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Benefits and challenges
If the prioritization questions can be addressed, the benefits of a utility/public-safety partnership are numerous, because the two sectors have similar reliability and hardening demands, and both are required to provide services in areas that are not heavily populated and are not economically attractive to commercial carriers, Bender said.
"I think one of the challenges of deploying a 700 MHz network is not necessarily making the network pay for itself in urban areas, it's for rural deployments where you may only have 100 to 1,000 potential public-safety officials over a relatively wide area," Bender said. "Just those uses alone don't pay for the network, even on a maintenance basis, to run itself.
"I think both public safety and utilities are looking at non-emergency, ancillary use of bandwidth that's available to them. If that helps pay for the network in the rural areas, that's the key. Because, with that many devices, a public carrier probably won't see the business case for rolling out a 700 MHz LTE network where there are more cows than people."
In addition, many utilities also have substantial fiber and microwave assets that could be leveraged to provide the new broadband network with much-needed backhaul, Bender said. By arranging a deal to use these assets and utility contributions wisely, the $7 billion in federal funding for the massive communications project can provide much more coverage and capacity than a publc-safety-only network could provide.
But there are other significant hurdles that have to be cleared to make this a reality. Most observers believe that sharing arrangements with government-owned utilities should not be too difficult, but the prospect of partnering with for-profit utilities — the dominant force in the sector — could be tougher.
One issue that must be addressed is how deals can be negotiated, because the states regulate the utilities, and there are multiple utilities in each state. McEwen said that he would like to see a nationwide framework established for such deals and then allow enough flexibility for utilities to cut deals with their states that make sense for them.
"I think it's going to work on a company-by-company, state-by-state basis," McEwen said. "You're going to have to work these things out … but it's not going to be easy."
In addition to determining who should represent utilities at the negotiating table, there is an issue regarding how many partners public safety can have on the new LTE network. Transportation agencies and commercial carriers are among some of the other potential partners that have expressed interest in sharing the 700 MHz broadband infrastructure.
"I think they want to partner with us, and it's very difficult to partner with too many people," McEwen said. "The more people you partner with, the more complicated it gets."