[Utilities] do have income, and they have a fairly substantial amount of money, and I think they would make a good financial partner," McEwen said. "They are very interested in having access to this spectrum, so I wouldn't rule them out — I never have ruled them out.
"But how to do that? It might be different in each state or you might be doing it in a region of states — it's hard to know. I don't have any preconceived notions about how to do it yet."